If Shakespeare Had the Chance to Write Screenplays

I used to tell my young students a story. There was a king who was killed by his evil and jealous brother so that he could take over the throne. The king’s son, the prince who should be the next king, is deceived by the uncle. Some student would inevitably interrupt me and call out “That’s The Lion King!” Well, yes, it is, but it’s also Hamlet. We would talk about it further. Nala is Ophelia, Timon and Pumbaa are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Rafiki is Horatio. Plus ghosts.

Of course, The Lion King is about lions and is both tragic and comedic – and almost everybody dies at the end of Hamlet.

William Shakespeare has been adapted in many ways for the screen. There are a lot of filmed versions of the plays. I think that if he had lived in our age, Will would have written for TV and the movies. He liked being popular, the money is good and I bet he could knock out series episodes easily. Since he’s not here, other writers have adapted his wonderful and copyright-free plots and characters frequently.

I saw the film Forbidden Planet when I was a kid. When I was in college, I realized it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero becomes Dr. Morbius and Prospero’s daughter Miranda becomes Altaira. The shipwrecked sailors are replaced by astronauts arriving on the planet.

My teacher in high school made it clear that West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet updated to gangs in New York City but with music and dancing. Would William have been surprised by it? Probably not, but he may have been surprised to see Warm Bodies (2013) where his plot gets the zombie treatment and “Juliet” falls in love with the wrong (dead) boy. Spoiler: reversing Will’s plot, Romeo is brought back to life thanks to her love in this version. Tragedy becomes “comedy” (in the Shakespearean sense).

The 2001 Othello update simply called O replaces warriors and the beautiful Desdemona with prep school students and basketball.

It’s harder to identify The Tempest as a source for HBO’s The White Lotus but Shakespeare does have some influence on this satire of the hospitality industry.

The romantic comedy She’s the Man is based on Twelfth Night. Both follow the confusing love-story plot.

And the film 10 Things I Hate About You is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and uses many of the play’s character names and a modern spin on the plot. Both center on two very different sisters. Will has the younger Bianca unable to marry until her strong-willed sister, Katherine “the shrew” is wed. In the 1999 film, Bianca can’t date until Kat does. I haven’t seen the film Deliver Us From Eva but I heard it is also based on the Shrew.

“Teen films” in particular seem to use Shakespeare quite a lot. It’s a bit of a stretch but 2004’s Mean Girls borrows some things from Julius Caesar and Macbeth including some of Bard’s language and themes. And it does have Gretchen’s Julius Caesar rant.

Of course, it’s not just Shakespeare that gets used for new screenplays. The teen favorite film Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not sure Jane would immediately recognize Cher as Emma but the film’s plot parallels the novel’s but with modern twists.

One of my favorite recent takes on classics is the very imaginatively filmed Apple TV+’s Dickinson series which uses elements of Emily Dickinson’s life and lots of her poetry and wildly mixes period piece settings, characters, and costumes with modern music and references. It surprised me and I was quite taken with all 30 episodes.

Shakespeares Sonnettes

This is the kind of “news” I will miss each day now that The Writer’s Almanac will be ending its run as a radio/podcast.

On this date in 1609 publisher Thomas Thorpe made an entry in the Stationer’s Register that said:
Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes

Soon after, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published. There were no copyright laws during Shakespeare’s time and these may have been published without Shakespeare’s consent. The manuscript is full of errors and appears to be incomplete, so some scholars think that it may be an early draft.

Thomas Thorpe himself had an unsavory reputation and was rumored to hang around scriveners—people who could read and write and hired out their services—looking for the opportunity to steal manuscripts. Regardless of how this edition came to print, we’re lucky that it did; had it not, it’s likely that only two of Shakespeare’s sonnets would survive today.

Sonnet #116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

True love outlasts time and love conquers all. Oh, were it so!

Macbeth and The Green Knight

“By the pricking of my thumbs,
something wicked this way comes.”


A new film version of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Harry Melling will be released at the end of the year.

This will be Joel Coen’s first film without partnering with his brother. The Coen brothers have directed many great films in different genres and styles. I’m curious to see how Joel’s directing style and tone translate to Shakespeare. From the few tidbits of trailers I’ve seen, the cinematography looks great – cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel – but photography alone is not what makes a film great.

It will be in theaters on Christmas Day 2021. That seems to be an odd day for this dark play to premiere. (It will be streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14.) But that Christmas date immediately made me think of another recent film based on a classic.

green knight

The Green Knight directed by David Lowery came out earlier this year. It stars Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton. This classic, which I read in college, is one of the Arthurian legends. One surviving manuscript from around 1400 has survived. The author is unknown. It was only rediscovered 200 years ago and published for the first time in 1839.

The original Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain who is King Arthur’s nephew. He’s a bit headstrong and takes on a challenge from the Green Knight. He is a huge emerald armored stranger. (In the film, he seems to be green-skinned and more monster than man.) The Green Knight sets forth a challenge. Any knight can take one stroke at him. If he survives, the following year at Christmas the knight must come to the Green Knight and alow him one stroke.

