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Face picture of Shakespeare with three ghostly creatures hovering next to a cauldron spewing green smoke on his left, and a bottle filled with a green poisonous potion on his right
Illustration by Destiny Hall-Harper, The University of the Arts

The famous English playwright has inspired numerous artists who created many enjoyable films based on his stories.

William Shakespeare remains one of the most well-known writers in the world. His works are studied across the globe, and it comes as no surprise that his stories have affected many other artists who use his masterpieces as inspiration for creations of their own. Shakespeare’s works have been retold and adapted in obvious and subtle ways. Below is a ranking of five contemporary Shakespeare retellings that integrate the storylines into modern settings and display creativity, entertainment and reverence for Shakespeare’s genius storytelling.

5. “O” (2001) based on “Othello

2001’s “O” tells the story of Black student-athlete Odin, played by Mekhi Phifer, who shines as the MVP of his basketball team and has a beautiful and popular girlfriend named Desi, portrayed by Julia Stiles. O’s coach (played by Martin Sheen) and teammates adore him, with one exception: Hugo, portrayed by Josh Hartnett, who is the son of the basketball coach and a teammate of Odin’s. Hugo resents Odin’s acclaim and works to destroy him through manipulation. As a means to an end, Hugo falsely befriends Odin and feeds him lies about Desi cheating on him. Hugo fosters mistrust between Odin and everyone in his life, ultimately leading to his undoing. In these ways and countless others, “O” mirrors the plot of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

The movie features classic themes from “Othello,” such as jealousy and passion, all in a contemporary high school setting. The film also features inclusive themes on race and adversity, which help make it an intense retelling that feels fresh and original.

4. “Get Over It” (2001) based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Another teen romance from 2001, this movie adapts “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” against the backdrop of a high school play; the students recreate a musical production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whose plot is mirrored in the actions of the student actors. High school senior Berke, played by Ben Foster, tries to win back his ex-girlfriend, portrayed by Melissa Sagemiller. In the process, he falls for Kirsten Dunst’s character, Kelly, in classic romantic comedy style. The film also stars famous early 2000s actors Mila Kunis and Shane West.

While the film veers from the play’s original plot to allow for contemporary updates, the mix of the rough skeleton of the story arc and onstage scenes create clear parallels between the movie and the Shakespeare comedy.

3. “She’s the Man” (2006) based on “Twelfth Night

In third place comes “She’s the Man,” a popular comedy and modern version of “Twelfth Night.” Amanda Bynes stars as a soccer player named Viola, who takes the identity of her brother, Sebastian, and attends a boarding school where she can play soccer as a boy after her school removes the girls’ team. The play “Twelfth Night” features twins separated in a shipwreck, whereas in this film, Sebastian and Viola are separated into two different schools. Viola falls for her roommate and team captain, Duke, played by Channing Tatum, who does not know her true identity, much like in the play.

“She’s the Man” integrates comedy and a modern setting to tell the same story effectively while entertaining the audience. It also features a now-iconic pop culture moment, where Duke catches Viola as “Sebastian” with a tampon, who pretends it’s for a nosebleed and inserts it in her nose.

2. “The Lion King” (1994) based on “Hamlet

A Beloved Disney classic, “The Lion King” has become a favorite for children and adults alike across the globe — but not many know it is a contemporary Shakespeare retelling. In the cartoon “The Lion King,” Matthew Broderick voices lion prince Simba. His father and king Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, gets killed by his brother Scar, played by Jeremy Irons. While the story makes for a beautiful Disney film, it borrows much of the major storylines from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Audiences can see the story of a king murdered by his brother and a young prince who sets out to avenge his father. In “The Lion King,” the lionesses become servants to Scar, whereas in Hamlet, the queen is forced to marry the traitorous uncle. Simba’s friends Timon and Pumba are apparent iterations of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Overall, “The Lion King” remains one of the strongest Shakespeare retellings because it presents the main plot of the original story in a completely new light and reaches a wide range of audiences.

1. “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999) based on “The Taming of the Shrew

The beloved 1999 teen romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You” takes first place as the best Shakespeare adaptation set in modern times. It closely follows the trajectory of “The Taming of the Shrew,” telling the tale of Padua High School students and sisters Kat (Julia Stiles) and Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik), whose father won’t let Bianca date until Kat does. To circumvent this restriction, Bianca’s wannabe suitor, the lovesick Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) convinces the self-absorbed pretty boy Joey (Andrew Keegan) to pay the mysterious school rebel named Patrick (Heath Ledger) to “tame” Kat.

Many of the characters even share a similar name to their Shakespearean counterpart. For example, Bianca is Bianca, Kat is Katherina, and Patrick is Petruchio. The film also features various references to the play and Shakespeare himself. In the movie, Kat is called “the shrew” during one of the early scenes, and Kat’s best friend is obsessed with Shakespeare and even has a photo of him in her locker. She can also be heard quoting him more than once throughout the film.

With the different references to the original play and the loyalty to the original mixed with modern-day fun, “10 Things I Hate About You” remains an example of a near-perfect Shakespeare retelling; it does justice to the original yet delights the audience with its original charm.

Writer Profile

Julie Morse

Pomona College
English, French minor

Originally from New York City but came to California for college. Loves reading and writing in their free time and maybe wants to become an author or go into publishing.

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