As we celebrate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death (and 452 years since his birth), the literature and theatrical communities begin to reflect upon how they’ve experienced Shakespeare’s work and when they’ve enjoyed it the most. My personal favourite encounter with The Bard’s work was the 2013 revival of Othello at the National Theatre starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear; there was something so special about that modern setting they put it in that made it so great, never mind the incredible performances that made me realise what good acting really was. While I’m lucky enough to have had many different experiences with Shakespeare’s original texts, a lot of people who aren’t fans of theatre and literature don’t get that kind of exposure… or do they? In the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, so many of his stories have been repurposed to tell other tales that the wider community might well be more familiar with and it’s this way of telling Shakespeare’s stories that helps him live on even further into history.
Film is a simple place to look for Shakespeare stories set in the present day and teen movies are a good place to start looking. She’s The Man – a 2006 romcom starring Amanda Bynes – is based on Twelfth Night but is instead set in an American high school. Also, little do people know but Channing Tatum is actually in this film too as Duke (the names of the characters from the original play remain in this movie). Set against the back drop of The Taming of the Shrew is fellow teen rom com 10 Things I Hate About You released in 1999 and starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The year before that came Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard which was a film led by Shakespeare while he was writing Romeo and Juliet and directly borrows quotes and plot lines from several of Shakespeare’s plays of the time. The film was turned into a London stage play in 2014 and was received positively by critics. A couple of years later in 2000 saw Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke which followed the play’s original story but was set in a modern day New York City instead.
A few years before that came what is perhaps the strangest interpretation of a Shakespeare story, the 1956 American science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. Borrowing themes from The Tempest, the film presents chunks of the plot in a serial style set on an interstellar planet far away from Earth, the first film to have ever done that. Decades later in 1991, My Own Private Idaho starring Keanu Reeves – an American adventure film – was released based upon four of Shakespeare’s Henry plays. The story follows two friends, Mike and Scott, as they embark on a journey of personal discovery that takes them to Mike’s hometown in Idaho and then to Italy in search of Mike’s mother. More recently, we were offered up Gnomeo and Juliet in 2011 with an all star cast for an animated kids movie (one of the best kids movies ever!) and Warm Bodies in 2013 which in turn is based upon the book which is loosely based upon Romeo & Juliet, but about vampires instead. Other timeless adaptations of the famous tale of love include the Baz Luhrmann Leonardo DiCaprio/Clare Danes-led movie of the late 90s and the recent 2014 adaptation starring Hayley Steinfeld.
The theatre also have several offerings of musicals that are based on works of the Bard’s. In 1948, Cole Porter penned Kiss Me Kate as a response to the rise of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with this show being based upon The Taming of the Shrew. It was extremely well received and took home the Tony Award for Best Musical that year on Broadway. Almost a decade later in 1957, West Side Story premiered on Broadway based upon Romeo and Juliet. With music by Jerome Robbins and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is one of the most successful musicals in history with the movie adaptation still being a cult favourite to this day. In 1971 many years later, The Two Gentleman of Verona became one of the first majorly successful American rock musicals. Boasting an ethnically diverse cast and a Tony Award for Best Musical, it’s now seen as an incredibly good under-appreciated show. Speaking of forgotten shows, the 2004 Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up was based upon Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was well recieved but the piece has since been rewritten and reworked for future productions.
The most successful Shakespeare adaptation of all time though has to be Disney’s The Lion King. With a timeless 1994 movie adaptation and an uber successful 1997 stage adaptation – which continues to play in both London and New York to standing room only as well as across the Globe – the franchise is the second most commercially successful franchise in history. Based upon the story of Hamlet, the tale is repurposed as an animal fable and it continues to capture the hearts of audiences until today. Most recently, we have Broadway’s Something Rotten! which opened last year. While it isn’t based upon a true story, the funny tale about Shakespeare and fictional rivals The Bottom Brothers offers a reason behind why Shakespeare’s future work might well have been so successful… The show continues to play until today and plans on moving to London next – Christian Borle who portrays Shakespeare even won a Tony Award for his performance.
With all of these modern adaptations and reworkings of Shakespeare’s stories in the world and his work continuing to be produced in schools, at Shakespeare’s Globe and at the National Theatre among other places, it’s no wonder that this man and his work will never truly die. He is undeniably one of the most timeless and talented playwrights to have ever walked this Earth and without him, it’s hard to imagine what the face of playwrighting and relatable storytelling would look like today.