Even the most devoted practitioners of 'bardolatry' have to admit that sometimes his plays are a slog to read. For every transcendent soliloquy you get an obscure and obsolete “joke”. And while the words can be the most resonant thing about Shakespeare’s work, what’s really amazing about his plays is that they can be transplanted into such a wide variety of media and become illuminated in new and exciting ways. So if you want to access Shakespeare in a non-traditional way this week, here are some suggestions from throughout the ages for you to check out, anon!
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, 1786
William Blake was a talented man. He’s famous for his prints, poems, and paintings, which can range from the sublime and sweet to the demonic and infernal. This watercolour, which you can find hanging in the Tate, has an ethereal, dreamy quality that suits Shakespeare’s most magical play perfectly. For a bit of contrast, check out his corpse-like picture of Richard III being visited by ghosts.
There is something strange and unsettling about the lyrical, poetic way that Gertrude reports of Ophelia’s self-inflicted drowning during Hamlet. I think John Everett Millais captures something of this in his iconic painting. The flowers, the beautiful woman, the lush forest grove are all present, yet still there something dark, dank, and dead about the image. The notable pre-Raphelite model, Elizabeth Siddal, whose flowing fiery locks are seen so often in paintings of that movement, came to her own untimely end after mental health problems, adding an extra layer of sadness to the work.
Verdi seemed to be a Shakespeare fan, writing operatic adaptations not only of Othello but also of Macbeth and (yes really) Falstaff. The beauty and emotion of Shakespeare’s poetry is achieved through beautiful and dramatic music. You don’t have to able to speak Italian to appreciate, for instance, the sadness of Desdemona’s Willow Song or the violent passion of the opening chorus.
Romeo and Juliet, 1955
Prokofiev’s music for this ballet has been innovated and choreographed several times since 1955, but in every new version the tender and delicate medium of ballet seems ideally suited to the youthful but doomed love of Romeo and Juliet. The medium of dance is yet another medium that can reflect the intricacy of Shakespeare’s words, emphasizing the fascinating interrelation of art forms and the wonderful capacity there is for cultural reinvention.
Forbidden Planet, 1956
This is an interesting, but very 50s, American take on The Tempest. In this film, a group of American space travellers find themselves on a mysterious planet with an old man, his daughter and a servile robot. While dated in some aspects, the sci-fi elements are still have the power to enthral much in the way that Shakespeare’s magic still does. There is a secret lab full of forbidden technology, and a mysterious monster with a surprisingly psychological origin…
West Side Story, 1957
You’ve probably heard of this one, but it’s a classic. Forbidden love is pretty much a universal theme, applicable to countless cultures and times. And using an interracial blue-collar couple in New York City as the star crossed lovers was, for its time in the 50s, a bold move and is still a gloriously entertaining watch. This is in no small part down to Leonard Bernstein’s suspenseful, jazz-inspired score. The fact that this musical is still regularly produced shows that Shakespearean themes, coupled with contemporary styles and innovation, can still have mass appeal.
Throne of Blood, 1957
Much is often said about Shakespeare’s alleged global reach and applicability. Japanese film genius Akira Kurosawa proves it. He sets his version of Macbeth in the feudal Japan amongst swords and samurais, and it works beautifully. It’s not just the psychological intensity that translates, but surprisingly, the Gothicism. What Shakespeare does with words is done here with rich, textured, monochrome images. Standout moments are the genuinely eerie presentation of the witch, who spins her wheel of Fate in a smoke-filled forest, and the Macbeth character’s demise – a departure from the bard – in a hale of arrows fired at him by his own men.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1966
Prolific wordsmith Tom Stoppard’s play is the Hamlet fanfic you never knew you needed in your life. It follows the backstory of two of Hamlet’s most annoying characters, whose demise is reported in a throwaway line at the end of Shakespeare’s play. This play is hilarious, like the moment when the pair are having one of their ridiculous conversations, with Hamlet doing one of his famous soliloquies off in the background. The play also has a dark and existential streak, unsurprisingly for a play where the protagonists are doomed by the title. I would also recommend the 1990 film version with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.
One Thousand Acres, 1991
Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel sees King Lear played out on the plains of an Iowa estate. The patriarch Larry wishes to divide his estate equally between his three daughters, and what follows is not quite what you expect, with Smiley’s novel probing into the dark, secret heart of the family in a new way while retaining the grand and existential themes present in the original play.
10 things I Hate About You, 1999
The Taming of a Shrew is a play many modern audiences find problematic, with Katerina’s final speech basically espousing female submission and inferiority. So what better than to transform her into Kat Stratford, a smart and straight-talking feminist cynically wise-cracking her way through high school. This film is one of those rare rom-coms that is actually both funny and romantic, with a thoroughly modern sensibility fitting perfectly beside a sense of Shakespearean love-anarchy.