Enjoying Shakespeare Play Performances

Is Shakespeare still relevant – that is the question? I say yes. Not long ago I read a blog commenting on the validity of teaching Shakespeare’s work as a part of academic requirements. The writer felt that Shakespeare’s time had come and gone and was no longer pertinent for modern students. Many people seem to find Shakespeare a bit dated and unnecessary.

MacbethCredit: Pixabay public domain images

One of the big reasons why many students have difficulty in studying his plays is because the way they are written and were published. The younger the student, the more awkward and unconventional these plays might appear – they don’t read like a book or story. Thus students, understandably so, prefer to focus on the current and popular authors.

Whenever I address the value of Shakespeare it has always been necessary to start by reminding students, and anyone studying literature, that Shakespeare's plays were not created to be read as you would a book. In fact, he never intended for his plays to be published. It was only after several of his plays received rave reviews that someone he was associated with, started to reproduce the scripts in quarto format and selling the copies.

Some of the plays did not see publication until after Shakespeare’s death (in 1616). His former colleagues eventually assembled the plays into a folio and published it in 1623. Modern students should look at his plays in the same way you would read a film or stage performance script. Think of them as modern screen plays, not books or novelette. Let’s face it, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are easier to read and follow than Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Henry IV.

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As for their literary value in scholarly studies, students don’t always recognize the influence of the old masters on the new masters. Shakespeare’s plays are still valid from the fact that many modern writers borrow from his and other early writers (i.e. Christopher Marlowe). His subject matter and how he openly ridiculed monarchies, lessons in morality, good and evil, deceit, foolishness, the pursuit of power, and his desire to emphasize the role of women in his plays have made his work relevant from a historical perspective, personal development, as well as literary styling and techniques. His sonnets are often the source of mystery in meaning. The sheer volume of quoted lines repeated by many people of all walks of life through the centuries makes these sonnets, as well as plays, timeless.

I suspect that there are many of you that share the doubters of the academic value of Shakespeare’s work in today’s world and yet so many movies still play off of those themes.  Here are some of my favorite performances of the bard’s work along with some the titles of 20th and 21st century movies based in part or whole on these works by this famous bard.

1.  The Tempest

My all-time favorite performance of The Tempest is linked below. Instead of Prospero, the male lead character of the original play, this version has a woman in the lead role (named - Prospera) and superbly portrayed by Dame Hellen Mirren. You might want to watch it soon. I’m surprised that it’s available on YouTube. The link may disappear from time to time due to copyright issues; however, there are other more traditional versions also available on YouTube.

Movies influenced by The Tempest:

  • The Forbidden Planet (1956) science fiction movie.
  • Pocahontas (animated, 1995)

2.  Othello

If you go directly to the YouTube site for this video, please ignore all the ignorant statements made by the illiterate and mentally deficient persons posted below the video. 

Othello influenced films:

  • 2001 story “O” starring Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, and Martin Sheen.
  • A Double Life (1947)
  • Catch My Soul (1974)
  • All Night Long (1962)

3.  Twelfth Night: Or What You Will 

Twelfth Night influenced the 2006 film, She’s the Man, with Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum.

4.  King Lear

The video version below is missing the 3rd scene of Act IV; however, if you search for that missing piece separately you should be able to find it. If not, consider using the full audiobook version also available on YouTube. 

Films based on King Lear:

  • The 1985 epic Japanese film Ran set in Samurai times
  • The 1997 American film A Thousand Acres (Jason Robards, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Leigh).
  • My Kingdom (2001) Richard Harris
  • King of Texas (2002)

5.  Romeo and Juliet

For real odd adaptations I offer you:

  • Martial arts star Jet Li’s 2000 movie Romeo Must Die.
  • and the zombie movie 2013 Warm Bodies borrowed elements of its story from Romeo and Juliet.
  • Plus the musical West Side Story (1961)

6.  Macbeth

  • The 1957 Japanese film titled Throne of Blood is a revised adaptation of Macbeth placed in a Samurai warrior setting.  
  • Macbeth also influenced the 1955 movie Joe MacBeth
  • 1990 movie Men of Respect.
  • Scotland, PA (2001)

7.  A Comedy of Errors

Audiobook is available on YouTube however, some of the voices are a little too robotic. The best film version is a BBC production unavailable via YouTube. You might find it at your local library or university library in DVD/VHS formats.

  • Actors/Comedians Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin stared in an updated version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors in their 1988 film Big Business.  
  • The Boys from Syracuse (1940) Comedy of Errors

8.  Hamlet

The version of the play shown below is true to the script, yet original in presentation. It stars the great actors Sir Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, and Penny Downie. 

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Films based all or in part on Hamlet include:

  • Japan produced film, The Bad Sleep Well, hitting the screens in 1960.
  • The 1983 comedy Strange Brew starting comedians Paul Dooley, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.   
  • The Lion King (1994) animated film.
  • Let the Devil Wear Black (1999)

9.  Taming of the Shrew

Taming of the Shrew served as the basis of these two films:

  • 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) staring Larisa Oleynik and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
  • Deliver Us From Eva (2003) staring Gabrielle Union and LL Cool J.
  • Kiss Me Kate (1948)

10.  Midsummer Night's Dream

  • MidSummer Night was the influence for the movie Get Over it (2001) staring Kirsten Dunst.

I should also note that characters from the plays Henry IV and Henry V influenced the 1991 movie My Own Private Idaho starring William Richert, Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. 

Final Word

The items listed above are by no means a complete representation of what you can find in books, cartoons, and films from the past 100 years. The play versions I’m suggesting via YouTube links can also be found as DVDs in most public and academic libraries. Personally, I found all these and more from our local library. Any plays they did not have, they were kind enough to order for me.

If readers are aware of other examples that might be of interest to readers please feel free to comment below. Educators in the humanities should consider this article as a source and aid in presenting and teaching Shakespeare’s great works. In the near future, I hope to publish a follow-on article to discuss more value in the works of Shakespeare as well as topics for classroom discussions.