Happy 457th Birthday, William Shakespeare! 8 Films Adapted From His Plays

With the 457th birthday of William Shakespeare this month, I decided it would be a good time to take a look at his (many) contributions to popular culture.

Many English teachers or instructors might have a sculpted bust of William Shakespeare, but I’ve always liked the feel of plush toys. I call the fellow seen above “Squishy Bill”. I particularly like his velvety purple doublet. Squishy Bill is seated beside my textbook from my college Shakespeare course. These days when I read Shakespeare, I do it on my Kindle where I can adjust the font size, so this particular book is more for decoration than anything else.

Here are 8 influences of William Shakespeare in 20th century film:

1. West Side Story (1961)

This is the first of three versions of the Romeo and Juliet story on this list. Leonard Bernstein used Shakespeare’s plot but changed the character’s names and wrote excellent songs. Natalie Wood played Maria, but my favorite scenes were the ones with EGOT Rita Moreno, who I knew from The Electric Company.  English teachers didn’t show this one very often, but you may have seen clips of it in music class. 

GAP used music from West Side Story in a television commercial showcasing both their jeans and their khakis. The two styles competed against each other as the dancers in the commercial “rumbled”.

2. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

The Franco Zefferelli version, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey is the one I remember watching in ninth grade high school English. The day or two after our test on the play, the much coveted TV/VCR on wheels would be parked in front of the chalkboard/overhead projector screen and we would watch the movie version of the play we just finished reading. 

3. Dead Poets’ Society (1989)

Inspired by John Keating’s (Robin Williams) encouragement of “Carpe Diem”, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) decides he wants to be an actor. He plays Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After Neil’s father publicly scolds him backstage, the young man commits suicide and Keating is fired. Despite the tragic end to this film, it inspired me to pursue a degree in English and to write.

4. Hamlet (1990)

The local English lit curriculum for my county did not include Hamlet. In ninth grade, we read Romeo and Juliet. In tenth grade, it was Julius Caesar. Eleventh grade was American Literature, so for obvious reasons, there was no Shakespeare play on the curriculum list that year. I found out from some of my older friends that the play we would read for twelfth grade would be MacBeth. So I decided to read Hamlet and watch the 1990 movie (directed by Franco Zeffereli) on my own over a break. 

I was particularly curious about Hamlet because of an NBC TV movie I loved called Crash Course. I’m going to have to write an article about that movie. Just about everybody from a 1980’s television show was in that movie. One of the subplots of Crash Course involved a football player having to learn (and understand) Hamlet to pass a make-up test to allow him to stay on the team. 

Back to Hamlet, there was a companion to the film featuring Mel Gibson talking to an English class about the play. I think it was available for rent, but it may also have aired on one of the pay cable channels. I don’t remember if it was on HBO or Showtime, but it was fairly popular for a while and did a great job of explaining what happens in the play. 

5. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

This movie was positively packed with stars: Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Sean Leonard, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton. The best scenes in the movie were Thompson and Branagh’s verbal sparring. 

Also, Reeves made a surprisingly menacing villain at a time when he was best known for playing a lovable time-traveling musician. Keaton was frustratingly difficult to understand without subtitles. Washington made a fun-loving and clever nobleman. Leonard was still just cute. 

6. Romeo and Juliet (1996)

The third version of Romeo and Juliet on this list has Claire Danes (My So-Called Life) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Growing Pains) in the title roles. The movie also features John Leguizamo as Tybalt and Paul Rudd as Paris. Danes was acceptable as Juliet, but I would have preferred it if DiCaprio and Rudd had switched roles. 

7. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

This was a fun movie to watch mostly because Joseph Fiennes was easy on both the eyes and ears. Gwyneth Paltrow, Dame Judi Dench, Geoferry Rush, Colin “Mr. Darcy” Firth, and Ben Affleck were also in the movie. 

The interesting thing about the trailer for this movie is that it never shows the leads. It’s just Geoffrey Rush’s character telling people (who are torturing him) about a new play, “Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter”. 

8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

If you thought some of the other movies on this list were packed with stars, Midsummer puts the others to shame. Let’s start with Michelle Pfeiffer as Queen Titiana of the Fairies and Rupert Everett as her counterpart, King Oberon. For two of the humans who become the fairies’ pawns for the evening, we have Christian “Future Batman” Bale and Calista “Ally McBeal” Flockhart. 

The always entertaining Kevin Kline is Nick Bottom and the other actors in his company include Roger “Robin Colcord” (or the “Duke of Rottingham” if you prefer Robin Hood Men in Tights) Rees and Max “Willie Tanner” Wright. Add in Stanley Tucci as “Puck”, and you have an impressive cast. 

It’s also interesting to see how many parallels and connections can be made between several of these films. The director of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet also directed the 1990 Hamlet. Robert Sean Leonard performs a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Dead Poets’ Society but also plays Count Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing

Robin Williams encouraged Leonard and his classmates to “Seize the Day”. Christian Bale sang a song with this same title (and sentiment) in Newsies. Also, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck have all played Bruce Wayne/Batman. 

There are other examples as well. Taming of the Shrew served as a plot for a Moonlighting  episode as well as the film 10 Things I Hate About You. In Clueless, Cher dictates a note from “Mr. Hall” to “Miss Geist” that is a verse from Sonnet 18: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” Of course, Cher attributes the quote to “Cliff’s Notes” 

About Karen Flieger 38 Articles
I was born in the late 1970’s, spent my childhood in the 1980’s, and my pre-teen and teen years in the 1990’s. I graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2001 with a B.A. in English. I collect various forms of media (books, music, movies, and television shows) as well as plush toys, dolls, and Funko figures.