The Past and the Present: Shakespeare on the Big Screen

Image: ClipArt ETC Chandler B. Beach The New Student's Reference Work for Teachers Students and Families (Chicago, IL: F. E. Compton and Company, 1909)

Image: ClipArt ETC
Chandler B. Beach The New Student’s Reference Work for Teachers Students and Families (Chicago, IL: F. E. Compton and Company, 1909)


Would William Shakespeare have pictured Hamlet as a lion cub? Or imagined Othello as a high school basketball player?

It’s impossible to say how Shakespeare would react to seeing adaptations of his most famous characters in modern times. There is no dispute that his plays remain a popular source of inspiration for movies. These aren’t limited to direct adaptations. Many characters, stories and themes penned by him have been transferred to a modern setting on multiple occasions.

West Side Story (1963)

Romeo and Juliet is brought to 20th-century New York and the star-crossed lovers are re-imagined as Tony and Maria. Maria is the sister of a Puerto Rican gangster while Tony is affiliated with a rival gang. The Jets and Sharks take the place of the Capulets and Montagues. While Tony mirrors Romeo’s untimely death, Maria diverges from following Juliet’s end. Instead of committing suicide, Maria uses Tony’s death to end the fighting between the Jets and the Sharks.

Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)

Taming of the Shrew goes to high school in this adaptation of the famous Shakespeare comedy. The theme of finding a husband and shaming a shrewish woman into submission changed to dating among teenagers and being true to yourself. The plot mirrors Shakespeare’s original play as it focuses on Bianca’s attempt to find someone to date her older sister Kat since her father has made a rule preventing her from dating until Kat does.

O (2001)

This modern version of Othello turns the protagonist into Odin, the captain of his high school basketball team. Desdemona becomes his girlfriend Desi. Iago becomes Hugo, Odin’s treacherous teammate. The English Journal noted that Hugo’s actions in spreading rumors of Desi’s infidelity to Odin cause him to spiral out of control in school and on the court — in the same manner Iago affected Othello. Both characters become overwhelmed by their desire to inflict physical violence based on a false rumor.


By Scott Grayson


To learn more about the Shakespeare connections in The Lion King (1993), click here.

For She’s The Man (2006), click here.

And for Romeo & Juliet through the ages, click here.


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