Taking William Shakespeare’s works and putting them on film, whether adapting them faithfully or using his tropes as a general outline, has been a long staple of cinema. Whether retaining every word of Shakespeare’s original play like in Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet, or taking the playwrights tropes and archetypes for an animated classic like The Lion King, it’s undeniable that Shakespeare’s portfolio of work continues to inspire every day.
Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play, Romeo and Juliet has found itself adapted for the screen countless times. First adapted in 1936 by George Cukor, Shakespeare’s classic romance has seen many lives, whether as Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation Romeo + Juliet (1996) that sets the tale in Miami’s Verona Beach while retaining the bard’s original language, or the more recent zombie rom-com Warm Bodies (2013).
Many directors choose to adapt Shakespeare’s plays and set them in the world of American high-schools. The Taming of the Shrew became the classic 10 Things I Hate About You (1999); Twelfth Night turned into She’s the Man (2006) and Othello was adapted as O (2001). The appeal of transposing the bard’s plays to a teenage setting is apparent as it allows a younger audience to relate to the characters as well as showing the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s plays. Besides creating an sympathetic atmosphere, the location of a high school makes sense for Shakespeare’s stuctured prose, as the school itself has its own defined social structures and norms. The heightened emotional teenaged landscape of also helps highlight many of Shakespeare’s recurring themes.
But what if Shakespeare were alive today? What kind of films would the bard write? The Big Short’s (2015) larger than life characters, constant breaking of the fourth wall and with themes of corruption, greed and temptation, it evokes many of the bard’s tropes and may remind viewers of some of Shakespeare’s best comedies. It goes to show that modern aspects of our socio-economic structure continue to draw parallels with Shakespeare’s reality four centuries ago. However, Shakespeare’s love of conflicted heroes may draw him to the modern-day superhero genre. Batman, the tortured-soul, often evokes Hamlet himself while franchises like The Avengers play on themes of good and evil, prominent in Shakespeare’s work.
But no conversation about Shakespearean tropes would be complete without the theme of doomed love. The bard would definitely find interest in films like Moulin Rouge and Brokeback Mountain. Similarly, he would inevitably be drawn to films and narratives that play on themes of corruption and domination like Whiplash as well as films that outlie and emphasise the hero’s personal flaws like in The Social Network.
With its ability to examine universal issues on a broad scale, it is fair to speculate that Shakespeare would find himself writing for the screen rather than the stage if he had been our contemporary. However, who knows what direction the arts would have headed if Shakespeare had not been around to create so many beloved archetypes and narrative formulas 400 years ago.