Well today is May 4rth, when a lot of people have chosen to celebrate one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century: Star Wars! And why not? The story is full of conflict, introspection, love, change, the conflict between fathers and sons, and occasionally guidance from ghosts. Wait, that sounds familiar- it’s a lot like Shakespeare! Yes, the movie has a lot of parallels with the Shakespearean canon, and I’d like to share some of those similarities here. Below is a post I did for the American Shakespeare Center about how the Star Wars prequels parallel Shakespeare’s history saga of Henry the Sixth:
Today, April 23 is the established birthday of William Shakespeare! I have a few posts in mind, (which might be a little late), but hopefully, you still enjoy them. Check out my new play summary of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressidaon the Play Of The Month page for a start. More coming soon.
For Pride Month, I’d like to draw some focus to a celebrated LGBTQ film, based on a play that, while not Shakespearean, it was by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and one who influenced Shakespeare a lot. This film, Edward II, directed by Derek Jarman, was based on the play of the same name by Christopher […]
Before you send your kid off to summer camp, why not spend a few short hours learning Shakespeare in a low-key, no-pressure scenario! I have classes on Shakespeare’s life, Romeo and Juliet, and my celebrated Stage Combat class! Sign up now for all the fun on Outschool.com!
a sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation that follows the play’s general outline without ever rising to the passionate intensity of its star-cross’d crazy kids By Manohla Dargis, New York Times Review 2013 Romeo and Juliet is still taught more than any other text in American high schools, and since it’s a play not a book, teachers will inevitably […]
I’m working on Part II of my Shakespeare’s Star Wars podcast and I thought I’d share some of the clips I’ve been editing together. First is a short clip of Darth Vader saying lines to express his sorrow and anger when Luke plummets down the Cloud City shaft, rather than go with his own father. […]
Shakespeare’s birthday is coming up! This is the week where I usually stop talking about individual plays, and talk about the man himself. Today I’d like to cover how he’s been portrayed in fiction. As you’ll see, with such a famous and at the same time mysterious figure like Shakespeare, there is a lot of leeway in terms of how you portray him. This list shows multiple interpretations of Shakespeare and at different stages (ages) of his life. Some are comic, some are tragic, but all are fascinating to discuss:
#10: Rhys Ivans (Anonymous, as The Earl Of Oxford).
Like I said in my podcast, I don’t believe Oxford was the real Shakespeare, and I have some issues with the character and his lack of humanity. That said, I do like the character they were going for- a tortured genius who has to create, in spite of himself, and it destroys him and his family.
#9: Hugh Laurie
I love what they do here- Shakespeare’s a temperamental artist who hates editors, but ultimately accepts that he has to put butts in seats. It’s very true-to-life and Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie do a great job in this sketch!
#8: Kill Shakespeare Volume 2
Like I said in my full review, I really like the idea of an aging Shakespeare buckling under the pressures of being an icon. Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare as a literary god, has been a real thing in academic circles for at least the last 200 years and I think it really hampers first-time readers from even attempting to read Shakespeare. Since this comic is very much attempting to get people to do just that, it makes sense that they portray Shakespeare as a deeply flawed human who is trying his best, but not able to live up to his god-like persona.
#7 Matthew Baynton- Horrible Histories
Even though this history show for kids is also trying to make Shakespeare accessible for British schoolchildren, it actually takes the opposite approach for Shakespeare- make him cocky, self-assured, silly, and a bit of a schlamaazel, who like his own creation of Mercutio, talks too much and invariably gets himself into trouble.
#6: King Of Shadows
“Nat, say hello to William Shakespeare”. They might as well have said, “Nat, say hello to GOD!”
-King Of Shadows
Again, most interpretations of Shakespeare are aware of and try to subvert the god-like status he has in our culture, which is why this YA novel attempts to humanize him, by having him interact with the hero, Nathan, a 20th-century child actor, go back in time and finds himself switching places with another Nathan Field, a real boy actor in Shakespeare’s company. Nathan then meets and befriends Shakespeare and the two form a father-son bond.
This book takes place just a few years after the death of Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, so this William Shakespeare has a son-shaped hole in his heart. It’s really heartwarming to see the two broken people form a family bond.
As I said before, Shakespeare is not the main character of this novel; he pops in and out of the life of the real main character; his wife Anne, as he visits her at his parents’ home, and later when he sees her on periodic trips home from London. His characterization is entirely indirect. That said, we learn a ton about him through her perceptive eyes. We see his hatred of his abusive father, his frustration with being a glover’s son with no time to make a living in the theater. We see his ambition take hold as he travels to London, and at last, his contrite return to finally become a good husband after the death of his son. This Shakespeare is sort of a prodigal son, who searches for fame and fortune as a young man in the big city, but eventually comes to value his life at home. This solves the mystery of why Shakespeare never moved his family to London, why he retired in the early 1610s, and why his writings have nothing about his relationship with his family, his wife, or especially his son. This Shakespeare is scarred; trying to redeem himself from the sins of his past.
