According to Guinness World Records, William Shakespeare is the world's best-selling playwright, with in excess of four billion copies of his plays and poetry making it to press over the centuries. He is also history's most filmed author; his works have been adapted into 420 feature film and TV-movie versions (Hamlet alone has been performed on screen 79 times). While his plays are timeless works of art, some people find them challenging due to the Elizabethan prose. Over the years many attempts have been made to adapt the plays into a format that contemporary audiences might find more accessible (some resulting in a more faithful interpretation than others).

The past 25 years in particular have seen a rise in the production of Shakespeare-inspired movies, TV shows and books. My Own Private Idaho (1991), written and directed by Gus Van Sant and starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, is loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV and V plays. Two more recent films – 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and She's the Man (2006), based on The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night respectively, are set in high schools in an attempt to draw in a younger audience. Perhaps the most surprisingly film on the list is Disney's The Lion King (1994) which is said to be a loose retelling of Shakespeare's masterpiece Hamlet.

Moving to the small screen, some of the TV shows inspired by the Bard include the classic 1980s series Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd, which was imagined as a long-running Taming of the Shrew. The character of Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobson's book House of Cards draws parallels to Richard III, and thus so does the 1990 British TV series of the same name, and the more recent US series starring Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood. Current TV show Empire is said to have drawn on King Lear for its inspiration, as does the made-for-TV movie King of Texas (2002) that stars Patrick Stewart in the title role as a wealthy 19th-century Texas cattle baron.

Hag-Seed by Margaret AtwoodBeginning in 2015 Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, began a project commissioning well-known authors to write retellings of Shakespeare plays. Ten books have been slated so far in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, beginning with Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (2015) which is a version of The Winter's Tale set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. Other authors who have published entries in the series are Margaret Atwood (Hag-Seed based on The Tempest) and Anne Tyler (Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew). New for 2017 will be Tracy Chevalier's New Boy (Othello) and Edward St. Aubyn's Dunbar (King Lear). The last book scheduled to-date is the 2021 release of a novel penned by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, based on Hamlet.

There are also a number of classic cartoons that pay homage to his works such as a 1940 Popeye episode that features scenes from Romeo & Juliet and a very funny mash-up of multiple Shakespeare plays starring Bugs Bunny in 1959 - A Witch's Tangled Hare. Pop-culture icons The Beatles performed a much-abbreviated Midsummer Night's Dream in honor of Shakespeare's 400th birthday in 1964. Tom Stoppard wrote and produced a popular Fifteen Minute Hamlet that gets performed frequently, particularly by high school students. The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, a "musical theatre production company aimed at exploring the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists," gives performances across the country. And then there's Hamlet in Klingon (the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy can be found here.)


This article first ran in May 2017 as the "Beyond the Book" feature for M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains, with the title Shakespeare by Any Other Name. Every time BookBrowse reviews a book we go "beyond the book" to explore a related topic, such as this article by Kim Kovacs. Most of these articles are only available to our members, but at any given time, a sampling can be found on our homepage and, from time to time, we reprint one in this blog.

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