Spoiler alert: Gawain’s beheading of the Green Knight has little effect on him and so Gawain has a year until he will meet his fate.

Gawain’s journey to the Green Knight involves ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers because the Green Knight test men and the journey is more about his character.

The Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery

Two things I learned about the playwright Christopher Marlowe in school that I remember was that he might have written some (or all?) of Shakespeare’s plays and that he was killed in a tavern brawl.
He died on May 30, 1593. There was a fight in a London tavern and Marlowe was stabbed in the eye after a dispute over the bill. That I will never forget. He was 29 years old. He is best known for the plays Hero and Leander, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second and especially The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
There are plenty of mysteries about authors of that time, especially Mr. Shakespeare. The records just don’t exist. tab, no less. I don’t think it is really a mystery about the authorship of Will’s plays, though much has been written and conjectured about their authorship. I am of the belief that he wrote them but that he may have collaborated with other writers on some, but his name on them guaranteed an audience. If Will was alive in this or the last century, I’m sure he would have gotten into writing for movies and TV and attached his name to projects or adaptations.
It turns out that there is some mystery about the circumstances of Marlowe’s death. One theory is that he was assassinated under orders from Queen Elizabeth I because he was a very public atheist. Marlowe was out on bail when he was killed and if he had gone through an inquisition there was a good chance he would have been executed. You may have learned that Shakespeare was careful about writing or saying if he was a Protestant or Catholic in order to not offend, to get his plays approved by the court, and to protect his life.  The Queen gave orders to silence Marlowe and “prosecute it to the full,” and she pardoned Marlowe’s murderer, Ingram Frizer, a month later.
Young, handsome Christopher “Kit” Marlowe had his enemies. Friend of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was supposedly worried about being implicated if there was an inquisition of Marlowe, so he would have liked to have him out of way before that time.
Marlowe’s former roommate was Thomas Kyd. Kyd was also a playwright, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and an important name in Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd’s plays were overshadowed by Shakespeare’s works. Kyd is sometimes credited with a play titled Hamlet that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version. About a month before Marlowe’s death, Kyd had been arrested and tortured for his connection with Marlowe. Kyd died a year later at the age of 35 unknown and in debt.
But if I ever write my Marlowe murder mystery for the page or screen, I might use that theory, but the more interesting plot is that Marlowe actually faked his own death.
There are some who believe(d) that Kit faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe outside London or out of England, Marlowe would have continued writing and sending his works back to England to be performed. They would need to be attributed to someone else.
Two weeks after Marlowe’s inquest, the first piece of writing to appear under the name William Shakespeare was published. Shakespeare was very likely influenced by Marlowe’s plays as he was the popular writer of the time and Will’s early plays seem more like Marlowe’s writing. Was Will the name on the script while he was learning to write on his own?
I once pitched my story idea to a Shakespeare professor and he said there was a book out there that also followed that idea. I did some digging and found The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. She points out that Shakespeare was rather fascinated with characters who were thought to be dead.
There are 33 characters who appear in 18 of his plays that are mistakenly believed to be dead for some part of the story, including some deliberately staged deaths and three faked deaths done to avoid real death.
I guess I’ll have to collaborate with Ros… or I might just work on my other literary murder mystery about the death of Edgar Allen Poe. We are still not certain what happened to him on those final days – and Poe had such an interesting life before that. I’m surprised no one has made a bio film on him already.

This post originally appeared on my Poets Online blog

Writing About the Pandemic

My wife and I are collaborating on a journal article about how higher education is dealing with the crisis of COVID-19. Though you can look back to earlier times, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, the way colleges, the government, and the medical community operate now is very different.  There are contemporary examples of localized events (Hurricane Katrina; Superstorm Sandy) that impacted education, but not in the same way or for as long a period as the current pandemic.

In 1665, because of a plague outbreak, Cambridge University closed. Like many people in 2020, Issac Newton worked from home. During that time, he discovered calculus and the laws of motion.

In July of 1664, John Shakespeare and his wife Mary had already lost their first and second children (Joan and Margaret) to the bubonic plague. It is likely that they sheltered at home that summer hoping to protect their 3-month-old son, William.


When I was teaching Shakespeare’s play and about his life, I would always talk about the bubonic plague that played a role in his entire life. The plague came and went in waves and killed at least a third of the European population across centuries.

A powerful plague outbreak struck London in 1593 and the theaters closed for 14 months and 10,000 Londoners died. That was about a year before Shakespeare would present Romeo and Juliet.

When I taught that play, I gave some plague background because there is a scene where Friar John is sent to deliver an important message to Romeo about Juliet’s faked death. But the Friar is suspected of having been exposed to the plague (though he is “asymptomatic” in our current vocabulary) and quarantined. He can’t deliver the message to Romeo, and that sets the tragic ending into motion.

