From Stratford-upon-Avon to Padua Stadium High: The 6 Best Shakespeare Film Adaptations

You’ve got this craving for iambic pentameter and smooth-flowing verse, but you don’t have the time to read five acts of it, let alone try to decode the bawdy Elizabethan puns, so you want to watch it (which I suppose is better than ignoring it all together, even though it physically pained me to write that — but I digress).

If you insist, take my advice: Don’t watch some shitty modern-day Amanda Bynes She’s The Man take on Billy S -have some respect. The man created the largest and most exquisite body of work in the English language. For the love of all things King Lear, watch one of the following films that actually does justice to the genius from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Titus:

Based on the play Titus Andronicus, this film is Shakespeare for the action/horror film lover.

It’s dark, it’s violent — it’s basically Shakespeare writing an Eminem song hundreds of years before the FCC flipped out on dear Marshall. Here’s the gist: Titus Andronics is in charge, but people want his power (as per usual), so these bad people (led by an angry lady; such is Early Modern views on women) decide to rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia and cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so she can’t tell anyone. In a crazy turn of events, which include phallic symbolism, a vagina dentata reference and more hand chopping, the whole thing comes to an end when Titus bakes Evil Woman’s sons into a pie and she eats it. Fun for the whole family.

What’s great about this movie version is how closely it sticks to the actual play and how it doesn’t leave out many of the important literary symbols. I mean what would a film be without a toothed vagina made out of bushes?

Henry V:

Before he was the supremely annoying Gilderoy Lockhart, Kenneth Branagh was (and still is) one of the greatest Shakespeare actors/directors of our time.

This film is my favorite visual version of Henry V, including five different stage performances. Pay special attention to the tennis ball scene (it’s funny) and to how Branagh delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which he basically says to his rag-tag band of troops that the French are going to kick their collective asses, but they should fight bravely anyway because they’re all besties (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”). It’s powerful. If Obama took charge like that, America would be 800 times better.

King Lear:

I generally hate the BBC versions of Shakespeare. Most of the time, the BBC can’t get out of the mindset that their first “B” stands for “British,” and, therefore, they think they can’t fuck up Shakespeare. Well, they can and they do, but not this time.

(Note: This is not the BBC version.)

The BBC version of “King Lear” is actually quite good. Unlike in many of their other films, where they pansy out on the violence (the “C” must stand for “cop-out”), the scene Gloucester gets his eyes poked out is actually pretty intense. Plus, approximately 8,000 characters die and a king goes crazy and traipses around half-naked in the forest, flinging flowers everywhere.

There’s actually a lot of half-naked in this play, and some more evil women. And another battle with the French. And sisters poisoning each other and plotting to kill their husbands. Basically, you can either watch the BBC version or “Jerry Springer.” Take your pick.

Romeo + Juliet:

Two words. Eight syllables. Leonardo DiCaprio. Who wouldn’t stab themselves for him? (Within reason of course.)

At first, I will admit, I wasn’t a fan of this movie, even though the love of my fifth grade life was in it. Exploding gas stations have no place in Shakespeare, I thought. But…it grew on me, and not just because of Leo’s sensual ‘90s bowl haircut and affinity for perfect iambic pentameter inflection. Aside from said exploding gas station, this version is actually a pretty genius way of marrying of two very different time periods. The film itself becomes a nice symbol of the timelessness of Shakespeare’s plays, their themes and their subjects.

Plus, the look on Leo’s face when he says “Oh true apothecary, thy drugs are quick, thus with a kiss I die”? Bring out the tissues. He delivers it in a perfectly heartbreaking manner.

Merchant of Venice:

Al Pacino is a badass who wants a pound of flesh, and he almost gets it, which is even more bad-ass…and disgusting.

Essentially, Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic play where the Jew is evil and everyone hates him because he’s cheap and mean. But the true gem in this version is how good Pacino is at being Shylock (the Jew). In the play, Shylock is a main character, but it’s hard to even take an interest in him as a reader. He’s the antagonist, and that’s it. In the film, Shylock demands attention, bringing life to a two-dimensional character that Shakespeare neglected because, well, the character was Jewish. Civil rights all up in this one — sorry, Shakey.

