William Shakespeare — by some metrics the most deservedly praised writer, by others, the most overly praised writer. No matter what anyone in particular thinks of the Bard, his lasting legacy in Western culture is undeniable. He’s responsible for crafting some of the most frequently adapted narratives, writing some of the most recognizable poetry, and generally being quoted by everyone whether they know it or not. However, not everyone is that crazy about Shakespeare.
Many people of varying backgrounds have expressed everything from blatant indifference to complete and utter vitriol toward the playwright, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Having less than favorable feelings toward a popular or influential writer is nothing new — some other notable examples include Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling and Karl Marx. Many criticisms of Shakespeare are completely justified — he wasn’t the most egalitarian playwright, even for his time. However, the main reason people don’t like Shakespeare is no secret: reading him is no fun.
Whether it’s the way English classes bring up the Bard, or difficulties trying to parse out Early Modern English, a lot of people tend to dismiss Shakespeare as a dumb, dead white guy from long ago. While there’s some validity to this, one shouldn’t pass up his stories and poetry because of boring classes. Besides, Shakespeare never intended for his works to be read in private, but to be read aloud for others. His plays were scripts first, and were never meant to be books, they were meant for the stage.
When reading the text to yourself rather than hearing somebody speak it, something is lost when the language is silent. All of the subtleties of pitch, rhythm, cadence, time, volume, articulation and everything else that makes the spoken word uniquely human are lost. This is no different than being assigned to read the script of “Shrek” in English class instead of watching the movie — something is lost when the words being read are not spoken aloud.
Something that is also lost is the potential for creativity and interpretation. Lots of adaptations deviate from the source material for various reasons, but some of the most interesting changes come to change or better the narrative. Whether it’s altering the text, changing the characters or varying the structure of the narrative, something new and beautiful is created with every subsequent adaptation. Seeing so many different meanings and interpretations arise from a single text from long ago really shows the creative potential of storytelling.
There is value in the work of William Shakespeare, as some of the most talented people working in theatre and film would be more than willing to share. He is not the greatest, as no one person ever can be, but that does not devalue him by any means. For anyone willing to give the Bard another shot, here are some good pieces not to read, but to watch, and listen.
Romeo and Juliet
“West Side Story” (1961 & 2021) — This Broadway musical-turned-movie takes the story of two lovestruck teenagers separated by their families’ rival feud and places it against the backdrop of New York City. Tony and Maria, the young lovers’ modern counterparts, find themselves separated by gang warfare and racial tension. Both the older and newer versions are great films with incredible music and powerful depictions of love, violence and heartache.
“Throne of Blood” 1957 — Instead of following a Scottish king’s bloody rise to the throne, why not follow a Japanese samurai lord instead? This adaptation switches up the setting and underlying mythology of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and pulls from classical Japanese acting techniques to emphasize the intrinsic drama of this gory classic.
“Hamlet” 1996 — Following the efforts of a Danish prince to kill his power-hungry uncle, this is the only film adaptation of the play that uses the whole text … which means it’s four hours long. Even with the mammoth runtime, the epic scope of this drama is unparalleled, and its grandiosity is well-earned.
The Taming of the Shrew
“10 Things I Hate About You” — Adapting what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most problematic play into a 1990’s high school teen drama sounds like a recipe for disaster, but they somehow made it work. Reworking the story to better appease modern sensibilities did wonders, this hilariously heartwarming high school rom-com does the Bard justice 10 times over.
“Ran” 1985 — Once again, a Shakespearean tragedy set in Medieval Japan, but the story is a bit looser in adaptation and is freer to play around with the characters. With some of the most visually striking battle sequences, this beautifully tragic and gory masterpiece is one of the greatest feats of visual storytelling to grace the silver screen.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 1959 — From the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia when the film was made, this reimagining of the famous comedy is all stop-motion with none of the Bard’s text. The story is told entirely through the motions of the figures, akin to a ballet, and each second is more breathtaking than the last.
Much Ado About Nothing
“Much Ado About Nothing” 1993 — The Mediterranean backdrop of one of the Bard’s more light-hearted comedies provides this film adaptation with an underlying sense of liveliness and joy. With some genuinely funny moments and sweeping orchestration, this parade of pomp is a spectacle that hardly anyone can get through with a straight face.
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