The character known as Shakespeare holds a mythical status. The one word term is immediately associated with a collection of highly esteemed dramatic works that pervade almost all world cultures. Most students learn that he is a writer above reproach, setting a high water mark for the usage of words in general. Shakespeare the Wordsmith is a superhero with the superhuman power to manipulate language and emotion. He shares the secrets of being human with everyone. Apparently, Shakespeare understands universal truths and embeds them in enigmatic plays. Audiences know Shakespeare as his plays. His public persona is the Bard, and he is his work.
Being dramatic mediums, film and television attempt to harness this public perception about the Bard. Primarily, filmmakers attempt to adapt Shakespeare's work with varying degrees of success. Others utilize Shakespeare as a credible character, borrowing his renown as an iconic figure. A few show the character differently. These filmmakers attempt to humanize the historical William Shakespeare by separating him from his persona. If the Bard is the superhero driven by audience sentiment, Billy Shakespeare is the mild-mannered secret identity. He is the meek alter ego of the dramatist dynamo.
These filmmakers place the character of William Shakespeare in humbling stories to make him more relatable and less inscrutable. Secret identity Shakespeare has familiar flaws and worries. He feels pain and conventional emotions alongside his dramatic abilities. Some films take this version of Shakespeare in a weakened state and rewrite his history. He is shown as a young man reaching beyond himself to achieve his future greatness. To a certain extreme, these films are superhero origin stories.
The Bard is a superhero of a writer, and certain films and television shows attempt to show the gentler man behind the quill (and tights and codpiece).
The campy 1960s Batman television series subtly hints at the superhero nature of Shakespeare. When Bruce Wayne receives an alert that crime is afoot, he rushes to his study with his youthful ward. He opens a bust of William Shakespeare on his desk and activates a hidden switch that reveals a pair of Batpoles leading to the Batcave. Wayne and his sidekick slide down these poles to transform into the crime fighters Batman and Robin. Shakespeare's visage is used as a distinct marker that distracts from a secret hidden in plain sight.
The bust illustrates centuries of accumulated notions about Shakespeare. The faux bronze statue depicts middle-aged Shakespeare: balding with a fancy mustache and beard combination. This appearance is what most people think of when picturing the Bard. His public image is a cultural artifact that flows from generation to generation. This self-propagating reverence elevates Shakespeare. A brief flash of Shakespeare while an ascot-wearing millionaire brushes past is enough to bring a flood of memories dealing with asides and exeunts. This association is the audience-driven shield. The bust physically contains secret knowledge.
In this fashion, Batman and Shakespeare are similar. Bruce Wayne purposefully creates the concept of the Batman -- a figure intended to capture the imaginations of criminals. Evildoers build up the importance of the caped man in tights. Similarly, Shakespeare as a persona is built up in importance by audiences. Also, he is commonly shown wearing a cape and tights. Wayne brings the duality of superheroes to his desk with the Shakespeare bust. He entrusts Shakespeare with being the gatekeeper between public consensus and private identity. Shakespeare's head does not even lock. Perhaps this role explains why "the world's greatest detective" has a playwright on his desk instead of a famous crime fighter (or perhaps the property department had a Shakespeare mold handy).
As Bruce Wayne morphs into his costumed form, he reveals the limits of Shakespeare's superhero persona by removing the notion from the truth. There is humanity behind the mask of unanimous reality.
While Batman hints at the underlying humanity behind the superhero Bard, other filmmakers take this introduction another step by physically lowering the status of Shakespeare. They deflate the conception of the Bard to equate him to his audience. To accomplish this task, they beat the character of Shakespeare mercilessly. In the fantasy realm of film, comical brutality against a historical figure is a way to make a character subservient to the audience. It is a release of compounded baggage associated with the history of the figure. Beyond this aspect, characters frequently offer themselves to be punched in the face as an apology or redress for wrongdoing. Being punched in the face (a common occurrence around Shakespeare in film) is an expedient way for a character to humble themselves. Physical violence lowers the status of Shakespeare and presents the humanity of the character behind the persona.