10 Things I Hate About You:

It’s not technically Shakespeare, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include it because unlike She’s The Man (based on Twelfth Night) this movie does not, by colloquial definition, blow.

This ‘90s classic is based on The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. The general plot line is the same: Dude has two beautiful daughters, and the older one is a heinous bitch but is not, as the film puts it, “a K.D. Lang fan.” The younger daughter can’t get married/date until the older one does, and someone (in this case, Heath Ledger with awesome hair, R.I.P.) tames the bitch, makes her fall in love, takes her to prom and they all live happily ever after… after Bianca chooses Joseph Gordon Levitt and his holey-French book over the dumb underwear model.

Bianca and Kat are named after the Shakespeare characters, and pretty much everything is the same, except in the play, Kat gets “tamed” and Bianca turns into the bitch because she stays with the underwear model…which just cannot happen in Movieland. But, seriously, the best part of this movie is when Kat reads her “poem” to Heath. I laugh every time. Do they really expect us to believe that a girl who reads as much as Kat does would write such a ridiculously transparent and terrible poem? Especially when she asked her teacher if it needed to be written in iambic pentameter!? Go hang out in your paintball park and back away from the spiral notebook. The poem is so bad, it’s good enough to make the whole movie…especially because, in the play, Kat’s transformation into a “nice girl” is just as awkward.

And remember, you can only just be “whelmed” in Europe.

Photo by MIT

Caitlin Tremblay I work at Thomson Reuters in NYC and I'm a 2011 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. I could live off of Ring Pops and cucumbers and I still pay for music. I think tattoos, Chuck Klosterman, Rolling Stone, red pens, day planners and Shakespeare are rad. You can find me on Twitter (@CTrembz).

View all posts by Caitlin Tremblay

4 Responses to “From Stratford-upon-Avon to Padua Stadium High: The 6 Best Shakespeare Film Adaptations”

  1. Meg

    KENNETH <3

    Barbara Bono would be impressed.

    I would argue the R&J film adaption, though. Sassy Gay Friend did it so much better hahaha.

    Reply
  2. Steve

    Are you being serious when you say that the Merchant of Venice is an anti-semitic play? If you are then I would beg to differ. Yes, it is true that it contains stereotypes of Jews. Yes, it is probably true that it was marketed as an anti-semitic play in Elizabethan times. Yes, Elizabethan audiences probably were delighted to see Shylock fall and being stripped of all his wealth as he is the ‘bad guy’. And yes, they would applaud the fact that Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. However, these reactions would be present in the ‘groundlings’ and the unthoughtful. The judicious spectators would catch on to certain questions that Shakespeare poses.

    Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes…’ speech (as seen in the video above) is undeniably Shakespeare pondering on and posing the question, “are Jews really inferior than Christians?” Shylock’s speech here is the most powerful moment in the play. He is completely rational in his diagnoses of the Jew and his conclusion that Jews are no different than Christians on fundamental levels. Modern day audiences (excluding an audience who is modern day bigot) would react quite differently to the play. And by that I mean that they would be repulsed by how Shylock is treated (even considering that he is a ‘bad guy’ for seeking a pound of flesh). I for one shook my head at the farcical and satirical conclusion of the court scene. And the judicious spectators in Elizabethan times and the thoughtful spectators of today should see huge hypocrisies that the Christian Elizabethan took part in. Shylock is only pointing out those hypocrisies. He asks in that speech that if a Jew disgraced a Elizabethan Christian would the Elizabethan Christian not also seek revenge. He also points out that his revenge is a product of what the ‘Christian way’ has taught him (to hate).

    RANT///

    I could go on… but my point is that The Merchant of Venice may, to some, come off as or be touted as an anti-semitic play. But, it is in fact is the opposite; it is ANTI-anti-semitic. The ‘Hath not a Jew eyes,’ speech is definitely up there with other famous speeches like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. And in my opinion, it is the most memorable, and perhaps the most important speech given by one of Shakespeare’s characters. Therefore, Shylock is FARRRRRR from being the two dimensional character you claim he is and while some may argue that Shakespeare could have done more with Shylock’s character, it is ridiculous to claim that Shakespeare neglected him (nevermind claiming that Shakespeare neglected him BECAUSE he was a Jew. To do so would be to make an even greater grievous mistake).

    Reply

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