#3 Kenneth Branaugh- “All Is True”
This Shakespeare is at the end of the journey he took in “Hamnet.” He’s retired from theater, trying to pick up the pieces of his life in Stratford, and trying to reconcile his feelings for the fair-young-man (played by Ian McKellen), and his wife, (played by Judy Dench). It’s melancholic, but still funny in a dour way.
#3: Christian Borle- “Something Rotten”
Like I said in the review of the Broadway musical, Borle is the best part of this show. Like Matthew Baynton, he plays Shakespeare as a cocky young self-assured genius on the outside, but unlike Baynton, we see he has a deeper side underneath. As he sings in the incredibly catchy “Hard To Be the Bard,” Shakespeare is once again dealing with the problem of maintaining his success and is under a tremendous amount of pressure to crank out new and successful plays all the time. Even though he’s the antagonist, he’s more sympathetic than the heroes.
#2: Jacob Fiennes- “Shakespeare In Love”
I realize this movie has lost a lot of prestige over the years, thanks to the controversy over its loathsome producer, Harvey Weinstein. I realize that the film Shakespeare In Love might not have deserved best picture over films like Saving Private Ryan. That said, I still think it’s a fantastic movie and every single element from the sets to the costumes to the near-perfect casting, is top-notch, especially the casting of Jacob Fiennes as Shakespeare. This young, heartthrob Shakespeare hasn’t yet become the self-assured genius we see elsewhere on this list. He’s constantly out-classed by Christopher Marlowe, which is a very good choice because it helps us sympathize and root for this man, whom we all know will become a rich, successful genius, but hasn’t yet.
Fiennes also gives Shakespeare a very good arc- he’s a selfish dreamer like Bottom at the beginning and a sweet, sensitive man at the end. In the end, he writes for all the right reasons- supporting his family, immortalizing his love Lady Viola, and helping his friends and partners in the Chamberlain’s Men. Most of these Shakespeare are fairly static, but this movie gives him a great hero’s arc which allows us to like him and hope that his play is a success. As you can see in this alternate version of the final scene, Shakespeare makes a tearful goodbye to Viola, and sets about paying tribute to her in a play that will eventually become Twelfth Night. He also begins his lifelong partnership with Richard Burbage, who will go on to play Malvolio in that play, as well as Hamlet, Othello, and many others. It’s a satisfying conclusion to his arch, which like Viola, shows that Shakespeare is ready to take on a “brave new world” with a new sense of purpose.
#1: Dean Lennox Kelly From Dr. Who: The Shakespeare Code
Though this episode has an inauspicious start, Dean Lennox Kelly from this 2007 episode of Dr. Who finds a way to incorporate every aspect of every other Shakespeare on this list! He’s a cocky, self-assured showman on the outside who knows he’s a genius but is also a middle-class man of the people, playing to the groundlings. On the inside though, he is mourning the loss of his son and yearning for love, which is why he falls in love with Martha and (spoiler alert) makes her the Dark Lady of the sonnets. He also is clever enough to figure out what’s going on as three aliens try to manipulate him into using his gift of words to conjure the end of the world for them. Finally, he is still a hard-working writer and does occasionally doubt his own work:
Shakespeare: “To be or not to be”. Oh, that’s quite good.
10th Doctor: You should write that down
Shakespeare: I dunno… bit pretentious?
-The Shakespeare Code.
Again, the best thing about this Shakespeare is his arc- he drops his mask of genius and opens up to Martha and the Doctor, just like how the Doctor confides in Shakespeare how he is mourning the loss of his previous companion, Rose. In the end though, he draws strength in the memory of his son, and actually uses it to save the world!
Is this a historically-accurate biopic? No. Is it a silly cartoon? Also no. The reason I ranked this episode the highest is because they managed to encompass the myth and the man of Shakespeare in a very compressed time, with tons of Shakespeare easter eggs, and historical references, and it was filmed in the real re-creation of Shakespeare’s own theater! Someday I’ll write a full review of this episode, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, and are hungry for more Shakespeare’s Birthday Week content!
In honor of “The Ides Of March” and Women’s History Month, I’ve planned a series of posts, podcasts, activities, and videos all related to “Julius Caesar” and Shakespeare’s female characters. Here’s a preview:
Tomorrow in honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll be talking about the smash-hit Broadway show “Six,” a musical history retelling of the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII. In preparation, watch this excellent documentary about the Tudor Dynasty!
