Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 20 July 2018

Shakespeare400 - How Shakespeare shaped modern culture

From Leonardo Di Caprio to James Joyce and from The Simpsons to Tchaikovsky, William Shakespeare has inspired and shaped popular culture for centuries, writes John Meagher

Taylor Swift's Love Story draws from Romeo and Juliet.
Taylor Swift's Love Story draws from Romeo and Juliet.
Get Over It: A Midsummer Night's Dream.
10 Things I Hate About You: The Taming Of The Shrew.
Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet.
Big Business: The Comedy Of Errors.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes: Julius Caesar.
House of Cards.
My Own Private Idaho: Henry IV
The Lion King: Hamlet
Pocahontas: The Tempest.
Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes in Romeo+Juliet.
She's The Man: Twelfth Night.
The Bard features in The Simpsons.
A chapter in James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses repeatedly references Hamlet.
West Side Story: Romeo and Juliet.

On the face of it, The Simpsons, Elvis Presley and 10 Things I Hate About You have nothing in common, but scratch below the surface and each have associations with the most celebrated writer in English literature.

The Simpsons have tackled William Shakespeare on numerous occasions - just think of episode titles like 'Much Apu About Nothing', 'Midsummer Nice Dream' and 'Do the Bard Man', which saw Homer, Bart and family playing various characters from Hamlet.

Elvis may not have been directly inspired by The Bard, but one of his most enduring hits, 'Suspicious Minds' boasts several allusions to Othello - a fact confirmed by the song's writer Mark James.

And 10 Things I Hate About You was essentially a reworked, modernised version of The Taming of the Shrew. But how many teenagers swooning over Heath Ledger in the 1999 film realised as much?

No writer has had as profound an impact on pop culture as William Shakespeare. His work has inspired musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, TV show writers, animators and other dramatists and poets.

His impact has been so profound and wide-ranging that it sometimes feels as though it would be easier to list the films and books that he didn't, at least in part, influence.

And unlike other writers, Shakespeare's work has proved to be an inspiration for both high culture and low art. What other writer would warrant most of a chapter in James Joyce's masterwork, Ulysses, and provide several death metal bands with a name?

For the record, Ulysses' ninth chapter finds Stephen Dedalus - Joyce's alter-ego - arguing that Shakespeare associated himself with Hamlet's father, and not with Hamlet himself. And if you're seeking hardcore rock music from groups who took their names from the Bard, look no further than Shakespeare in Hell.

And speaking of metal bands and Shakespeare's ability to transcend cultures, how about a production of one of his lesser known plays, The Tragedy Of Coriolanus, staged at the Edinburgh International Arts festival a few years ago and featuring Chinese actors speaking Mandarin with two of the country's heaviest rock bands providing the bruising soundtrack?

But whatever about the quirky goings on - on the Edinburgh stage, there's nowhere that appears to love Shakespeare more than Hollywood. Countless films have been inspired by his life and times including Shakespeare in Love and Al Pacino's reverential Looking for Richard. Big screen adaptations include Baz Luhrmann's present day-set Romeo + Juliet and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

But beyond these openly inspired Shakespearean films, there is a huge quantity that are based on his works, although those not familiar with the source material are likely not to notice. The animated Pocahontas was heavily inspired by The Tempest, while My Own Private Idaho, starring Keanu Reeves, was indebted to Henry IV.

And then there's The Lion King, the enormously popular Disney animation from 1994, that is as good an introduction as any to Hamlet. Indeed, Shakespeare's most emblematic play is so ingrained in popular culture that it could warrant a book in its own right.

Even if you've never seen the play about the Prince of Denmark, or know any of its lines beyond "To be, or not to be, that is the question" which opens the famous soliloquy, you will almost certainly have been exposed to some film, TV show or book that has been inspired by it.

Classical music giants Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Chopin all wrote instrumental pieces based on the play. At least 25 operas have been inspired by the story. Nick Cave's old band, the Birthday Party, released a song called 'Hamlet'. Two of TS Eliot's most celebrated poems, The Waste Land and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock quotes Shakespeare's words directly.

Its influence in literature cannot be overstated, and not just for the aforementioned James Joyce. Literary icons Anton Chekov, John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut all weaved Hamlet into their fiction and the drama gets a mention in A Christmas Carol, written by that other totemic figure of English words, Charles Dickens.

Had he written Hamlet and nothing else, Shakespeare would still, no doubt, be celebrated today. But it is his prodigious output - 37 plays and 154 sonnets - that ensure his loftiest of status. And it's that productivity that's key to why he is so indelible in contemporary culture.

Even in the course of a single day, it's likely that the average pop cultural consumer will encounter Shakespeare several times - and not even be aware of it. But if you've seen Netflix's House of Cards (strongly indebted to Richard III), listened to Taylor Swift's Love Story (inspired by Romeo and Juliet) or went to the recent stage production of West Side Story (also based on Romeo and Juliet) in Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre, you'll have been confronted with Shakespeare's very modern worldview.

All the world's a stage.

Irish Independent

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