Tales Of Woe: Our Six Favorite Shakespeare Film Interpretations

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Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in ‘Shakespeare In Love.’

William Shakespeare–one of the single most well known artists of all time. No matter if you know nothing of his life and trials as an English playwright, poet, and actor; you know his works. From Othello, Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet, no tale of his is unknown nor lost in time. Regardless of demographics, or the advancement in years, Shakespeare’s literary children continue to impact the world. And while the reasons for this can span a parchment of paper, two things stand out: the universal sentiments of human experiences and how they can entangle the simplest of relationships, and Shakespeare’s undeniable knack for molding all of this into successive scenes, sequences and organic dialogue. We refer to this in present day cinematic language as a “treatment,” which was pretty much a rarity among other Elizabethan playwrights. The epitome of gifted, Shakespeare could do it all on his own. He could create from various perspectives of the story–inside, outside–making every possible adaption of his works seamless. Whether or not he intended this, it’s the reason we can enjoy Shakespeare in ballet, opera and any other modern interpretations. Most specifically, the morsels of film adaptations we cherish the most below.


West Side Story

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Film Synopsis: A musical in which a modern day Romeo and Juliet are involved in New York street gangs. On the harsh streets of the upper west side, two gangs battle for control of the turf. The situation becomes complicated when a gang members falls in love with a rival’s sister.

If you didn’t fall in love with Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause, you most definitely became enamored with her in West Side Story. Playing the beautiful Maria opposite Richard Beymer’s Tony, Wood’s cinematic and musical efforts have become a staple in pop culture. How many commercials and montages have featured her song “I Feel Pretty”? Too many to count. The musical has evolved into a theatrical immortal piece, playing in numerous productions around the world.

Romeo + Juliet

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Film Synopsis: Baz Luhrmann helped adapt this classic Shakespearean romantic tragedy for the screen, updating the setting to a post-modern city named Verona Beach. In this version, the Capulets and the Montagues are two rival gangs. Juliet (Claire Danes) is attending a costume ball thrown by her parents. Her father Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) has arranged her marriage to the boorish Paris (Paul Rudd) as part of a strategic investment plan. Romeo attends the masked ball and he and Juliet fall in love.

It’s been done before and will never stop being interpreted, but the way Baz Luhrmann approached his Romeo + Juliet will forever hold our ’90s hearts. The casting, sets, lighting, costumes and other subtleties–they all didn’t make sense, and then they did. In fact, for many, there’s no way the story could’ve uniquely succeeded and stood out without them. And Leo as Romeo, was there ever a more tragically perfect specimen?

10 Things I Hate About You

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Film Synopsis: Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) is beautiful, smart and quite abrasive to most of her fellow teens, meaning that she doesn’t attract many boys. Unfortunately for her younger sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), house rules say that she can’t date until Kat has a boyfriend, so strings are pulled to set the dour damsel up for a romance. Soon Kat crosses paths with handsome new arrival Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). Will Kat let her guard down enough to fall for the effortlessly charming Patrick?

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was so wittingly adapted into a teen comedy. Okay, so maybe those last two words short change the actual genius of this movie. However, if you’re not one to judge a book by its cover, or a film by its poster, you can’t really lump 10 things I Hate About You in with the average teen movie fluff. Its starring actors, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon Levitt, have achieved highly regarded thespian respect with their later performances–further cementing the film’s worth to their young and initial interest.


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Film Synopsis: Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the young prince of Denmark who is plagued by indecision when he vows to avenge his father’s murder. Filmed on location around the UK, including Stonehaven in Scotland, the film boasts an impressive ensemble cast.

If you can’t hear Cher from Clueless– in the backseat of Josh’s car–schooling his collegiate girlfriend on Mel Gibson’s Hamlet when you watch this, raise your hand! Congrats, you can appreciate the ensemble power of this film without snickering here and there. In all seriousness, Franco Zeffirelli’s version of this classic is hearty and very much worth all two hours and fifteen minutes.


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Film Synopsis: Moving the classic tale of “Othello” onto the basketball courts of a high school, the story focuses on a young black man named Odin (Mekhi Phifer) who is convinced by a conniving best friend, Hugo (Josh Hartnett) that his girlfriend (Julia Stiles) is cheating on him. Of course, what Odin doesn’t know is that Hugo is in fact motivated by his own jealousy of Odin’s good fortune. It’s a sticky situation in classic Shakespearean tradition.

Julia Stiles is in everything Shakespeare and modern, isn’t she? Okay, maybe just three films. We kinda wish she were actually in just one more. Her presence gave a particular flavor to this era of Shakespeare spins. And even with a beloved roster of actors like Josh Hartnett and Mekhi Phifer, we couldn’t help but hate each one of them through and through, or at certain points. O is definitely a roller coaster.

My Own Private Idaho

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Film Synopsis: In this loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” Mike Waters (River Phoenix) is a gay hustler afflicted with narcolepsy. Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is the rebellious son of a mayor. Together, the two travel from Portland, Oregon to Idaho and finally to the coast of Italy in a quest to find Mike’s estranged mother. Along the way they turn tricks for money and drugs, eventually attracting the attention of a wealthy benefactor and sexual deviant.

Keanu and River forever. My Own Private Idaho was the film which sparked the vital friendship of its starring actors. Gritty, racy and heart breaking, it pulls the basic’s from Henry IV and weaves a tale all its own in the same inspirational fashion as the movies above.




*All Synopses courtesy of Google.


When she's not getting lost in fantastical worlds with the fictional characters she writes, Tia tends to lead something of a normal life. She enjoys the hours of her day by sifting through comics at her local comic book shop, blogging as a pop culture analyst, writing multicultural fantasy, watching "Tangled" and One Direction videos on repeat with her toddler, playing air guitar to Thin Lizzy, connecting life with '90s film quotes and finding new ways to sneak a bite of pizza when she knows she shouldn't. You can find her tweeting here and there, @tatixtia.

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