Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! Well, maybe, anyway. The Bard was baptized on April 26, 1564, and the guess is that this would have taken place about three days after his birth. Plus, Shakespeare is recorded as having died on April 23, 1616, and there’s a fine sense of cosmic symmetry, of coming full circle, in the idea of a great man dying on his own birthday (much like Mark Twain both coming into the world and leaving it during flyby years of Halley’s Comet). PLUS, April 23 is St. George’s Day, so, you know, England. Happy St. George’s Day, by the way.
Pop culture has always stolen shamelessly from Shakespeare, and indeed pop culture has not the slightest need to be ashamed of doing so – Shakespeare was pop culture, and he stole more shamelessly, industriously and eclectically than just about any literary artist in history. He transformed what he stole into a canon of lofty yet accessible works that has provided a resource, almost like a database, to generations of artists of all kinds in the centuries that followed, not least those who create horror, science-fiction and fantasy. Here are ten of the many, many co-optings of Shakespeare’s work into nerdish pop culture.
10.) Forbidden Planet (1956)
It’s a safe bet that most of the little kids who lined up for this, one of the first big-studio, big-budget space opera spectacles, didn’t notice that it followed (and not really all that loosely) the story of The Tempest, with the distant planet Altair 4 standing in for Shakespeare’s island. Walter Pidgeon as the inhospitable Dr. Morbius stands in for Shakespeare’s deposed and marooned Prospero and his fabulous daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) for the play’s innocent Miranda. The play isn’t echoed only in its plot, but also in its psychology symbols: Caliban, here, is the invisible, unstoppable “Monster From the Id” (the source of any monster worth its salt) manifested from the Doc’s subconscious by an ancient alien technology, and lethally pissed off by the daughter’s interest in Earthmen, especially a pre-buffoon Leslie Nielsen. This one really holds up awfully well; if you’ve never seen it, or not in a long time, check it out.
9.) Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon has always clearly loved to stylize his dialogue almost as much as the Bard did, and he made a splash at this year’s Toronto Film Festival with this modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s bickering-lovers romantic comedy, shot at his home (Whedon’s, not Shakespeare’s). The cast is full of such members of his repertory company (again, Whedon’s, not Shakespeare’s) as Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alex Denisof (Benedick), Clark Gregg (Leonato) and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry). It’s slated for a summer release this year; hard to say much more than that, other than from the trailer, it looks cool.
8.) The Klingon Hamlet
Star Trek is a tissue of Shakespearean references. At least four episodes of the original series – “Dagger of the Mind,” “All Our Yesterdays,” “By Any Other Name” and “The Conscience of the King” – have titles drawn from the Bard, as does one from the animated series (“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”) and one of the feature films, The Undiscovered Country. Other quotes and motifs turn up everywhere in the show. But possibly the ultimate in Shakes/Trek geekdom is the “Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project” of The Klingon Language Institute, which seeks to offer the Bard’s work in the original Klingon – some Klingons, needless to say, claim the author as their own, and the earthly versions of his work as pale knockoffs. Though they have produced Klingon editions of Much Ado About Nothing (and, oddly, Gilgamesh) their triumph is The Klingon Hamlet, published in 2000 by Pocket Books. The amusement in these volumes (for non-lunatics, that is) is in the footnotes and appendices, with their sly parody of academic Shakespeare criticism. Still, in 2010 the Washington Shakespeare Company staged scenes from these texts for a benefit performance.
7.) Monty Python’s Julius Caesar on an Aldis Lamp
The Pythons know them some Shakespeare too. This interesting staging of Shakespeare’s great tale of Roman political intrigue, in which the actors hold nautical signal lamps and flash the grand poetry to each other, is promoted along with The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Morse Code. But from the warped world of the Pythons we’ve also seen the “Richard III Ward” at the Royal Hospital for Overacting, and Sir Philip Sidney being read to from the Bard’s little-known effort Gay Boys in Bondage, not to mention the great man himself, played by Eric Idle, helping Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony (The composer, in turn, suggests that Shakespeare call his hero “Hamlet,” rather than “David”). And of course there’s the man who’s working on an anagram version of Shakespeare: “A shroe, a shroe, my dingkome for a shroe.”
