Shakespeare for People Who Don't Like Shakespeare

This week we celebrated the birthday of William Shakespeare, a man who gave us some of the finest plays ever written and whose works continue to be performed. Now let me be honest and say that I love Shakespeare in just about every form in which he appears. Traditional staging to updated to re-imagined. However, I know that some folks out there just can’t sit through the long plays and Elizabethan language without getting bored or distracted. So here are some recommendations for people who might like to get the gist of the Shakespearean story without all the fancy dialogue.



Romeo and Juliet has inspired different interpretations over the years. One of the best is the musical West Side Story starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. Italy becomes America. The Montagues and Capulets become street gangs. The Jets are native New Yorkers. The Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. Romeo is Tony (Beymer), a Jet. Juliet is Maria (Wood), the sister of one of the Sharks. Beautiful songs, energetic dancing, great performances all around in this Oscar winning movie.

Othello is the story of jealousy and its tragic consequences. My favorite re-telling is a BBC production also titled Othello, set at Scotland Yard in modern day London. Eamonn Walker gives one of his strongest performances in the title role of John Othello, with Keeley Hawes as his young wife Dessie and Christopher Eccleston as the evil, manipulative Ben Jago. Another modern version is “O” and uses an American high school setting. Mekhi Phifer stars as Odin James, with Josh Hartnett as jealous villain Hugo, and Julia Stiles as Desi, the girl Odin loves.

King Lear was recently updated to 19th century American West in King of Texas. Patrick Stewart stars as rancher John Lear, whose pride brings about his downfall. And Japanese director Akira Kurosawa gave us Ran, a version of the story set in feudal Japan.

Macbeth, a story of envy and the destructive drive for power, has also been interpreted in different ways. Kurosawa adapted the play as Throne of Blood, a tale set in feudal Japan. The great Toshiro Mifune starred. Macbeth also inspired a dark comedy version titled Scotland, Pa, starring James LeGros, Maura Tierney, and Christopher Walken.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote comedy, too. The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. Feuding Katherine and Petruchio became high school students Kat Stratford and Patrick Verona. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger star is this fun remake.

Finally, BBC produced some imaginative modern remakes and updates in a series of movies titled ShakespeaRe-told. The four cutting-edge productions in this collection bring Shakespeare alive for a 21st century audience. Macbeth is the chef in a 3-star restaurant and stars James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes. Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) are rival co-anchors, with Sarah Parish and Damian Lewis as the leads. Titania and Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) carouse in a tawdry theme resort, starring Imelda Staunton and Bill Paterson. Outrageous Petruchio, played by Rufus Sewell, sets out to tame the conservative Kate, played by Shirley Henderson, in a politically incorrect marriage of convenience (The Taming of the Shrew).

So if you’ve never thought you’d like Shakespeare, try a few of these movies and let me know what you think. And if you’re like me, a fan of the Bard, tell me what your own favorites are, whether traditional or modern.


I happened to like

I happened to like Shakespeare from my very first exposure, via a TV broadcast of Peter Hall's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. At age 11 or 12 (or whatever I was then), I was very taken with the story of the fairies and the runaway lovers, and didn't know a thing about stage-trained actors or who played what. Therefore I had a huge surprise many years later when, on finding a copy of the film at the local Blockbuster, I realized that the cast had included Judi Dench, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, and a very young Helen Mirren. It's an odd production (Think Judi Dench in body paint!), but I'll always be fond of it. In 1998 Michael Hoffman released an offbeat but very watchable version of the same play. That particular cast included Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Anna Friel, Calista Flockhart, Michelle Pfeiffer, and David Strathairn, but the real standout was Kevin Kline, as Nick Bottom. The production makes lovely use of classical music (Italian opera and the more traditionally appropriate Mendelssohn). I also never really tire of the Franco Zeffirelli version of The Taming of the Shrew, or of Kenneth Branagh's delightful adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. I'd recommend either of those if you just can't afford that trip to Italy this year. On a completely different note, my all-time favorite Shakespearean adaptation is Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, just a brilliant piece of filmmaking, one that electrified audiences when it was first released and will still be provoking comment for years to come. Absolutely not to be missed.

It's great to hear from

It's great to hear from another fan of The Bard of Avon. I'm afraid I lagged far behind you in real interest in Shakespeare. Like most kids, I knew Romeo and Juliet; and, of course, as a teenaged girl, I thought it was so romantic and tragic! But I'd never thought of Shakespeare as funny until I saw a broadcast of Much Ado About Nothing when I was in my late teens. It was a production starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes and set in America after WWI. I couldn't believe how funny and charming it was! Like you, I'm quite partial to the Branagh version, too. Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It) has an amazing talent for making Shakespeare very accessible for today's audiences and I've enjoyed all of his adaptations that I've seen. Like you, Henry V is still my favorite. And though he didn't adapt or direct Othello starring Lawrence Fishburne, Branagh gives a stunning performance as Iago.

Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet) is also a master at staging Shakespeare for a modern audience. His The Taming of the Shrew is a classic. But I'm behind on the different versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream! I have to add those to my list of "must-sees." I must see Dame Judi Dench as Titania.

Thanks for the wonderful recommendations!


I'm glad you mentioned the

I'm glad you mentioned the Kenneth Branagh version of Hamlet; I have fond memories of seeing that on the big screen in a vintage theater packed with filmgoers of all ages, some of whom had come some distance. On screen there was an astonishing international cast, with the standouts being Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, and above all Richard Briers, who was probably the best Polonius I have ever seen. Branagh has not always pleased the critics with his adaptations, with his 1930s-style Love's Labour's Lost coming in for a particular drubbing, though everyone agreed Broadway star Nathan Lane was pitch-perfect. I also loved A Midwinter's Tale (also known as In the Bleak Midwinter), a very funny and touching story of a dysfunctional group of actors mounting a production of Hamlet in an English village over the Christmas holidays. Branagh wrote the screenplay and directed, and cast a number of his long-time colleagues, among them Michael Maloney, John Sessions, and Briers (Again!). It's probably a good choice for Woody Allen fans (You'll understand why when you see the production) and those who like their holiday movies offbeat. The problem is, I don't think it's ever been released on DVD in the U.S.

I've never seen A Midwinter's

I've never seen A Midwinter's Tale and had completely forgotten about it. I hope one day I'll get to see it, especially since it features some great talents. Richard Briers is a particular favorite and does give us an intelligent, shrewd Polonius in the Branagh Hamlet. Thanks for the great comments and suggestions!