Please join me and the Shakespeare Online Repertory Company on Discord.com at 1PM. We’ll be reading “The Lion In Winter” by James Goldman, which, you may remember was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1968:
As many of you know, I’ve been in two plays with the Shakespeare Online Rep before, and like the production of “Lear” I did last month, this play is about a king, (the historical King Henry II played by Peter O’Toole), and his three children, who ruins his kingdom through his selfishness and inability to connect with his children. In addition, his wife Elenor De’Aquitaine (Hepburn) is powerful, cunning, and ruthless and will stop at nothing to get power away from Henry. She even manipulates her own children against Henry; John (the infamous king of the Robin Hood Legend), Richard (known later as Richard the Lionheart), and Jeffrey.
The acclaimed TV show “Empire” owes a lot to “King Lear,” but as you can see, it owes a lot more to “The Lion In Winter.” The character Lucius Lyon is much more based on King Henry, with his violent past, his mistresses, and his powerful wife Cookie, who is clearly an African American Elenor De’Aquitaine. Furthermore, the children are even more clearly derived from the three Plantagenet children: Hakeem, the spoiled, foolish philanderer played by Bryshere Gray, definitely has echoes of Kanye West, but Prince John is definitely in his DNA. Similarly, the talented Jamal, who is loved by his mother and hated by his homophobic father could definitely swap stories over dinner with Richard the Lionhearted, (though I doubt Jamal ever went on crusades). And lastly, the emotionally damaged Andre does have some Macbeth-like traits with his vaulting ambition and his brilliant, cunning wife Rhonda. But unlike Macbeth, Andre uses his business-savvy mind and his ability to manipulate his brothers to take power away from his father, which is exactly what Jeffrey does in “The Lion In Winter.”
Will our production be as cool as Empire, or as star-studded as the movie? Honestly, no. But I will say that after working with these actors before on multiple projects, this production should be fun, exciting, and moving, and definitely worth the hearing.
Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.
If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:
This list is not about skill or the talent of the actor. This is to honor the contributions of Shakespearean actors who also appeared in one of my favorite film and television franchises of all time: Star Trek. Accordingly, some of the actors who weren’t essential to either Star Trek or Shakespeare or both are placed lower on the list even if I personally love the actor or the character they portrayed.
#10: Marina Sirtis
The English actress played Counselor Troi on Star Trek: TNG. Like John DeLancie, however, aside fromplaying Ophelia inHamlet, I was unable to find much Shakespeare in her credits, which is a shame because she has an incredible speaking voice. I frankly think the creators of the show spent way too much of the series trying to sexualize her and didn’t create enough opportunities for her to use her telepathic abilities or her empathic abilities.
#9: John Delancie
Like I said before, I am judging these actors for their cumulative contributions to Shakespeare, and unfortunately, I didn’t find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. DeLancie. That said, he is one of my all-time favorite Star Trek actors and was part of Star Trek The Next Generation all the way through the series. As the omnipotent entity Q, Mr. DeLancie plays a Richard III-like villain who manipulates the poor humans around him for his own amusement. He is also very interested in human nature and engages in many debates with Picard on the virtues of humans, like in this epic scene:
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek envisioned the 23rd century as a time when mankind would be united in purpose but all people would keep their cultures and racial identities. Accordingly, a lot of the cast came from a diverse cultural background; African Americans, Russians, and very notably, Jews. One man who brought his own Jewish background into the core of Star Trek was Leonard Nimoy- son of Russian Jews who spoke Yiddish. In the article above, Nimoy mentions how he incorporated the famous Vulcan hand gesture of “Live Long And Prosper,” from the blessing his rabbi gave his congregation, which Nimoy saw as a boy:
Nimoy started out as a theater actor, starting with Yiddish theaters in Boston and New York, and he continued to work in theater and radio before and after Star Trek. His first foray into Shakespeare happened in 1975 when he was cast as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
“I’ve been studying and reading and watching Shakespeare long enough to feel excited and positive about it. The biggest problem an actor has is finding good material. With Shakespeare, you know that not only do you have good material, you have a proven piece that has been staged successfully many times.”
— Leonard Nimoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1975.
Though Nimoy is now internationally beloved for his work on stage, screen, and radio, as a child had to overcome prejudice because of his Jewish roots. I wish Nimoy had played Shylock in theMerchant of Venice since he had the potential to play the role with a lot of passion and pathos. Just goes to show that Mr. Nimoy was a man of great accomplishment and creativity, and a Renaissance Man to boot.
