Forgive the hyperbole, gentle reader. The stories upon which William Shakespeare based the plays that have so inspired these TV shows are older than he is, and as there’s still some debate as to whether one man actually wrote all of those plays anyway, it’s perhaps a little ripe to suggest he’s the fountainhead from which all drama springs.
And yet… it’s Shakespeare’s dramatizations that linger largest and longest in the imagination. The plays are the thing. And frankly his is the standard all drama has to reach, so let’s be generous and give the Bard his due for having a direct influence on a medium even his overheated imagination would have had trouble coming up with in the 17th century.
Jax in Sons of Anarchy – Hamlet
This one isn’t even a particularly hidden or metaphorical comparison. When Kurt Sutter was creating the story of this biker gang in Charming, California, he wove aspects of Shakespeare’s most introspective hero into his own leading man, Jax. So there’s a father that used to run the biker gang, whose hopes and aspirations for the gang are being eroded and whose death was seemingly caused by his wife and her lover. Jax has to choose how to honor his father’s memory in the face of extreme provocation. And if that seems too slight an association, there are all the episode titles taken from Hamlet quotes, like “Burnt and Purged Away,” “‘To Be’ (Parts I and II),” “To Thine Own Self,” and “What a Piece of Work is Man.”
See also: The Lion King, which is a furry Hamlet with songs.
Lucious Lyon in Empire – King Lear
Lucious is the former drug-dealing head of a hip hop entertainment business, but has to retire when his health begins to fail after being diagnosed with ALS. He has three sons, each with their own unique set of problems, and he must grapple with the consequences of decisions he made while ruler, now that his crown is starting to slip. It’s half Lear (the mental capacity and frailty half, with a side order of bickering siblings, as son Jamal asks, “Is this King Lear now?” during an early episode) and half The Lion In Winter (the three sons, the arguments with his ex-wife, the name Lyon and the everything else).
Maddie Hayes and David Addison in Moonlighting – The Taming of the Shrew
It has become increasingly hard, over the last 400 years or so, to work out exactly what the gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew are. Yes, there’s an outspoken woman who appears to acquiesce to the will of the man she (finally) falls in love with, but there are plenty of modern interpretations that portray the relationship as being a freeing one for Kate. She finds a man who can match her strength and wit, and this enables her to break away from a life of obedience and forge an alliance that suits both parties. However, TV comedies like Cheers, The Mindy Project and Gilmore Girls just enjoy throwing two sparky characters together and having them fight like cat and dog until eventually there’s a snog.
Moonlighting outdid them all by including the sparky bickering couple, and then acknowledged the debt by reenacting The Taming of the Shrew in the middle of an episode called “Atomic Shakespeare.”
Claire Underwood in House of Cards – Macbeth
The Venn diagram showing the personal qualities shared between Claire and Lady Macbeth would look like someone had made a very short, but tidy, stack of circles. They are both manipulative, ruthless, ambitious, keen to get their respective husbands to do their dirty work, scheming, childless, non-nurturing and capable of turning any situation to their advantage. Frank Underwood is perhaps slightly more robust than Macbeth himself, of course, having drawn malevolent strength from the full range of Shakespeare’s villains, but that doesn’t prevent Claire from being the power behind his throne.
Dr. Gregory House in House – Richard III
House sits on the boundary of a couple of key theatrical tropes. There’s the idea that brilliant people are tortured in some way to level them up with the rest of humanity. Plus, there’s the idea that people with disabilities have a very bitter edge to their humor, which has the effect of making their particular situation more comfortable for an audience to handle. Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex villains (although still very much a bad sort), carries the latter with him like a badge of honor. He might be rotten, but he claims it’s because people have always been frightened of the way he looks. House is much the same, rejecting everyone before they get a chance to reject him, except he is not a bad sort, not really.
Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development – Twelfth Night
The idea of a man or woman dressing as a woman or man in order to achieve something that they could not achieve in their born gender is a storytelling device that far precedes Shakespeare. That said, there is a LOT of that kind of thing in his comedies, given extra comic emphasis by the fact that all of the actors on Shakespeare’s stage will have been men. So there’s an element of Shakespearian farce in everything from Mrs. Doubtfire to Tootsie.
Arrested Development took the dramatic conceit a stage further, by having drippy Tobias Fünke dressing as a female nanny—Mrs. Featherbottom—so he could spend some quality time with his daughter. Except his disguise isn’t good enough to fool anyone, so the plot revolves around trying to play along with Tobias without upsetting him.
The Master in Doctor Who – Othello
This could apply equally to Moriarty in Sherlock, but wherever there’s a yin/yang relationship between a rotter who feels the world is against him and a good man who is quite easily misled, we’re in Othello territory. The Master, particularly the John Simm iteration of that character, is a perfect Iago. He’s been mucked about by the Time Lords and blames the Doctor, making his life a misery often just because he (and sometimes she) can. Whereas Sherlock‘s Moriarty has less of the need to explain his motives but all of the hellfire rage, buried beneath cool manipulation.
The Warring Houses in Game of Thrones – Henry VI Parts 1-3, Richard III
It’s no secret that George R.R. Martin based certain characters within Game of Thrones on the Wars of the Roses, with the Starks being the northern house of York and the Lannisters being the southern house of Lancaster. Granted, these were historical events, but it’s Shakespeare’s dramatization of the conflicts between the two houses that tends to drive the imagination. All George had to do in some cases was add dragons and sex.
Robb Stark is based on Edward IV, Theon Greyjoy on his brother George Plantagenet and Stannis Baratheon is their other brother Richard III. Cersei Lannister has similar problems to Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, in that they don’t get on with their husband’s most loyal servant. In Game of Thrones that’s Ned Stark; in Henry IV, it’s Richard, Duke of York. Meanwhile, in exile and awaiting a chance to invade and take over, Daenerys Targaryen and Henry Tudor (the soon-to-be Henry VII) have quite a lot on common.
Bugs Bunny – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The word puckish was coined after the British mythological fairy Puck, a mischievous but not malevolent creature who enjoyed mixing things up, taking great glee in the creation of chaos, but generally balking at anything too painful or upsetting. Sound familiar? Puck is Oberon’s servant in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, interrupting a quartet of lovestruck young things and confusing them as to who they have feelings for with magic.
Granted, he never dressed up as a girl bunny and caused cartoon hearts to come flying out of Elmer Fudd’s eyes, but he may as well have.
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