Shakespeare on Film

Shakespeare on Film

Shakespeare + Film: a marvel or a mess?

By Kyra Brue

Shakespeare and film. Two seemingly different ideas that have been unified, time and time again for decades, as we’ve seen throughout this semester. Does the marriage of them work in an artistic and entertaining way, or does it demote Shakespeare’s works to meaningless garbage? Personally, I would have to argue that it does the former. Shakespeare has this air of sophistication, even with its complicated prose and sometimes dense storylines. When you hear “Shakespeare,” you think of something elegant and high-class, so by combining this beloved author’s works with that of film makes (most of) the finishing products brilliant, which is something that Shakespeare and film can relish in.

The film 10 Things I Hate About You, does a good job of simultaneously creating a funny and entertaining teen flick while producing a rather decent adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The film, in order to be in step with the late 1990’s, had to be “radically [revised],” but that didn’t make the film lesser than (Burt 212). Even by altering much of the play’s original text, the film was still able to take Shakespearean themes, names, places, and “shrewness,” creating a modern work that worked. In Richard Burt’s T(e)en Things I Hate about Girlene Shakesploitation Flicks in the Late 1990’s, or, Not-So-Fast Times at Shakespeare High, he notes that by modernizing the film, the producers also had to “[make] it feminist in many respects, most notably in the characterization of Katarina Stratford” (212). The strong feminist elements, present throughout the film, are what turns this teen flick into a Shakespeare adaptation.

The year is 1998. Grunge is all the rage, Bill Clinton is president (more or less), and the beliefs of American’s are shifting and becoming more progressive. The ideals present at the end of the 20th century are gradually changing, and 10 Things is playing a big part in that change, especially with the inclusion of the aforementioned feminist ideals. This film is trying to positively, in some respects, shine a light on how women are perceived through media, but with Shakespearean undertones. In many ways, this film, among other late 20th century Shakespeare adaptations, turns Shakespeare’s works into a mainstream fad, but I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. Making Shakespeare accessible to the masses, and not just the highly educated, like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet tries to do with its exquisite four-hour production, turns Shakespeare’s works into something to be celebrated and remembered. Not many authors from the 16th century can say that they are still as relevant as William Shakespeare, and that’s not just because they’re dead.

Even as we move into the 21st century, you can continue to say that Shakespeare in film has maintained its presence in mainstream media, as a fad, but also as a nod to the author himself. Films like, O (2001), The Taming of the Shrew (2005), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), Warm Bodies (2013), etc. have placed Shakespeare into this century quite nicely. Most of these films have made a good amount of money in box office sales, with help from advertisements that “[strived] to depict Shakespearean films as products of a familiar – and therefore – welcome kind,” and their success has assisted in propelling Shakespeare into the 21st century (Jackson 7). Even though Russel Jackson’s comment is geared toward Orson Welles’ 1952 Othello, his statement still rings true. By modernizing, popularizing, and selling Shakespeare, his works have continued to stay relevant through changing times.

As far as theatre goes only few films, from this semester, have portrayed the physical presence of theatre in film within the past century, give or take. The films that seemed to keep this tradition alive were a few of the Hamlet films, Gnomeo and Juliet, A Double Life, Kiss Me Kate, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. These films actually show a tangible stage. However, just because there is a stage, it doesn’t mean that there is proper use of that stage in the particular film.

In the Hamlet films from 1990 and 1996, there is evident use of a stage because the play features a play within it. Actors within the films dress up as actors to play characters in Hamlet’s “mousetrap” sequence. A Double Life and Kiss Me Kate center on the stage throughout the entirety of their individual films. In A Double Life, the characters perform Othello on stage, and we as an audience essentially become the spectators of another audience, watching the performance. The same illusion is present in Kiss Me Kate. A large portion of this film is the play, The Taming of the Shrew, and again, we act as onlookers to not just a play, but to an additional audience as well. To contrast the formerly mentioned films, movies like Gnomeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, present a stage, but it isn’t used in the way that it’s used in the other films. Both films use it as more of a prop or an allusion to Shakespeare. By referencing or depicting the stage in one way or another, these films give purpose and importance to theatre itself.

To say that films have eliminated Shakespeare from the stage would be false. Not every Shakespeare adaptation or portrayal has depicted a stage, but even the ones that haven’t have made sure to pay homage to the playmaker somehow. Not to be repetitive, but in 10 Things I Hate About You, we are given many instances in which Shakespeare is alluded to or mentioned. These instances include Kat’s English class learning about sonnets, Mandella’s obsessive “involvement” with William, the name of their high school (Padua High), etc. Even though the film isn’t a direct retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, these small additions remind the audience that this film is a product of Shakespeare. Other films that similarly pay homage to Shakespeare include, Warm Bodies and O. Both film’s English classes depict instructors teaching their class about a Shakespeare work, as many (even non-Shakespeare themed) high school flicks do. These tributes to the author are very subtle, and unless you pay close attention, you could miss them. Their placement, however faint, are important to not just the individual stories, but to the respective films as a whole, as well.

Shakespeare in film has proved itself palatable to many, as seen through the films we’ve watched this semester. Even between different centuries, Shakespeare has kept its importance through the years, which is something that I predict, based on past films, will continue to be accomplished well into the future. Times will continue to change, but Shakespeare will likely remain constant throughout that change. As witnessed through this semester’s films, Shakespeare’s works are adaptable, and will continue to be that way. His presence in the theatre may dwindle, but because film is so prominent, his works will never fully disappear from our lives. He is a true playwright, and if time has taught us anything, he will prevail, even if predominantly through film.


Burt, Richard. “Afterword: T(e)en Things I Hate about Girlene Shakesploitation Flicks in the Late 1990’s, or, Not-So-Fast Times at Shakespeare High.” Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema, 2002, pp. 205-232.

Jackson, Russel. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, edited by Russel Jackson, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 1-12.

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