Shakespeare in popular culture

World Book and copyright day, as established by Unesco, is celebrated on April 23rd (except for the UK and Ireland, where it is celebrated on March 5th), in order to honour Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, among other authors who died on that day. In actual fact, even though they are thought to have died on the same day (23rd April 1616), apparently it is not exactly so, due to the use of different calendars in England and Spain at the time. In any case, both writers are relevant enough to be given the status they deserve.

Plenty of events are taking place in Spain this year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second part of Don Quixote. For English teachers, this April event is a good an excuse as any other to work on many aspects of English culture and literary heritage related to the figure of the Bard.


Shakespeare and the English language:

Shakespeare contributed some newly-coined terms and expressions to the English language, at a crucial moment in its history:

Other versions of the same (more colourful):

These quotes are also discussed in “Shakespeare and the History of English  ” (Open University):

(Subtitled in English:

Some of these expressions might be familiar to students. If that is not case, at least, they may find them funny:

and another from The Big Bang Theory:

  • Off with his head! (from Henry IV and Richard III) as referenced in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland:

(subtitled in

  • Fair play / foul play, as used in sports
  • Come What May: an original love song written for the film Moulin Rouge, featured in two climatic moments of the film

As an activity, students may guess, for example, what the expressions mean, in what contexts they might be used…To find examples of how they’re used in printed media, you may search for them in

Theatre in Elizabethan times:

Theatres tended to be built on the outskirts of cities, secluding the world of artists from the well-to-do. You might see on Google maps, for example, how both the Globe theatre and the Rose were set up in Bankside / South Bank of London, in a marginal area (at the time, not now!), separated from the City by the river.

  • Map of Shakespeare’s theatres (The Globe, The Rose):
Globe map

Click on the image to see the map

(subtitled in English:

N.B. I know it’s a blockbuster, filled with clichés and Hollywood stars to attract mass audiences, at the expense of being true to reality; and yet, it seems to me that it serves the purpose of illustrating Elizabethan theatre in a general way: the feel of the theatre, the fact that all parts (both male and female) were played by male actors who had to cross-dress in many occasions… It may also raise certain topics of discussion about the English language, for example: how American or Australian actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow or Geoffrey Rush got pitch-perfect British accents by employing voice coaches.

Shakespeare in contemporary popular culture

Many films are based (or loosely based) on Shakespeare’s plays:

Simba’s royal father is murdered by his evil uncle, who then takes his crown. Timon and Pumbaa can also be identified with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Teenpic: A new kid (=Lucentio / Cameron James) must find a guy (Petruchio /Patrick Verona) to date the meanest girl in school (Katherine / Kat), the older sister of the girl he has a crush on (Bianca), who cannot date until her older sister does (source: imdb)

Another teenpic

Romantic comedy, rescued from a certain oblivion in the 1990s by Kenneth Branagh’s film version, which read the original text in a more contemporary light, by tackling issues of gender relations, homoeroticism, and even race relations. Interestingly enough, D. Pedro of Aragon was played by Denzel Washington.

The central, more powerful role that women allegedly assume in Branagh’s version is best exemplified, as Celestino Deleyto argues, in the opening scene of the film, where Beatrice’s (Emma Thompson) voice-over can be heard reciting a poem that in Shakespeare’s text only appeared marginally in the middle of the play:

(I just love Emma Thompson’s pronunciation)

Shakespeare’s works are quoted or referenced in other popular culture products, such as:

  • Shakespeare quotes and allusions in pop songs
  • The Beatles– “I Am the Walrus”. John Lennon decided to include at the end of the song part of a BBC recording of King Lear, to be heard in the background of the fade-out for the song. If you listen from 3’50”, you might hear (faintly, I’ll admit) these lines from the play:

  • Shakespeare sketch (Hugh Laurie & Rowan Atkinson): sketch toying with the possibility that somebody else “edited” Shakespeare’s plays, namely Hamlet. Very good sketch for literacy / literature lessons: there is plenty of vocabulary about the theatre (soliloquy, the wings…), and it mentions the best-known parts of Shakespeare’s tragedy. High culture mixed with colloquial, contemporary English, and two of the funniest (maybe cleverest) writer-performers of our time (and their lovely accents, of course):
Click on the picture to watch video with subtitles in English

Click on the picture to watch video with subtitles in English

  • The Simpsons– season 13, ep. 14, “Tales of the Public Domain” (spoof of, among others, Hamlet):
Tales from the Public Domain

Click on the picture to watch the episode (subtitles in English)

(Hamlet’s spoof from 15’56”, some adult content)

  • The Simpsons– season 19, ep. 8 “Funeral for a Fiend” (Lisa outwits the Simpsons’ arch-enemy, Sideshow Bob, by showing her knowledge about Shakespeare, and Macbeth in particular)- from 8’45”.
Lisa Macbeth

Click on the picture to watch the episode (subtitles in English)

  • Reference to Othello in The Gilmore Girls (season 3, ep. 15, from 25′):
Click on the picture to watch the episode (subtitles in English)

click on the picture to watch the episode subtitled in English

Watch it subtitled in English:

  • Finally, a guilty pleasure: as a child, I remember loving Moonlighting‘s spoof of The Taming of the Shrew (only for die-hard fans of the show, probably) (especially, the scene at 26′ 58”)

(Updated 21.4.2019)

7 comments on “Shakespeare in popular culture

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Bus en Zaragoza- British Council | Competencia lingüística y comunicativa

  2. Pingback: Shakespeare & Cervantes | natalialzam

  3. Pingback: Cervantes & Shakespeare #400 | natalialzam

  4. Pingback: Cervantes y Shakespeare en el IES Élaios | natalialzam

  5. Pingback: Entertainment and the Arts- C1 | natalialzam

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