Categorized | Movies

The 5 Strangest Uses of Shakespeare in Pop Culture

As you may have guessed from the title, this was originally going to be an article for Cracked. However, their process for new submissions resembles a Mesozoic tar pit crossed with the bureaucracy of a DMV in Detroit. To their credit, a lot of those dinosaurs probably had it coming, licenses are issued, and daily content is presented without exception. What was I saying? Right, Shakespeare.

5. She’s The Man

Amanda Bynes stars in a harmless bubblegum movie about a girl who wants to play soccer for a school that’s never heard of Title IX. She’s a pretty good player, but the cries of Mary Wollstonecraft fall deaf upon the ears of the coach, so off she goes to her brother’s soccer academy, pretending to be him while he gets his band off the ground in Europe. She is roommates with Channing Tatum and finds herself forced to suppress her surging passion for him, as do we all. Other guys mine her curious instincts for the feminine to their advantage, she is eventually found out, everyone gets naked, they win the game against Don Imus and Co.

Heard of this story? It’s Twelfth Night. No, really. The producers decided Shakespeare’s comedy about the shipwrecked Olivia who believes her brother, Sebastian, to be dead was somehow best translated to a movie destined for the ABC Family canon. Malvolio, the continually duped fool who believes his lady Olivia has fallen for him? Absent.  Monique, the high-maintenance diva and ex-lover of Sebastian/Olivia? Present! This was basically an in-name-only remake of Twelfth Night, with the academies taking their names from the locations in the play and characters being re-applied almost at random; but it begs the question: where is the crossover here?  Were fans of All That! and The Amanda Show — (Hi, my name’s Chris. Nice to meet you.) – going to the theater to lap up Shakespearian winks and nudges that weren’t even mentioned in the advertising? Were English Theatre scholars expected to dash to the box office to watch a soccer game? I’m so confused.

4. The Sound of Music

The scene: Austria at the dawn of World War II. Nationals are defecting left and right, Hitler’s reach is expanding by the day, and the people you can trust dwindle to a handful. But lo, one failed nun is about to instill hope within a regimented family and a whole nation of dreamers. Sure, Captain Von Trapp will bark and rail against frivolity in his manor, but his dog whistle and immovable upper lip are no match for the melodious miracle of Julie Andrews. (I kind of like this movie.) In the very gazebo where Lisa and Rolph consummated their love – as much as one could in a camp 1960s musical not named ‘Hair’ – the Captain and Maria find a beautiful redemption in each other.

The lyrics to Something Good:

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Ah, yes. Who wouldn’t want to equate their newfound love to the solipsistic words of King Lear that unraveled his kingdom in one fell swoop? Fans of the play might recognize that “nothing will come of nothing” is what Lear told Cordelia when she did not have the words to truly express the love she felt for her father. What this has to do with a saccharine musical is beyond me, but I’ll take a stab at it.

Cordelia, in this sense, is represented by Andrews. Both cast out of the place they thought they belonged, they find unexpected happiness in exile by remaining true to their virtues. Captain Von Trapp could be none other than Lear himself, who comes to realize the folly of his stubborn ways. The Nazis are Goneril and Regan who want to take away the Captain’s sentiments toward the old ways. The Fool is Uncle Max, who urges the Captain to take his children for whom they really are.

Sorry if that ruined Shakespeare or Rodgers-Hammerstein for anyone.

3. A Six-Way WTF tie for The Tempest

One thing has been decided when it comes to this play: what Shakespeare wrote –  a play about a tree witch, banishment, the rape of a 15-year-old, slavery, and how to bury the hatchet with a good laugh – is not going to make for a 21st century hit without some alterations. I get that. I do not understand, however, why the alterations had to be even more skin-crawly. In order, with heavy quotes from the Wikis:

Forbidden Planet (1956): Professor Morbius (Prospero) and Altaira (Miranda) become masters of the planet Altair IV. Ariel becomes Robbie the Robot. Caliban is represented by “the invisible id, a projection of Morbius’ psyche born from Krell technology instead of Sycorax womb”. OK, this one was actually awesome.

Tempest (1979): “Derek Jarman produced a homoerotic Tempest which used Shakespeare’s language, but was most notable for its deviations from Shakespeare. One scene shows a corpulent and naked Sycorax (Claire Davenport) breastfeeding her adult son Caliban (Jack Birkett).” Sure. Why not.

The Tempest (1982): “Paul Mazursky’s 1982 modern-language adaptation, with Philip Dimitrius (Prospero) as a disillusioned New York architect who retreats to a lonely Greek island with his daughter Miranda after learning of his wife Antonia’s infidelity with Alonzo, dealt frankly with the sexual tensions of the characters’ isolated existence.” See, this is why George Lucas made Star Wars: because movies in the 1960s-1980s were becoming all about the unyielding loneliness of life. Thanks to French New Wave,  we have yuppies getting stranded and calling it Shakespeare. By the way, I never saw this movie.

