Have you ever wondered what Shakespeare’s characters would do if they lived in our times? Well, according to recent movie adaptations, Romeo and Juliet date amidst a gang war, Katherine is a feminist high-school student, Viola shows off her talent on the football field, Othello tries out for the basketball team, Beatrice and Benedick quarrel on set of a news studio, Macbeth is an ambitious chef in Duncan’s Michelin-starred restaurant, and Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius find themselves in the enchanted woods around a holiday park.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve probably watched at least one of the movies I’m referring to: Romeo + Juliet (1996), Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), She’s the Man (2006), O (2001), or BBC’s TV miniseries ShakespeaRe-Told (2005). Even if you might not always notice it, but Shakespeare is actually quite present in today’s pop culture.

But isn’t Shakespeare, THE epitome of high culture, at odds with such trivial pop productions? Actually, no. What many people tend to forget is that Shakespeare was not considered ‘elistist’ during his lifetime. To the contrary, his work on and behind the stage fulfilled many criteria that are commonly ascribed to pop culture. Theaters were places of entertainment that were attended by people of all social classes. And these people weren’t on their best behaviour–it was common that the audience randomly yelled or booed at the actors on stage, sometimes even throwing fruit at them. Long story short, the label “high culture” was given to Shakespeare only after his death, when two of his fellow writers composed the First Folio and marketed it for the elite.

Of course, this is not to say that his works are not brilliantly composed or not intellectually demanding, but that we should move away from equating popular with trivial. Pop adaptations such as those mentioned above allow us to rediscover Shakespeare’s stories. Beyond being entertaining, they ask us to see his plays in a whole new light. On top of that, I think these productions might be a great way to introduce young student to Shakespeare’s topics and to show them that there’s more to the plays than their dense language.

It’s often jokingly assumed that if Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be a Hollywood director, and I think there’s actually some truth in it. What movies do you think he’d direct?

Let’s discuss in the comment section below!


8 thoughts on “Back to the Roots: Shakespeare in Pop Culture

  1. Yes! Shakespeare’s extreme popularity with all segments of society in his own day is often overlooked now that he is seen as “cultured” and for the elite. But I think part of his power is his ability to really speak to everyone, which is still true today. If you look at just about any of his plays, you can really interpret them anyway you want. Oh, he’s pro-monarchy. No, he’s anti-monarchy. He’s Catholic. He’s Protestant. He’s atheist. I think it’s really part of his genius that he’s able to write these rich, provocative pieces that still resonate today because he really mirrors anything you could want from him. (Also a useful skill for him to have when evading the censors–you can’t censor him if you can’t prove he said anything.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a great point. His ability to address all social classes is certainly one of his greatest talents. It’s also interesting to explore the tension between high and low in his plays- how they can be thought-provoking and vulgar at the same time. Even if we’ve come to think of him as super sophisticated, Shakespeare clearly also pursued the cheap laugh!

      Liked by 2 people

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