William Shakespeare was a late 16th-century English playwright, poet, and actor who is regarded by many as the greatest writer in history. Today, his plays are still performed on stages around the world, and studying his works is a high school right of passage. Part of what makes these Shakespearean plays so powerful is their timelessness. They are so timeless, in fact, that they can be set pretty much anywhere, from the middle ages, to space, to a high school in the 1990s.
This versatility is what makes them so easy to recreate in film. And when the classic tales feature different settings and character names, with minor plot changes, they become virtually unrecognizable. So many Shakespearean stories have been altered and repeated so many times throughout cinematic history that it’s easy to forget that they were even pieces of classic literature in the first place. Follow along to discover some not so obvious adaptations of Shakespearean classics.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Basically, 10 Things I Hate About You is a portrayal of The Taming of the Shrew with less sexism and a lot less marriage. Kat is loosely based on Katherina, a “shrewish” woman who agrees to marry Petruchio, represented by Patrick Verona in the movie. In the play, the two are married right away, and the “taming” occurs after their wedding. Patrick is a lot more charming than Petruchio: a romantic serenade and thoughtful musical gift seem like slightly better ways of wooing a woman.
Similarities and differences also occur within the other storyline centered around Bianca. In the play, her many suitors continuously wear disguises to confuse her. There is a character named Tranio, the assistant of Gremio, aka Joey, and disguises himself as Lucentio, aka Cameron, to marry Bianca. His plan fails, however, because Bianca elopes with the real Lucentio instead. Horentio, another suitor represented by Michael in the film, ends up marrying a wealthy widow, or Kate’s Shakespeare obsessed friend.
The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King is the play Hamlet at its core. In both tales, a good king is murdered by his evil brother, who soon becomes king in his place. The sons, Hamlet and Simba, see their fathers reappear as ghosts, who tell them to become king. The uncle, suspicious of the son’s behavior, sends him away along with a pair of old friends. Timon and Pumbaa are sort of a combination of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio from the play: although they are goofy, they are also trustworthy and great advisors to Simba. The son eventually returns home and fights the uncle, killing him.
Luckily, Disney decided to leave out the part where the queen marries the murderous uncle and instead made it so Sarabi and the other lionesses are servants to Scar.
West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story tells the tale of two ill-fated lovers, brought down by the feud between their rival gangs. Sound familiar? The film and musical are based off Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Many of the characters of West Side Story are based directly on characters from Romeo and Juliet: for example, Tony’s friend Riff is quick-tempered and humorous, like Mercutio, and Baby John is his best friend and serves as a peacemaker, like Benvolio.
Also, in true Shakespearean fashion, Maria and Tony’s love affair lasts for no more than 3 days. And yet, when she finds out that her lover has killed her brother in a knife fight, Maria’s more concerned about Tony. The main differences occur in the setting: while Romeo and Juliet are nobles, Tony and Maria are from the poorer areas of New York City. Furthermore, Maria does not attempt suicide; instead, Tony hears she has been murdered and goes out in hopes of dying to be with her. And of course, Tony does not die by poison, but is shot by Chino, the member of the Sharks who was meant to date Maria.
Get Over It (2001)
While there may not be any fairies and donkey-headed bards in American high schools, the constantly shifting romantic relationships between the teens in Get Over It make it a humorous and modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the fact that the students were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the movie didn’t tip you off enough, there are a few hints connecting the similar plot lines.
Like Hermia and Lysander, Allison and Berke are in love at the beginning of the story; however, rather than being forced to leave him, Allison merely decides to break up with him and pursue Felix, who plays Demetrius in the school performance. Berke takes acting lessons from Kelly, who plays Helena, and eventually realizes he has been in love with her the whole time. While Get Over It isn’t an exact reproduction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the central theme of confused and shifting relationships are present in both.
She’s The Man (2006)
Here comes another teen-oriented movie based off Shakespearean plays. She’s the Man is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play centered around twins named Sebastian and Viola, who are separated by a shipwreck. Aside from the shipwreck and time period, the movie follows the play with extreme accuracy. Even the names are the same: Viola’s love interest in the film, “her” roommate Duke, holds the title of Duke in the play.
Similarly, the boarding school in which the movie takes place is called Illyria, which is the island that Viola lands on after the shipwreck. One of the major differences between the play and the movie, other than the time difference, is that Viola does not assume her brother’s name in the play. Instead, she goes by the name ‘Cesario’. And of course in the movie, Viola disguises herself to play on an all-male soccer team after her school dissolved the girls team. Moreover, the play ends not with the comedic gender reveal of She’s the Man, but with marriage proposals. That’s Shakespeare for you.
Othello remains particularly relevant in today’s world due to its important themes of racism, betrayal, jealousy, and love. And these themes translate pretty well into the 2001 movie O. Like Othello, basketball player Odin struggles with being the only black student surrounded by white peers. Of course, the movie is set in a much more modern atmosphere: instead of in Venice during the Turkish War, the film takes place in a boarding school, with basketball as its most prevalent battle.
The adaption to modernity is taken to even the seemingly smaller motifs: while the play uses a handkerchief as a part of a scheme to bring about Othello’s downfall, the film uses the more commonly worn scarf. The character names, such as Odin for Othello, Desi for Desdemona, and Hugo for Iago, all represent the Shakespearean influence on the film; further, most of the plot points follow very closely to the original script. However, Odin is also given the additional flaw of a cocaine addiction in his tragic gullibility, which eventually leads to his downfall.
And ironically, this is the second time a Julia Stiles film has appeared on this list. The girl loves a good Shakespearean tale!
Warm Bodies (2013)
Warm Bodies, at its core, is an echo of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Boy meets and falls in love with a girl from a different household (or species) who is the sworn enemy of his own, and alas, the star-crossed lovers are destined for failure.
The film gives the play a 21st-century twist but still throws in plenty of callbacks to the original text. R, our Romeo figure, has a best friend named M, similar to the original bestie Mercutio. And then Julie is of course a shortened version of Juliet. Also, Julie’s boyfriend, Perry (gets his name from Count Paris. What’s more is that Warm Bodies even recreates the famous balcony scene. Viewers obviously have to take this movie’s parodies of Shakespeare with a pinch of salt, but for a Zombie version of the classic tale, it’s pretty good!
The King (2019)
Netflix’s historical drama The King is an unusual project. The film is based on characters and stories from Shakespeare’s famous “Henriad” series of plays, specifically Henry IV pt. 1, Henry IV pt. 2, and Henry V. It tracks the life of a young prince named Hal played by Timothée Chalamet as he inherits the throne of England from his deceased father.
After receiving a warning from his sister about possible betrayals from his advisers, Hal turns to his friend, an aging alcoholic knight for advice. Things quickly escalate when Hal decides to attack France and comes face-to-face with the terrifying French Dauphin.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Though it may seem like the film has no relation to Shakespeare, the character of Scott Favor, portrayed by Keanu Reeves, was written specifically to embody the role of Henry V from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Scott continuously engages in degenerate behavior, which his father, the Mayor of Portland, disagrees with. His other father figure, Bob Pigeon, is reminiscent of Sir John Falstaff. The language of the film is also a sort of Shakespearean English: for example, Scott discusses the kinship he feels with Pigeon, similar to the monologue at the end of Act 1 Scene II in the play.
The way he speaks is somewhat rap-like, making it sound like a modernized and paraphrased Shakespearean verse. There are a few scenes that are almost exactly like those in the play, such as the robbery scene and the father-son reconciliation. The film’s queer themes are not the only aspects that make it artistic and important, but also the complex connections to Shakespearean tradition in this unlikely queer, Western setting.
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