Shakespeare makes a brief but telling cameo in The Simpsons Halloween episode "Treehouse of Horror III." In the episode's third segment titled "Dial 'Z' for Zombie," Bart and Lisa Simpson use a magical tome from a school library in an attempt to resurrect deceased family cat Snowball I. The incantation goes wrong and all of the dead in the town of Springfield begin to rise from the grave. The Simpson family fight their way through hordes of zombies to reach Springfield Elementary where a counter-spell can be found. In the halls of the school, Simpson patriarch Homer leads the way with a double-barrel shotgun. For no particular reason, Zombie George Washington and Zombie Albert Einstein peacefully wander the halls. Homer angrily shoots the two historical figures. For even less of a reason, Zombie Shakespeare emerges from a locker. Homer immediately assaults Zombie Shakespeare by beating him to death with the depleted shotgun, quipping, "Shows over, Shakespeare." Zombie Shakespeare groans, "Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?" He then dies for a second time.
The DVD commentary for the episode reveals the purpose of re-killing the first United States President, a famed physicist, and the Bard. Killing the greatest in a particular field is a release. In actuality, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Wally Wolodarsky, Jay Kogen, and Jon Vitti agree that the scene is just inherently funny -- from the random placing of historical zombies to the glee that Homer derives from destroying them. If one cannot defeat a mythical icon in their respective field, one can defeat them through pummeling.
The status of Shakespeare is lowered to a point below Homer Simpson, town oaf. By vanquishing a foe, one makes them subservient. Through association, the audience is better than Homer, Homer is better than Shakespeare, and therefore the audience is better than Shakespeare. Unintentionally, the makers of the episode introduce humanity to Shakespeare by borrowing and then obliterating any semblance of Shakespeare's cultural significance. Shakespeare the writer is transformed into fodder for destruction, showing his human/zombie frailty.
At least Zombie Shakespeare dies the way he lived: questioning life and being bludgeoned.
The 1999 television special Blackadder Back and Forth is much more blunt in explaining the violence against Shakespeare. In the special, Lord Edmund Blackadder attempts to trick his friends into believing he has a functioning time machine. His friends request proof, including an autograph from one William Shakespeare. Blackadder steps into his time machine with his servant Baldric. Unknown to either of them, the time machine works, and they travel back in time. The two travel through historical epochs and coincidentally land in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. After negotiating his way out of a beheading, Blackadder wanders the halls of the royal palace. He bumps into a young playwright carrying pages for a new show called Macbeth. Blackadder helps up Shakespeare (played by Colin Firth).
Upon recognizing Shakespeare, Blackadder does two things. First, Blackadder hands Shakespeare a ballpoint pen and asks for a signature. He states that he is a big fan. Second, after receiving the autograph, Blackadder decks Shakespeare. Blackadder gives a lengthy explanation that the punch is from generations of frustrated school children who have to analyze Shakespeare's works for standardized interpretations. He also dislikes that countless youths that have to wear tights and spout phrases such as, "What ho." Shakespeare is confused, and Blackadder kicks him in the shin. Blackadder explains that this injury is in revenge for Kenneth Branagh's "unedited, four hour version of Hamlet." Shakespeare asks who Branagh is, and Blackadder says that Branagh would be hurt to learn that his genius does not travel backward in time. Blackadder leaves Shakespeare to rethink his purpose in life.
Blackadder returns to modern day and discovers that Britain is different (under French Imperial rule) due to his actions. Shakespeare never becomes a famous playwright and instead invents the ballpoint pen. Blackadder and Baldric travel back in time to right the wrongs they have committed throughout time. His second autograph meeting with Shakespeare is much more amicable. He says that King Lear is very funny before rolling his eyes at the smug playwright. Shakespeare then goes back to being a poetic genius.
Blackadders' sucker punch of William Shakespeare again demonstrates the duality of public persona and private identity among mythical icons. Blackadder gives an adequate explanation as to why he floors the Bard. He states his reasons as being the accrued baggage of centuries piling on the public persona. The image of the Bard is a solidified point in culture. A basic agreement about Shakespeare comes from generations interpreting his plays. The Bard is his work, and a consensus forces new generations to be issued an interpretation as fact. At first, Blackadder cannot see past the "suffering" that Shakespeare causes in the educational process. His views are shaped by personal experience in dealing with the superhero exterior of Shakespeare.