Resan till Melonia (1989): “The Swedish-made animated film (directed by Per Ahlin) is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play, focusing on ecological values.” That wasn’t in the subtext at all.

Prospero’s Books (1991): “The project was taken on by Peter Greenaway… featuring ‘an 87-year-old John Gielgud and an impressive amount of nudity’. Prospero is reimagined as the author of The Tempest, speaking the lines of the other characters, as well as his own.” Love the saggy nudity, hate the other idea. There’s simply no reason for Prospero to be the only character. Yes, he is a conjurer, but how can a plot unfold if you’re in control of all the characters? Shakespeare would wish the Plague upon this adaptation.

The Tempest (1998): “Jack Bender’s The Tempest featured Peter Fonda as Gideon Prosper, a Southern slave-owner forced off his plantation by his brother shortly before the Civil War. A magician who has learned his art from one of his slaves, Prosper uses his magic to protect his teenage daughter and to assist the Union Army.” I was lying about the tie. Congrats, you win, this is the worst idea.

2. As You Like It

“All the world’s a stage/and all the men and women merely attacked by ninjas while watching Kabuki theatre…”

The original play was more-or-less Much Ado About Nothing set in France. There were false identities, quarreling friends, laughably stupid characters, and a multi-marriage resolution. Kenneth decided that this comedy wasn’t about those things at all. No, this play is really about English colonialism in 19th century Japan. And sumo wrestlers. Orlando fights a sumo wrestler in the process of courtship. And I hope you’re not a fan of the fourth wall: “The epilogue, which deliberately interrupts the closing credits, features Rosalind giving her speech while the camera pans to see that Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Rosalind in the film, is walking back to her dressing trailer on the film’s location setting.” What. Why? How could that inclusion possibly honor Shakespeare’s story? In the same way it was speculated, by Samuel Johnson, that Shakespeare just schilled this out to the masses to keep them happy, perhaps Kenneth Branagh had a similar middle finger for HBO viewers. That’s the only explanation I have for someone who loves to adapt Shakespeare more than Ken Burns loves baseball.

1. Hamlet

My favorite book ever is named after a quote from Shakespeare’s second-greatest play of all-time. (Wasn’t better than Lear. Fight me.) It has been adapted to the screen at least twenty times, most uselessly as the 2000 corporate thriller starring Ethan Hawke as a film student in Manhattan who becomes intertwined with the Denmark Corporation (great name; real subtle; creative, too). But I’m not here to talk about any of those. I’m here to talk about the only instance that matters to me.

I bet that when Chewie held 3PO’s dismembered head in his hands in Empire Strikes Back, you didn’t think of Hamlet holding Poor Yorick’s skull during the most famous monologue in literary history. But Irvin Kershner did, and now we have to consider what that means for the movie. I put this entry as number one because it deserves to be, but also because my rabid female fanbase might not like Star Wars; they are free to go now.

What does Chewie as Hamlet indicate for Star Wars? His lack of commendation, in the form of a medal, for his role in blowing up the Death Star has drawn ire all across the Internet. Alas, Hamlet can receive no medal. He is the man who, despite his fits of rage, does not double-cross anyone. (Kind of hard to double-cross when you’re living under patricide and being shipped out to death, lol.) Han is all about the hustle. The Empire and the Sith were just rife with backstabbing. Luke is more impulsive than loyal. R2D2 is a droid and doesn’t have a lot of say in his directives. 3PO is annoying and mouthy as fuck.  Don’t talk to me about anyone from the first three; we’re past 1,600 words and I’m getting tired.

Chewie is Hamlet because he has raw power, he is to be feared, and he is brave. If oral tradition is alive and well in Wookie-speak, he must know about the attempted slaughter on Kashyyyk via Order 66. His revenge is thus ever-present. I would argue that Chewie’s humanity shines through the most by recognizing 3PO’s condition. Just as Yorick was only a jester, 3PO was only a human-cyborg relations liason. No one cared about his well-being, R2D2 and myself included. But that moment was a rather romantic one, although the bar for weird romance would later be frozen in carbonite, because it enabled Chewie to speak in more than just a… whatever that noise was. He lumbers along through the saga, much like a dog, being derided as “a walking carpet”, and we forget that he possesses an inner narrative like the rest of us. But he will not hesitate to choke Lando half-to-death, co-pilot the Falcon on two crucial missions, or reflect upon the loss of a similarly ignored friend. I loved this moment because it enriched Star Wars in an immediate and profound way: droids and non-humans aren’t without souls, we have just proclaimed that they are; likewise, whether Hamlet was crazy or not depended upon perspective –  Horatio and Marcellus sure wouldn’t have thought so. Only by one class showing respect to the other can we see the absence of servility in them. It was this fatal underestimation that cost Claudius and Palpatine their lives.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu