Top Ten Shakespeare Plays in Pop Culture
By Allison Borzoni
There is no question that Shakespeare has influenced our language, our literature, and our way of looking at many things. But it may surprise you how much of the Bard’s plays have crept into our modern culture, not just words, but entire plots and characters in many cases. We are sure you can find plenty of examples of your own, but here are our choices for the top ten plays in pop culture today.
1. Romeo and Juliet
The greatest love story ever retold has been done in dozens of different ways. From Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story” to the animated movie Gnomeo & Juliet, we just can’t seem to get enough. There’s always another way to spin this Shakespeare classic, or you can snap it out to West Side Story instead. With all of these popular adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, it has definitely made a mark on our collective psyche, or on our brains like in the zombie movie Warm Bodies.
The most popular scene of Hamlet may just be the misuse of poor Yorick’s skull during Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Even Nightmare before Christmas references it in “Jack’s Lament.” One of the most well-known adaptations is The Lion King, but one way to get everyone on board with a Shakespeare adaptation is to translate into—that’s right—Klingon. The Klingon Language Institute has taken Chancellor Gorkon seriously and brought the original Klingon version back to us humans in The Klingon Hamlet.
The witches seem to have taken the throne when it comes to references to Macbeth. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban contains a choir rendition of “Double double toil and trouble.” And even Spock shares his opinion of, “Very bad poetry, Captain,” when a version of the witches appears in the Star Trek episode, “Catspaw.” However, Beauty and the Beast takes it back to the main characters when Gaston appropriates Lady Macbeth’s line, “Screw your courage to the sticking place” while riling up the villagers—maybe he reads more than Belle gives him credit for.
4. The Taming of the Shrew
The most shocking connection between Shakespeare and pop-culture may be that the word ‘Bedazzled’ actually comes from The Taming of the Shrew. And Katherine doesn’t use the word to describe how she has studded her hem or cat with plastic jewels, but to say, “so bedazzled with the sun” (4.5.46). One adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is the movie, 10 Things I Hate About You, but the movie’s real achievement is giving to dads everywhere the hero that is Walter Stratford. The teenager’s explanation: “Mr. Stratford, it’s just a party.” The dad’s response: “And hell is just a sauna.”
5. Twelfth Night
Shakespeare is the man to thank for inspiring this quote: “And when I close my eyes, I see you for who you truly are, which is UUUG-LAY.” Yep, She’s the Man is an adaptation of Twelfth Night. Although the plot of the movie follows pretty closely with the tangled net of love triangles in the play, don’t read the play looking for characters flashing each other in a soccer stadium.
6. Henry V
As BBC’s Sherlock comes to a close, there’s one more mystery to solve. “The game’s afoot,” did not originate with Sherlock Holmes and his deerstalking cap. King Henry shouts the phrase before his army goes, “once more into the breach.” This Shakespeare quote has made its way into pop culture from the days Arthur Conan Doyle all the way to the present day through the household name of Sherlock Holmes.
7. Richard III
Yet another quote we shout at one another has a misunderstood origin. The bulbous Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland was not the first to use the phrase, “Off with her head!” The subject of execution is a man in Shakespeare’s play, but Richard’s four-word answer to the problem of Lord Hastings is, “Chop off his head.” Another reference is the Netflix series, House of Cards, which borrows the soliloquy nature of its anti-hero from Richard III. In both play and show, the audience is in on the murderous plots from the very beginning. Whether its king or president, Richard and Underwood will make their way to their rightful place.
This tragedy is also the source of a common quote. It’s usually used with the connotation of sharing your feelings with others as a sensitive soul, but when Iago said, “wear my heart upon my sleeve,” he was condemning it as a vulnerability. The name Iago should also ring a bell, as a certain parrot in Aladdin has the same name. Just like the real Iago, he acts harmless around the Sultan until the killer moment.
9. The Merchant of Venice
Speaking of, “I just want to be King”, Lion King II has a reference to The Merchant of Venice: “If you need your pound of flesh.” The young Kovu says the line when he crosses into the Pridelands by accident. For the Trekkies, Star Trek: The Next Generation also references The Merchant of Venice when the droid Data adapts a quote for his own use, “When you prick me, do I not leak?”
10. King Lear
Adaptations cross cultures all the time (count how many American shows are direct adaptations from Great Britain’s shows, I dare you). This cross cultural adaptation is very evident with Ran (1985). The plot of King Lear is superimposed on the culture of Japan, and it’s as moving as the original. King Lear has also made it into song, in Elton John’s “The King Must Die.” The jester plays a major part in King Lear, and the first stanza of Elton John’s song references a jester, very possibly King Lear’s.