After punching Shakespeare has deleterious effects, Blackadder learns a valuable lesson about William Shakespeare as a person. Blackadder discovers the distinction between the despised superhero of the Bard and the individual known as Shakespeare. He knows that the idolized Bard is a separate but selfsame unit surrounding a historical person. This person has emotions that are damaged and turn him away from his destiny. Blackadder recognizes the value in the works of Shakespeare but also the humanity of the person who produced them. He finds the duality of Shakespeare through physical contact.
Filmmakers sometimes, but rarely, give a Shakespeare character agency in diminishing his own largess. The 1963 Twilight Zone episode aptly titled "The Bard" enables Shakespeare to confront what has become of his work. In the episode written by Rod Serling, an aspiring television writer named Julius K. Moomer utilizes a magical tome to conjure William Shakespeare. Shakespeare walks around quoting his work and then listing act and scene numbers (as if he is daring people to "look it up"). Moomer makes Shakespeare write a brilliant teleplay that he attempts to claim as his own work. The teleplay is submitted to a network, and Shakespeare begins to become more and more aggravated as Moomer presses him for more work. Shakespeare does some investigating and learns how his writing is being abused. Aside from not receiving credit, various stakeholders in the television production process alter his work. Executives, sponsors, relatives, and the network's brash, young star Rocky Rhodes (played by a brash, young Burt Reynolds) all have their input. Shakespeare is so disturbed that he unleashes his fury on Rhodes. In a turn, he punches Rhodes in the face.
In writing the episode, Rod Serling has a not-so-veiled point, but Shakespeare diverges slightly from Serling. As an episode of television, "The Bard" is a creative individual complaining about loss of appreciation and control during the process of packaging an idea for consumption. On the surface, Serling is upset that interests beyond his control spoil his work. Also, he is directly stating that his writing is of Shakespearean caliber -- in the most demure way possible. The character Shakespeare is an analogue for Serling but is not quite as upset about a masterwork being defamed. Shakespeare is upset that his work is being translated. As art, Shakespeare's work is being presented for interpretation. Like Blackadder, Shakespeare's objection is that people hold a single interpretation and compel others to follow. Television stakeholders are interfering with Shakespeare having a conversation with his audience.
The addition of television intermediaries in Shakespeare's work causes a greater disconnect between the superhero Bard and the meek (though fist furious) William Shakespeare. The appropriation of historical figures for individual goals is the focus of the episode. Taking the weight of an icon's work elevates the perception while confusing the humanity of the individual. The Bard as a superhero writer comes to save the aspiring writer but does not like how is he used. Historical figures do not typically get to defend their humanity in person, but Shakespeare does in the Twilight Zone. For another time, Shakespeare comes back from the dead (but is not beaten to death by a shotgun).
In the Twilight Zone, Shakespeare reclaims his dignity from those who wish to usurp it. Some filmmakers take the emboldening of Shakespeare back to the beginning. They strip him of his magical writing abilities and portray him as a young writer, starting his career. Shakespeare then has to claim the mantle of The Bard by gaining his abilities for first time. Some filmmakers give Shakespeare a superhero origin story: a metamorphosis from meek scrivener to world changer.
In the third series of the Doctor Who reboot, the Doctor visits Shakespeare in an episode titled "The Shakespeare Code." The Doctor acts as the impetus that propels Shakespeare to greatness, and Shakespeare actually does receive super powers. Shakespeare saves the world in a literal sense.
The episode begins with the Doctor and his companion Martha traveling to 1599 London. They are intrigued by the announcement of a sequel to Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost called Love's Labour's Won. They call on Shakespeare to see what they can learn about this lost play. Shakespeare is not as expected. He is arrogant, somewhat drunk, and a womanizer. Martha is confused by the meeting of one of her heroes. The brashness of Shakespeare hides an insecurity that Shakespeare has about the lasting effect of his work. Elsewhere, a trio of witch-like aliens are murdering people who are attempting to prevent Shakespeare from presenting Love's Labour's Won.
