Pretty Little Shakespeare

Before this year I watched very little TV, I still watch a limited amount but living with my fellow MA student and TV/Film-lover I’ve at least become a little more acquainted with the odd show here and there. By the end of the year she’s determined to improve my knowledge of popular culture. It’s an education of sorts. That said I must be possibly the most irritating of people to share a couch with sometimes because either I’m paranoid or Shakespeare really is everywhere. A few weeks ago was a classic example of this.

Seeking a break, my roommate stuck on Pretty Little Liars, the penultimate episode of the season to be exact. For those who don’t know this show it’s loosely based on Shepherd’s series of books with the same name. And this promotional picture should give you some idea as to the target audience and the genre of the show itself.

The Four Leading Ladies

It tells the story of four teenage girls Aria, Hanna, Emily and Spencer who are on the look out after the fifth member of their gang disappears, and after receiving strange messages from a certain “A” the plot thickens and the high-school mystery takes off.

Here’s someone who can explain it a bit better, my roommate who’s contributed to a couple of my posts before.

“Pretty Little Liars is a show that combines mystery, teen angst and the odd murder here and there. The show revolves around the disappearance of one Alison Dilaurentis – a teen queen bee – who is still mourned by her four close friends Hanna Marin, Spencer Hastings, Emily Fields, and Aria Montgomery. Set a year after her disappearance, the four girls reunite after going their separate ways to discover they are now being haunted in a different way. Threatening texts, odd messages, and secrets are uncovered by someone named ‘A’. So the mystery begins is Alison alive or dead?”

– H. Pradabane

Admittedly I’ve only seen a few episodes here or there, and I wasn’t – strictly speaking – watching this one, it functioned more as a backing track to my reading more than anything else, that is until I heard one of the girls utter the line “this isle is full of noises”. You see what I mean, slowly but surely I’m becoming that kind of person. Unashamedly so I hasten to add, but leaving my inner geek to the side for the moment, I was intrigued to know why The Tempest (currently hot-stuff if you want to stick a bit of Shakespeare in your show it seems.. Remember the Olympics? Or even a fleeting mention in Dr Who “The Tempest and its unfinishedness..”) and why this line in particular was used. Sure, filling the leads with high-school students means Shakespeare is a natural guy to pop up now and again.

It also got me thinking, I wonder how many references there are to literature in the shows season history already? Dr Who for instance is full of them, and TV can be educational. No, I don’t just mean documentaries and University Challenge. Even the least serious sitcoms of all. I mean Friends is probably the reason most people remember Sputnik, you get the picture (and if you haven’t seen the Friends episode in question – The One With the Halloween Party – its well work a 20 minute break at some point), or indeed even what a Palaeontologist is (here’s a clue they’re [T-r]excellent).

“You know that Russian satellite Sputnik? Well I’m a potato which is a spud and I have my antennas. Sputnik? SPUD-nik”

When it comes to Pretty Little Liars its fan base has done some delving and summarising of literary references throughout the seasons. This link is helpful with a big list of references to books in episodes. Now according to this list there are three references to Shakespeare and counting. There’s Hamlet in season one ‘The New Normal’ with the “To sleep, perchance to dream” line engraved on the tombstone – it has always seemed to me that with its dreamy and transitory nature this line could also easily have occurred in The Tempest in Prospero’s “rounded with a sleep” speech. I don’t even think it’s any less positive or negative in either case, but Hamlet and Tempest dream references aside, let’s get back to the show in question and, I spy something wicked. That’s right, Macbeth in ‘I’m Your Puppet’ it’s brief and minimal but it’s still Shakespeare, Ella rubs off the board in her class text which read ‘From Macbeth’ and the quotation, “By the pricking of my thumb something wicked this way comes”. Again, like the Hamlet quote about being between life and death, this Macbeth reference also ties in with the concepts of the show, the ever invasive presence of evil, mystery and focusing on the unknown around the corner. The invisible monster under the bed, or rather the tombstone, if you will.

But, as the literary reference treasure trove site (though not necessarily a conclusive list of references) notes “most of the books alluded to in Pretty Little Liars are American classics” hardly surprising it is an American show after all. But even a couple seems impressive, sure Fitzgerald and Steinbeck have a more palpable presence but that in part may be as a result of their role in the curriculum given the show’s high school setting. This article looks at the literary and film references in the series. But it’s also interesting that the article notes the demographic of viewers who enjoy classic literature as well as its teenage girl fan following. This post even suggests that literature might be able to help you solve the mystery.. Well you never know, maybe Shakespeare was Sherlock before his time?

Being not a huge fan of the show myself I cannot claim to have mentioned all the moment when Shakespeare has shown his happy face but it’s to The Tempest instance, which I did see, which I wish to return to. The Tempest has appeared in the series before. Ezra is teaching it on the same day a character called Shana pulls a copy of it out of her locker. Ezra, a key teacher in the series, also says this of the play. The parallels with the show are uncanny, though of course its deliberate.

“Beyond having a sorcerer as the protagonist the tempest considers the magical quality of love at first sight. The love between Miranda and Ferdinand is a force of nature, a love that reunites torn countries and sets captive spirits free.”

Particularly the way love is illustrated in this analysis but also the mention of captive spirits, which refers as much to the people in Ravenswood as Ariel from Shakespeare’s play. So the play in this instance is appropriated to show the parallels with reality. There was even an episode entitled ‘Grave New World’ back in 2013, an ironic playing on the joyful words of Miranda in The Tempest.

And now to return to that errant quotation: “this isle is full of noises” maybe we can broaden it as indicative not simply of Shakespeare and the parallels of the plays with the show, but also of the myriad of literary references to be found in this show. Hardly surprising when we learn that many of the writers were students of English.

I realise this post has barely considered the meaning of these lines in the episode or the Shakespeare references in the series as a whole. Nor is it a comprehensive list of literary references by any means, there are plenty of those about. Take this one for instance.

Shakespeare hits Pretty Little Liars in Season 4 (with a quote from the Rape of Lucrece)

But I think even the mere mention of Shakespeare outside of academic spheres can sometimes be cause for light relief. For why, after all should a popular primetime show not reference Shakespeare. Since it is in the nature of fans of the show to delve deeper and discover the mysteries, planting references to works of all kinds can both aid and hamper such searches. The Tempest captures accurately many of the key plot strands of the show, but so no doubt to many of the other texts the show references, particularly Gatsby and these links are not made simply to add kudos to the show but because they’re engrained in our consciousness. You hear “to be or not to be”, you think Hamlet. And TV shows latch onto this all the time. Perhaps what makes Pretty Little Liars different is it provides not only a name check of a literary work or two but the writers seem to handpick specific works of literature which tie in with the themes and dynamics they wish to bring out in the show, The Tempest is one such handpicked work.

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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 Pretty Little Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: “All you have to do is call my name..” – The Importance of Literature | Shakin' Spearians

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