I recently stumbled onto an online discussion about animated films, where somebody referred to The Lion King as having been inspired by Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet. That was news to me, and it made me think about other films that I had belatedly learned were inspired by Shakespeare plays, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) or My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV and Henry V).
This in turn got me thinking about how little I actually knew about Shakespeare. True confession: until about four months ago, my Shakespearian awareness was largely limited to a 1966 episode from season 3 of Gilligan’s Island, where the castaways perform a musical adaptation of Hamlet for a famous movie producer currently stranded on their island (hey, it could happen). Behold, in all its glory:
Boning up on the Bard
While I’ll admit that episode is fondly etched into my cultural DNA (yes, I’m deep), I realized I needed something more. After all, now that I am supposed to be a Serious Writer (said with the appropriately furrowed brow, and the sincere intent to someday purchase a tweed blazer with leather elbow patches), this scarcity of SSC (Shakespearian Street Cred) seemed inexcusable. So I took advantage of some recent time off from the DDG (dreaded day gig) to remedy this gap in my cultural literacy, and went off to my local library to load up on books and DVDs. I tend to be a total-immersion kind of guy when I develop a new interest, so the next several weeks were all Shakespeare, all the time. The results were illuminating. First, there was the fundamental question:
Just how big a deal is this guy?
Pretty darn big, as I was soon to learn. As literary critic and expert on all things Shakespearian Harold Bloom observes in the forward of Susannah Carson‘s book, Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, Shakespeare is “the most widely read author in English; his Complete Works are second in popularity only to the Bible.” (Take that, James Patterson! Suck it, Clive Cussler! But I digress…)
Okay, so the guy’s a best-seller. But Shakespeare’s impact is broader and more profound than the sheer size of his readership, as Bloom elaborates:
We live in Shakespeare’s world, which is to say that we live in a literary, theatrical, cultural, and even psychological world fine-tuned for us by Shakespeare. Had he never lived, we would have bumbled along well enough, but he did live, and he did write, and those works were printed, and read, and performed, and passed on, and read some more, and performed some more, and emulated, and assimilated, and quoted, and so on. So that now, four hundred years later, we continue to read and perform and emulate his work so thoroughly and passionately that it’s difficult to conceive who we would be – as a culture, as ourselves – had Shakespeare never existed.”
Those are some powerful claims, and worthy of further examination. [Read more…]