#7 George Takei
I studied at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford Upon Avon in 60s. So it is with great joy that I will be making my London stage debut this January!
With his iconic deep, smooth voice and skill as a fencer I wasn’t surprised to find out that the actor who played Hikaru Sulu was a classically trained actor. Sadly, I was unable to find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. Takei, which is a shame since I wanted to find some clips of him performing Shakespeare to put here. The best I could find was this clip from TOS.
I was able to find this interview where the actor shares his thoughts on Shakespeare. I’m actually going to see Mr. Takei in a live show in April of 2023, and I suggest you do too if you can. He’s a fascinating guy and a great activist for Asian Americans and the LGBTQ+ community. Like Leonard Nimoy, he has overcome discrimination and oppression and spread his wings creatively through many different media. Hopefully, I can update this list once I see him live to include more quotes and thoughts about Shakespeare from the man himself.
#6: Brett Spiner
Brett Spiner is a multi-talented veteran of film, stage, screen, and radio, so it makes sense that he has a grounding in Shakespeare. More than that, Spiner’s character, the andriod Lt. Commander Data, (one of the best characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation), faces a Shakespearean dilemma- he wants to understand what it’s like to be human, though he isn’t. He is not only mechanical but he doesn’t have emotions. Therefore he offers an objective commentary on the way the human characters interact, not unlike Horatio in Hamlet or the Fool characters in many other Shakespeare plays.
Data’s struggle to understand humanity even extends to reading and performing Shakespeare himself, as this clip shows:
Data even impersonates a Shakespearean actor playing Puck in the episode Time’s Arrow, (a preview of Spiner’s role as Puck in Gargoyles):
I might be cheating a little by putting Spiner this high on the list, since technically he hasn’t done many full Shakespeare plays, but doing these little snippets as Data on Star Trek, or as Puck on Gargoyles was a way to introduce Shakespeare to younger viewers, which as I will discuss later, is one of the great gifts Star Trek gave Shakespeare fans like me.
#5: William Shatner
To be honest, I don’t care much for William Shatner as an actor or a person. He drove away a lot of his fellow cast members on Star Trek, his ego is infamous, and his delivery of Shakespeare is clipped, slow, and I would argue, lazy. That said, Shatner is very good at playing characters who are arrogant, and he does know a lot about how to deliver Shakespeare for TV.
I will give credit to Shatner; he’s good at playing smarmy or arrogant characters which is why Captain Kirk was a good role for him. He was also surprisingly good as Marc Antony- he really sells the verbal irony as he subtly attacks Brutus in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. Like Kirk, Antony is (to quote General Chang in Star Trek VI), “An insubordinate, unprincipled, career-minded opportunist,” and Shatner plays both of them with skill and relish.
Shatner actually got his first break in the theater as an understudy in a production of Henry V, where he got to take on the title role when Christopher Plummer got sick (more on that later). As this video above shows, Shatner continued to play Shakespeare throughout his career, and as Kirk, he explored the ‘brave new worlds of Star Trek with a Shakespearean curiosity.
#4 Benedict Cumberbatch
Though his contribution to Star Trek is comparatively small- playing the villain Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly becoming the best of the new generation of Shakespearean actors who have made the leap to the Final Frontier. I covered his Shakespeare work in other posts such as my review of his Hamlet. So let’s just enjoy the Machiavellian villainy in this clip, where he taunts Spock with Richard III-like glee.
#3 Christopher Plummer
[William] Shatner was Plummer’s understudy in a 1956 production of Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Plummer could not go on one evening due to illness, which led to Shatner’s big break. “He didn’t do what I did at all,” Plummer recalled in a separate interview. “Where I stood up to make a speech, he sat down. He did the opposite of everything I did. And I knew that son of a $%*# was going to be a star.”
Christopher Plummer, who tragically died last year, was a loss to both stage, screen, and by all accounts, everyone he knew or worked with. He was a dear man a consummate professional, and he brought that skill with Shakespeare and a love of Star Trek to create one of the greatest villains in Star Trek history.
General Chang, the war-mongering Klingon in “Star Trek VI”, who assassinates his own Chancellor Gorkon to start a war with the Federation, is a great antagonist, especially considering that Kirk was tempted to do the same thing himself. Kirk hates the Klingons and wishes death and destruction on the whole race. This film came out just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the blind hatred between the Klingons and the Federation is a brilliant metaphor for the last days of the Cold War.
