When people ask me to name a single individual who has become the bedrock of our culture, Shakespeare always springs to mind. His plays have been around for over four centuries, and despite the copious number of productions and films based on his plays, nobody seems to be sick of them yet.
I am not a Shakespeare obsessive. However, it is difficult to grow up in the UK without knowing his name, why he’s famous and the names of several of his plays. Almost every British school pupil has studied at least one of them and I am no exception, having read The Tempest when I was 13 and studied Romeo and Juliet to ridiculous lengths for my English Literature GCSE. This is no bad thing. Being able to quote Shakespeare and understanding how he has shaped out literary culture is an advantage many people are glad to have.
But it’s not only from studying the plays that so many young people know the stories so well. For instance, I’ve never read Twelfth Night, but I can quote from it:
"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”
Why is this? Because I’ve grown up in a generation where we appear to have learnt most of what we know about Shakespeare from modern adaptations of his works. For example, Walt Disney’s film The Lion King (1994) was very popular when I was growing up; it didn’t cross my mind until I read the child-friendly version of Hamlet that there were parallels between the two. Fundamentally, the only difference is the “Disneyfied” ending of The Lion King, compared to the heartrending tragedy of Hamlet. The fact that Shakespeare was able to inspire a Disney film nearly four-hundred years after his death shows the impact that his stories have had on generations ever since.
I can quote from Twelfth Night thanks to the 2006 film She’s the Man. This is more obviously inspired by Shakespeare; the characters have the same names as in the original play; Viola is the lead character who falls in love with Duke Orsino while pretending to be her twin brother Sebastian. The setting of Illyria is transferred to an American high school, rather than a kingdom, but the basics are still there. It’s similar to the way that The Taming of the Shrew was modernised in the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Adapting the Bard’s work in such a way is a good thing; it helps young people engage with Shakespeare; makes the task of understanding his stories far less daunting, and therefore far more enjoyable.
When studying Romeo and Juliet, I was terrified at the prospect of having to analyse some of its complicated language. I found Baz Luhrmann’s take on Romeo and Juliet (1996) an absolute godsend as it made use of the original Shakespearean language, but it was placed in a modern setting (California) which helped me to better understand the story. Joss Whedon appears to have approached his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which is due to be released this Friday (14 June), in a similar way. Having seen the trailer, I am fascinated by the fact that it is in black and white, as this is yet another way of making the film stand out from other adaptations of the same play.
This seems to me to be the beauty of Shakespeare: his plays are timeless. People are still finding ways to make them appeal to audiences; the subjects of his plays that are still relevant in this century most likely will be in the future as well. As time goes on, more modernisation will occur and inevitably new ways of adapting his work will become apparent. There are already theatre productions that approach his plays from a historical perspective, i.e. with an all-male cast, as was the case in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Applying that idea to a film adaptation would be another of many ways that a director could make a Shakespeare plot their own. Shakespeare's plays are proof that the slightest variation of an existing idea can make the world of difference.