Going to find a barefoot brother out,
One of our order, to associate me,
Here in this city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth,
So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.

In 1596, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet contracted the plague and died at the age of eleven. But Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time did not make the plague the plot of their writing. It was probably just not considered to be in good taste. But any of his allusions to it would resonate with his audiences. When Mercutio curses the families of Romeo and Juliet with “A plague on both your houses,” it would have hit the audience hard.

When theaters were closed, some acting companies took to the road and did performances out in the country where the plague had not taken hold. In 2020, some people in my NY/NJ metro area of the country tried to escape COVID-19 by going to the off-season Jersey shore or to the woods north from Vermont to Maine. Unlike Newton and some of my contemporaries, it seems that William Shakespeare did not escape London. He appears to have stayed in the city and wrote and prepared for when the theaters would reopen.

We guess about a lot of Shakespeare’s life because the records are scant. In 1601, there is some evidence to suggest that he and his actors did go on the road – though he may have gone home to Stratford. His father was 70 years old, and may have been ill or weak. John Shakespeare would die that even if he was not ill, it is plausible that there were indications that his father was not well.

ghost King Hamlet
Illustration of the ghost of King Hamlet by Thomas Ridgeway Gould from an 1890 printing of Hamlet (Wikimedia)

It seems most likely that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the fall of 1601. He had written earlier versions of the Hamlet story before and there are records of it being performed in the years prior. But the death of his son Hamnet and then of his father seem to have solidified the story for him. I think their ghosts inhabit the play with the ghost father of Prince Hamlet actually appearing to his son and others in the play. A story passed down over the years is that Shakespeare played the ghost in performances.

More plague outbreaks hit London and shut down Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. A 1603 outbreak killed over a fifth of Londoners and the plague returned again in 1610. During and after these outbreaks, he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.

I have seen some poems written in response to the 2020 pandemic but I think it won’t be until 2021 till we see novels or plays that address it in some way.  Perhaps, like Shakespeare, COVID will be just something referenced rather than the main plot. I do know that Garrison Keillor has a new comic novel, The Lake Wobegone Virus, about his fictional hometown. It’s not COVID-19 but a virus transmitted via a local unpasteurized cheese. It’s not killing people but causing “episodic loss of social inhibition, political rants, inappropriate confessions, and rhapsodic proclamations,” Too soon to be making light of the virus – or just what is needed?




Shakespeare’s Moons

Uranus moons
A proportionate image of Uranus’ large moons and one smaller moon: from left to right Puck, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon. Images via NASA’s Voyager 2

“Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The moons that orbit planets in our solar system other than our own mostly have names from ancient mythologies.  Uranus’ moons are unique in being named for Shakespearean characters and a few named for characters from the works of Alexander Pope.

“Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams; I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright.”  –  A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oberon and Titania, a King and Queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are logically the names of the largest Uranian moons. They were the first ones to be discovered by William Herschel in 1787.

The next two discovered were named Ariel and Umbriel. In 1948, Miranda was discovered.

It wasn’t an astronomer but the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited that found ten more moons orbiting in 1986. They were named Juliet, Puck, Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Desdemona, Portia, Rosalind, Cressida, and Belinda.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and powerful ground-based telescopes have increased the number of moons Uranian moons to 27! They are small (12-16 km or 8-10 miles across). They are black and, being 2.9 billion km (1.8 billion miles) away from the Sun, they are composed half of water ice and half of rock.

A lonely Miranda by John William Waterhouse, 1875

Miranda is from my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s plays – The Tempest. She is the only female character to appear on stage. She is the daughter of Prospero, a wizard banished to the island setting. Miranda was 3 years old when they arrived there and has only known her father and their servant Caliban for her 12 years there.

It is reasonable to consider that island setting as being influenced by explorations of the New World (North America). We believe that Shakespeare wrote the play in 1610-1611 and from 1607–1611 Henry Hudson explored Greenland and the river, strait and bay that now carry his name. Reports of the New World probably reached Shakespeare in the news along with tales of exotic plants, animals and people encountered or imagined. Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal.”

When Miranda first sees shipwrecked men arrive on the island, she says:
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Like discovering a new moon or planet, it is wondrous – but Prospero reminds her and us that ‘Tis new to thee,” but of course they were always there.

According to NASA, Miranda, the innermost and smallest of the five major satellites, is unique. It has giant fault canyons that are as much as 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Miranda moon
Uranus’ icy moon Miranda – Image from Voyager 2 NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The moon Ariel is named for a spirit in The Tempest. The name Ariel means Lion of God, but Shakespeare probably meant it was a play on the word “aerial” since this spirit is supposed to fly around the island. The moon itself is the brightest and possibly the youngest of the moons of Uranus.

And following Shakespeare’s characters, Oberon, Shakespeare’s King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is an older, heavily cratered moon.

Shakespeare’s writing and characters live on in many ways.