Shakespeare appears at the center of this metaphor- Chang assassinates Gorkon like Brutus killed Caesar, fearing that his peace talks with the Federation would destroy the Klingon Empire. Chang hates The Federation and Kirk in particular. The only human he has any affection for is Shakespeare, (whom he himself believes is Klingon), and he taunts Kirk with Shakespeare quotes relentlessly. Chang’s character also has echoes of Macbeth- killing his king and then blaming someone else in a show trial where he serves as the prosecution. Finally, just like Macbeth, Chang dies fighting when the Enterprise figures out how to shoot at his ship while it’s cloaked.
As the quote above indicates, it’s fitting that Plummer played Chang since the two of them have had a friendly rivalry ever since they played opposite each other in Henry V. He’s a great antagonist onstage and a towering, dignified presence offstage. In a way, the two men were two sides of a coin- Shatner being a loud and boisterous movie/ TV star, Plummer being a dignified, matinee-idol type. These big egos tussle extremely well in Star Trek VI, yet, as even Shatner admitted, they admired each other a lot:
Before I move on, I’d like to show you my favorite performance of Plummer’s. It’s a short monologue from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where Plummer plays a washed-up Shakespearean actor, who ruined his career doing populist trash. One can see some of Plummer’s antipathy toward The Sound Of Music in his performance. Still, thankfully, Plummer didn’t meet the same fate as James Tyronne:
#2: David Warner
It’s appropriate that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which is a film named after a quote from Hamlet cast a beloved Hamlet, David Warner. Like Patrick Stewart and Benedick Cumberbatch, Warner was a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he played Hamlet back in 1975:
Warner’s character in Star Trek VI thinks that this speech is about the future, and like MLK, Gorbechav or Gandhi, he tries to bring a “brave new world” to fruition by making peace with his enemies through nonviolent means. This includes sharing his love for Shakespeare. I like to think that Gorkon knows that Shakespeare was actually human, and when he quotes him to the Enterprise crew, it’s a means to ingratiate himself to the humans by finding common ground.
Sadly though, Gorkon in his idealism forgets that the speech is actually about death (or possibly it was translated incorrectly into Klingon). Indeed, this misunderstanding of humans and Klingons is what costs Gorkon his life. The situational and verbal irony of this quote from Hamlet is worthy of Shakespeare himself and it helps Warner’s performance become one of the most memorable in the movie.
Amazingly though, as if one incredible Star Trek performance wasn’t enough, Warner came back again. Ignoring his performance in the infamous Star Trek V, Warner gave a truly chilling performance as the sadistic Cardassian Gul Navek in the two-part episode “Chain Of Command,” where he captures and tortures Captain Picard!
Like the Klingons, the Cardassians are a warlike race of conquerors who use their war machine to better their society through conquest. In subsequent portrayals, they seem like a metaphor for the Nazis since they attempted to exterminate the Bajoran race, and their military philosophy seems to be inspired by fascism. In this episode, Warner’s character echoes many horror stories of POWs enduring sadistic torture at the hands of the likes of Adolph Eichman, Heinrich Himmler, and many other monsters who told their torturers to “On no account show the slightest mercy.”
The chilling way Warner plays Gul Madred is one of the high points of the series. He and Stewart worked before on a production of Hamlet in 1965, and the way these two play off each other is masterful. Warner is powerful, in command, dangerous, and sly. Picard never knows when he is telling the truth, and as time goes on, Madred revels in how much closer he is to breaking the pitiful human. Still, Picard in his wonderful stoicism never breaks, and briefly manages to turn the tables on Gul Madred, when he makes the mistake of opening up to Picard about how in reality, he is a scared and miserable soul, trying to fill the emptiness of his heart with power and sadistic pleasure. Again, these two actors are so powerful that all you need is them, and a dark room to create compelling drama.
#1: Sir Patrick Stewart
You probably saw this coming. Not only is Stewart the most important character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he’s also one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, and has become a sort of icon for Shakespearean acting himself.
Stewart has given so many memorable performances over the years, but one of my favorites was fairly recent- when he played Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. I mentioned how, in Julius Caesar, Antony is essentially the Captain Kirk of his time- brash, cunning, arrogant, and unprincipled. In the play that bears his name though, Antony is a shadow of his former self- a drunk, foolish old man who is completely blinded to the threat Octavian poses to him. Stewart said that he based his portrayal on his own father, who was himself a soldier and an alcoholic, who was very abusive to the young Stewart and his mother. With this in mind, the portrayal has a poetic justice to it that the man who lied and cheated so many Romans finally gets cheated by the foremost man of Rome. At the same time, Stewart makes us feel for him; since so many people admire Stewart (myself included), seeing him play a man who is bringing himself low, makes us all want to save him from himself. It’s the definition of catharsis.