The Doctor investigates and uncovers the witches as Carrionites, a species that uses technology that encode words into tangible results. To the people of 16th Century London, they are magical witches. Their designs are to open a portal to another dimension and cause the scourging of Earth. They influence the building of the Globe Theatre to have fourteen sides and have inspired the ending of Shakespeare's latest play. The Globe funnels words as mathematical equations that bend Space-Time.
Love's Labour's Won is performed, and the final lines open the portal. The Doctor calls upon Shakespeare to use his superhuman manipulation of words to craft phrases that will close the portal before doom pours out of it. With some prompting, Shakespeare uses his power to rescue everyone in the Globe and defeat the witches. The pages of Love's Labour's Won are lost in the closing vortex. The Doctor warns that Shakespeare's words are powerful indeed. In the aftermath, Shakespeare speaks of his upcoming dramatic works: stories of family and his lost son Hamnet ("Yes, Hamnet. What of it?"). The mentions lead to his immortal work as the Bard.
Shakespeare is taken from a position of doubt and uncertainty to a position of confidence. A mentor engages him and teaches him that his inherent power merely needs to be channeled for good. A catalyst forces him to use his powers, whether he is ready or not. Shakespeare controls his powers and in the process creates a legend. He is a superhero of wordsmith-ery. Gareth Roberts, the writer of the episode, maintains the human side of Shakespeare while showing his ascension. There are hints about where Shakespeare's writing may lead and what will happen when he loses ownership of his image.
The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love also rewrites history (as well as becoming the first romantic comedy to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1934's It Happened One Night). Shakespeare as a character is rolled back to his beginning. He becomes a superhero but with slightly less striking powers. The film turns his weaknesses and losses into constructive experiences that have direct correlation with his later plays. William Shakespeare starts out as aimless, lazy, and indebted to Philip Henslowe. He tries to succeed in the Entertainment District of 1593 London with goofy comedies about pirates. Shakespeare has several dramatic ideas, but his plays are altered by censors, sponsors, and himself. He is unsure of his abilities as a writer and the truth of what he writes. His attitude changes when he falls in love with Viola de Lesseps, a woman betrothed to a lord. The tragedy unfolding in Shakespeare's life becomes the basis of his new play: Romeo and Ethel, later Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare needs to find his powers as a superhero. Every time he starts to gain traction in his life, a new roadblock impedes his progress. He is slapped, punched, and beaten down by almost everyone in the film, including prostitutes, money lenders, and children. Shakespeare and being punched in the face are harmonic themes (consequently, Joseph Fiennes' Shakespeare punches Colin Firth's Lord Wessex in the face -- Colin Firth gets punched in the face whenever he plays a character in Elizabethan times). Shakespeare realizes that he can spin his pain into power and enters into a wager with Queen Elizabeth as the judge. The Queen wonders if a dramatic work can unveil and portray true love on stage. She challenges Shakespeare to prove his worth. In the end, Shakespeare does. His powers manifest as life and art intermingle, his love for Viola driving his passionate performance. Queen Elizabeth is impressed and declares Shakespeare the winner of the wager.
Queen Elizabeth acts as the aloof mentor that ushers Shakespeare into his prime as a writing superhero. She forces Shakespeare to achieve the impossible using his abilities. The Queen demands that he find the heart of humanity. Only a superhero with the heart of humanity can become the best writer of all time. Queen Elizabeth, who in the context of the film is infallible, patronizes Shakespeare and declares him the discoverer of true, Elizabethan Love (with a capital L). The Queen hands over the non-privileged title of The Bard: defender of the beauty of mankind.
Shakespeare's superpower is his unique ability to be human and write about the experience. Along the way, Shakespeare the man is lost under an amalgam of interpretation and appropriation surrounding his work. His work becomes the written record of his life and accomplishments. The superhero persona of "greatest writer" engulfs Shakespeare. He becomes a character composed of trivia and quoted line numbers. Some filmmakers attempt to leverage the core of humanity inside the superhero. They attempt to rediscover the truth about a man lost to legend. These filmmakers have vastly different ways to humble the Bard. The utilize him as a character and apply pressure. The character is a representation about the truth of Shakespeare's work. His plays are emotional reports of what it means to feel. The distinction between Shakespeare and his works underscore the importance of a meek, human writer and his super alter ego in exploring the peaks of the human spirit.