6.) Strange Brew
On the other side of the Atlantic, another great comedy troupe couldn’t resist Shakespeare. The big-screen vehicle of SCTV’s hapless “hosers” Bob and Doug McKenzie – Canuck brothers whose great passions were beer, back-bacon and donuts – is an adaptation of Hamlet. The drama is set in Elsinore brewery, and the Hamlet figure is the daughter (Lynne Griffin) who learns that her father has been murdered by an evil Brewmeister, played with a splendidly straight face by Max von Sydow. The Ghost, here, is a video game. In the scheme of the saga, Bob and Doug are sideline figures, sort of joint Horatios. But who could fail to catch a ring of Shakespearean poetry in such dialogue as “Jeez, you’re real nice. If I didn’t have puke breath, I’d kiss you.”
5.) Hamlet, the Video Game
Subtitling itself as “or the Last Game Without MMORPG Features, Shaders or Product Placement,” this 25-level video odyssey is pretty much the textbook definition of “loosely based” on Shakespeare’s tragic masterwork, but it does involve a Prince named Hamlet, and characters named Ophelia, Polonius, Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes. Of course, in this free adaptation the player takes the role of a time-traveling scientist who crashes into the middle of the story, putting the title character out of action. Also, Claudius is a frustrated rock guitarist, Laertes is a monstrous giant and there are sea monsters.
4.) Marvel 1602
Not one of his works, but Shakespeare himself is represented in this eight-issue comic series scripted by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. It’s set in an alternate Elizabethan era in which historical figures like Shakespeare, King James and ol’ Liz herself rub elbows with 17th-Century versions of Marvel faves as Nick Fury (“Sir Nicholas Fury”) Spider-man (“Peter Parquagh”) and the Fantastic (“Fantastick”) Four. The Bard is caught up in the story when he’s abducted and made reluctant chronicler to the exploits of “Count Otto Von Doom.” In the end, it works out well for Will; he ends up with a helpful collaborator.
3.) Mattel’s Toy Version of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hamlet in Last Action Hero, a.k.a. “Skull Attack Jack.”
“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark…and Hamlet is taking out the trash!” Certainly the best scene – maybe the only good scene – in John McTiernan’s misfired 1993 action spoof was a fake trailer for Hamlet as an action movie, starring the former Governor of California. But it takes a special breed of Shakespeare (or Arnie) fanatic to make shelf space for an action figure of Arnie as the ass-kickin’, non-dilatory Dane, in period-appropriate attire and armed with a fine array of period-appropriate weaponry, including Yorick’s skull as a hand-launched missile.
2.) Tromeo and Juliet
The gang at the well-loved, self-consciously crude indie house Troma, famed for the Toxic Avenger flicks and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, weren’t looking to “go legit” when they tried their hand at the Bard’s three-hankie masterpiece. They seemed, rather, determined to pull Shakespeare down into the gutter, where admittedly he wasn’t always uncomfortable. This version – narrated by Motorhead frontman Lemmy – features, as usual with Troma, slapstick-but-gory violence, wild sex (including a penis monster), hideous, gruesome mutations and car crashes – it is, of course, a modern-dress retelling, set in New York. For all that, the movie does sort of follow the play’s story, at least until the end, which offers up a twist similar to that of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love. And now the guy who wrote it is directing Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
1. Theatre of Blood
Vincent Price got to scratch that long-frustrated Shakespeare itch in this tongue-in-cheek 1973 shocker about a ham actor, thought dead by critic-prompted suicide, who returns to bump off said critics with the help of his chic daughter (Diana Rigg) and a troupe of gibbering, loyal derelicts. Each elaborate, Dr. Phibes-style murder is in the vein of a great grim scene from Shakespeare. The critics are played by the likes of Michael Hordern, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins and the future Mrs. Price, Coral Browne. But the most memorable scene is the comeuppance, Titus Andronicus style, of Robert Morley, here cast as a both a poodle lover and an enthusiastic Epicurean.
M.V. Moorhead won five Arizona Press Club awards for his work in Phoenix New Times. His reviews, essays, poetry, fiction and other writings have appeared in Wrangler News (wranglernews.com), Phoenix Magazine, USA Today, Weird Tales, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Big Click and many other publications in the U.S. and Australia, and may also be found at his own blog, Less Hat, Moorhead ([email protected]). He's also a produced playwright, and was a talk-radio host in Phoenix for two years. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his daughter and three Chihuahuas with five eyeballs between them.