Around the world, Shakespearean theaters are celebrating the birth date (and possibly death date) of the most famous playwright in history. Whether you love the Bard’s works, like we do, or don’t get what all the fuss is about, it’s hard to deny how influential Billy Shakes has been on pretty much every author to come after him. Beloved movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man, the Lion King, and West Side Story wouldn’t have existed without Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, respectively.
But you know about those movies, right? We’re gonna get a little obscure, a little weird, and a little silly with these six bizarre adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.
“Love Me Do,” Thisbe: The Beatles and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Think that Shakespeare and The Beatles don’t mix? Think again. In 1964, the darlings of the British rock scene combined one quintessentially English thing with another by filming a TV special inspired by a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You know the play within a play in Act V, where the “rude mechanicals,” or players, perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? In Around the Beatles, Paul, John, George, and Ringo take on the roles of the mechanicals, gallivanting around a theater and singing some of their most popular songs as they act out the ‘tragic’ love story of Pyramus and Thisbe. If you search on YouTube, you can find footage of them singing “Twist and Shout,” “Love Me Do,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” among other hits, while wearing doublets and feathered caps.
King Lear with Sheep photo courtesy of Will Hazell
The Baaaaa-rd: Sheep and King Lear
When we discovered that a woman had written an adaptation of King Lear almost entirely staged with sheep, our first question was, “Why?” Our second question: “How?”
Here’s the story. Writer Missouri Williams was fed up with what she called “the complacency in modern stagings of Shakespeare,” so she decided to do something different. Like, really different. In her 2015 London production of King Lear with Sheep, the one human actor played a director literally trying to herd his cast from scene to scene. “It’s a sight that I can quite confidently say is currently unparalleled on the British stage. Lear’s horns are magnificent. Goneril chews a curtain,” wrote one reviewer. The sheep mostly stood there (as sheep are wont to do) as the director yelled bits of King Lear at them. But his frustration apparently became quite moving towards the end, as he cradled the black sheep playing the dead Cordelia in his arms.
American revival of King Lear with Sheep, anyone?
Want Fries with that Regicide?: Macbeth in a Diner
Macbeth’s been staged in almost every setting, from a hospital bathroom (dir. Peter Goold) to samurai-era Japan (dir. Akira Kurosawa) to a 1930s luxury hotel (Sleep No More). But the movie Scotland, PA takes a classic tale of bloody ambition from the Scottish heath to a greasy spoon in Pennsylvania. The Billy Morrissette-directed flick, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, doesn’t feature Shakespearean language at all. It only lifts plot elements, like the murder of King Duncan (who’s now a restaurant owner), the three witches (three stoned customers), and the confrontation between Macduff (a police lieutenant) and Macbeth. With James LeGros as “Mac” McBeth, Maura Tierney as Pat McBeth, and Christopher Walken as Lt. Ernie McDuff, the movie is a funny, creepy, totally unexpected version of one of the Bard’s most recognizable works.
Ground Control to Billy Shakes: The Tempest in Space
Remember Forbidden Planet, that 1950s sci-fi gem? The movie, which starred Anne Francis and Leslie Nielson, was one of the most innovative early sci-fi films and influenced Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and many others. What many people don’t know is that Forbidden Planet is a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – until the end, that is.
Morbius and Altaira, who are stranded on the distant world of Altair IV, are direct parallels to Prospero and Miranda. In this version, of course, Prospero is a scientist rather than a magician. Robby the Robot is Ariel, Prospero’s servant, and Commander Adams, who lands on Altair V with his crew and falls in love with Altaira, is Ferdinand. The biggest difference? Prospero survives The Tempest, while Morbius is killed by the creature he’s accidentally created (a version of Caliban).
Although setting movies in space is par for the course now, placing a Shakespeare play among starships and nebulas was a bold choice for director Fred Wilcox in 1956. Just goes to show that the Bard’s plays really are timeless.
Good Priests Gone Bad: The Aftermath of Romeo and Juliet
As in any good Shakespearean tragedy, all of the interesting characters are dead at the end of Romeo and Juliet…except for Friar Laurence. The guy who secretly married two teenagers, despite his misgivings, and then gave one of them a potion that would make her appear dead has to explain his shenanigans to the grief-stricken Capulets and Montagues. They all seem cool with his behavior, but critics have debated whether the Friar is at fault for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths for centuries.
In The People Vs Friar Laurence, a musical comedy that takes place after the young lovers’ double suicide, Friar Laurence is put on trial for Romeo and Juliet’s demise. It’s as entertaining as it is witty, and it also begs the question: why was a man of the cloth going around giving sleeping potions to young women? The show is a bawdy delight that spits out Shakespeare references faster than the audience can process them. Be sure to catch a performance if it’s playing at a theater near you!
Welcome to the Hotel Elsinore: Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet
There are more movie adaptations of Hamlet than we can shake a skull at, but one of the strangest is the 2000 adaptation starring Ethan Hawke as everyone’s favorite mopey murderer. The film, which was directed by Michael Almereyda, relocates the royal family of Denmark to New York City. Claudius is CEO of Denmark Corporation, a position which he nabbed by killing his brother, Hamlet’s father and the previous CEO. Instead of taking place inside Elsinore Castle, the movie shows us Elsinore Hotel: the sumptuous headquarters of Denmark Corporation.
Hamlet 2000, as it’s sometimes called, seemed cutting-edge when it came out…which makes its earnest integration of ‘modern’ technology even weirder 17 years down the road. Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet is a hardcore emo kid who probably listens to Green Day’s Dookie every day on his Walkman. He delivers what may be the most famous soliloquy of all time, the “To be or not to be” text, in a Blockbuster (!!!) while wearing a dumb hat and speechifying to the action movie section. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on closed-circuit TV (Ooh! How newfangled!), and Julia Stiles’s Ophelia wears a hidden microphone when her father and Claudius manipulate her into gathering evidence on Hamlet’s madness. At the end, Casey Affleck as Fortinbras shows up and stages a corporate, rather than military, takeover of Denmark Corporation.
Rather than consigning it to the slag heap of uninspiring Shakespeare adaptations, Hamlet 2000 is worth a watch, at least in our opinion. The star-studded cast means the performances are good, and the movie is a relic of the very early aughts.
Did we miss your favorite bizarro adaptation of a Shakespeare play? Tell us in the comments!