This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

As countless scholars have pointed out, the culture surrounding Shakespearean audiences throughout the ages has varied significantly. In Shakespeare’s day, theatre was intended for all realms of society; the upper and lower classes experienced the same masterpiece, albeit through financially segregated seating zones. Strangely, with the birth of cinema and the inevitable birth of Shakespearean cinematic depictions, this intentional accessibility vanished – Shakespeare became a product of high culture, intended for a demographic of well-cultured thespians and critics. Perhaps due to presumptions about the capability of the uneducated population to understand Elizabethan theatre, individuals outside of these parameters were no longer expected to enjoy Shakespeare.

However, 90s cinema sought to challenge this. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet is the earliest mainstream example. This depiction completely subverts our aesthetic expectations of a Shakespearean film, bringing an Elizabethan plot into the 20th century by infusing garish pop music, elements of drag culture, comedic, extravagant campy acting and high fashion with Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic Prada Hawaiian shirt. All the while being set in the 90s but maintaining an almost identical dialogue to the 1595 text. This was a bold step towards making Shakespeare accessible to all, whilst still maintaining some original integrity. Although slated by critics and the “Bardolatrous” alike for its alleged irreverence, this rendition captivated youth attention and opened the floodgates for an abundance of Shakespearean adaptations which rejected high culture perceptions of Shakespeare and strayed ever further away from the original texts. 

10 Things I Hate About You (1999), based on The Taming of the Shrew, Never Been Kissed (1999), based on As You Like It and She’s The Man (2006), based on Twelfth Night represent the three highest grossing of these adaptations. None draw attention to their Shakespearean origins and are instead presented as standard coming-of-age romantic comedies, unequivocally removing Shakespeare from the pomposity of high culture and making it digestible and accessible to all.  Lovers of Shakespeare may find it unsettling to know that viewers may not even recognise that they are watching the Bard, however these films should remind lovers of literature of the enduring nature of Shakespearean themes: rest assured that these films are born from one filmmaker’s adoration of Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare is now fully immersed in pop culture, perhaps thanks to these digestible turn-of-the-century renditions. This prevalence encourages acknowledgement of more subtle Shakespearean influences in film, such as The Lion King (1994) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). Ultimately, film as a medium is intended for mass consumption so it is no surprise that Shakespearean cinema became more consumable for a modern audience. The experiences of Shakespeare’s characters, notably Romeo and Juliet’s naivety or Viola’s attempts to evade sexism are extremely relatable some 400 years later. It is no surprise that modern viewers still resonate with Shakespearean foundations in cinema. The surviving popularity of Shakespeare’s narratives are a testament to their potency, a testament we should welcome. 

By Lucy Agate