Pop-up Shakespeare

Shakespeare appropriations are all over the place, turn on the TV and you’ll see the Tempest in IKEA’s latest commercial, or you might even come across him in the bathroom if you’re really lucky..

I must admit a health poster praising Macbeth seems an unusual use of Shakespeare..

Shakespeare it seems, sells. Perhaps it was this that led Disney to claim that The Lion King released in 1994 was influenced by Hamlet. Maybe Disney sat scratching their heads wondering how they could diversify their audience to include that tough crowd – academics – and this was the solution. Something tells me Elton John didn’t get the memo, or perhaps Hakuna Matata is a missing chorus from the bad quarto..

As my friend Yasmin pointed out, Oscars had a big role in this whole name checking business, “The Lion King producers were chasing an Oscar. Studios campaign aggressively and anything that can give them an edge will be used. And what better than Shakespeare to add to some gravitas to your cartoon right?” She has a point. Shakespeare like nothing else gives them an edge and they were probably still bitter about their unsuccessful nomination with Beauty and the Beast a couple of years before.

Shakespeare is renowned for getting quoted left right and centre. Hamlet or otherwise. But this can be dangerous, as Chesterton pointed out, “perhaps nothing has done so much to weaken the greatest of English achievements, and to leave it open to facile revolt or fatigued reaction, than the abominable habit of quoting Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare” and the worst crime of all came, of course, “from what are called Familiar Quotations, which were hardly even representative or self-explanatory quotations. In almost all the well-known passages from Shakespeare, to quote the passage is to miss the point”. This of course was captured dramatically in the Shakespeare lines which opened the Olympics back in 2012. These lines from The Tempest:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again

Taken out of context can be somehow moulded to mean whatever the organisers wanted! Namely in this case to glorify the British Isles in true patriotic style – well any show which sees the Queen parachuting in to greet their subjects has got to be pushing the truth a little bit.. And no less it seems with Shakespeare.

Let’s raise our hats, with Branagh, to Shakespeare!

To many these lines signify all too clearly the “glory” of the British empire, but we aren’t really still I the Victorian age.. When colonialism might still have been cool, though no doubt they would have given it a rather different colloquial complement. And with our post-colonial eyes the Prospero whose isle is full of magic is also a darker and much more manipulative figure than the apparently doddery Branagh Prospero of 2012 might have the world believe (and I hasten to add, with appropriately horrified tones, Branagh isn’t even English – so much for a ceremonies on the glory of England). Nevertheless to give the ceremony a stamp of approval Shakespeare was selected as a hallmark. English sure, but so much more than this. Yes he’s the bloke of the Nations, but so is Dickens. Why did the stage not greet us with parades of Oliver Twist. Or what about Rowling she surely has had a stonking impact as a British writer in the last few years, why not open with Hogwarts? Presumably for the very same reason that the Lion King  producers cited not Dickens, or even Twain, but Shakespeare.

Shakespeare as I said before sells. And why shouldn’t the movie industry cash in on this? And I’m not just talking wheeling out Shakespeare productions when ideas have dried up or even a re-run of Garrick-esque stage-manager affairs as we’ve lately seen with Olivier and Branagh. But the recent trends whilst not steering completely away from Shakespeare reruns have swayed much more in the direction of Shakespeare and others, that is appropriation, and whilst I’m not convinced that The Lion King is the best example of this, it shows how eager people are to allude to Shakespeare even if he’s not the main event. Sure Simba and Hamlet are very different – one’s an animated lion for a start (to state, in the words of John Cleese, the bleeding obvious) – but they’ve also got some similar attributes. But just because there’s an Uncle-Nephew dynamic does not automatically mean Lion King = Hamlet. And that’s not what the producers are saying either. Its easy to draw connections but beware! If you look hard enough you can find them everywhere..


This clip of a Lion KingHenry V mashup is a perfect illustration

The overlay of Shakespeare on a Disney film seems somehow even more ridiculous and stark when bad dubbing and unusual images are linked. But it does make you think. Sure The Lion King is about as close to Henry V as Harry Potter (rebel son converts to rightful king ready to lead an army in the name of his father and the nation he is proud to be a part of.. Sound familiar? Oh come on, they’ve even got the same name!). But the Shakespeare sounds of Disney (if you’ve got your Bar-d specs on) make one thing clear: echoes of Shakespeare resound in pop culture just as much, if not more so, than in the halls of academia. He pops up everywhere.

Rejoice! Ring the bells! Oh come on, cheer up! I know traditionalists are all about sacred Shakespeare and thou shalt not tamper with the quarto on pain of death stuff, but I hate to burst your bubble, nothing could be further from Shakespeare. Reading any one of his plays will teach you that, not only did he steal from others left right and centre but he also tampered with others too, well collaborated – it’s all one and the same to me – either way he got involved, procuring and producing the plays which we have today. Plays were a very fluid thing and so to see Shakespeare cropping up in Disney should surprise no more than if suddenly we discovered Shakespeare had had a hand in Dr Faustus. It should add to rather than detract from Shakespeare studies, surely.

Now I picked Disney as an example because it is often ridiculed as a Hamlet-only-for-the-Shakespeare-hallmark kind of work, but want about Forbidden Planet. Something clearly more Shakespearian though the directors in complete contrast to those over at Disney deny, seemingly with signs of horror, any association at all with Shakespeare.

Intrigued I checked it out on a wild Friday night in, armed with a copy of The Tempest, to see what all the fuss was about. Now whilst with Lion King some thinking is required before the Hamlet connection is made, probably in part because most of us are very young when we first watch it and unless we’re Renaissance-child-geniuses probably don’t have Shakespeare on the mind. Watching as a Shakespeare scholar is, of course, an entirely different experience.  But with Forbidden Planet not only are we older but also The Tempest elements, like the philosophical and psychological strands are immediately clear. I mean really, pitching that plot in Hollywood must have gone down well.. A bloke stranded on a planet with his daughter, a robot slave and a huge load of machinery expanding his knowledge. The committee must’ve been scratching their heads concerned they’d heard the plot line before. But putting the directorial denial to one side the appearance of Shakespeare in Sci-Fi is exciting, I bet there’s bits in Star Wars too.. And I’m not just talking about the latest Shakespeare Star Wars books.

As a quick aside, The Klingon Hamlet written by Wil’yam Sheq’spir and inspired by Star Trek VI where Spock identifies a passage from Hamlet when the phrase “undiscovered country” is used. TaH pagh taHbe (to be or not to be) perhaps the most over quoted line in all of Shakespeare also appears in a film which is littered with Shakespeare quotations. The book exists of course because, “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” But the very fact that Star Trek is referencing Hamlet and the book appeared soon after shows how much of an impact even if its just appropriation Shakespeare still has today.

Whether The Lion King is Hamlet is of course certain, a resounding no. But if the producers are consciously name-checking Shakespeare then that tells us something in itself. For whatever reason even if it’s only to sell movies, the Lion King is, in part, indebted to Hamlet. It is not simply Hamlet in animated disguise as the headline of this article might have you suppose.

So yes, sometimes Shakespeare crops up in places we least expect, often he’s used to sell, but whatever the reason don’t give him too much credit, he was at all this plot stealing himself! Which is the very reason that if we want to continue his legacy today, so should we be. Shakespeare didn’t create all the plots, but it’s a bit like Disney with fairy tales. They didn’t create them (well not all of them) but they did popularise them.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Pop-up Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Pop-up Shakespeare | The Shakespeare Standard

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