Epic TV Shows with Shakespearean Themes

Because everything relates back to the Bard ...



With the recent announcement of Shonda Rhimes’ latest project, Still Star-Crossed, a ‘sequel’ of sorts to Romeo and Juliet, it got us thinking: What other television series are based on Shakespeare’s influential plays? Turns out, a lot! From using similar characters and plot themes to directly referencing Shakespearean elements, much of our entertainment culture has been shaped by the Bard’s classics.



King Lear and Bloodline

King Lear and Bloodlines
Photo: Kyle Chandler in Bloodlines. Courtesy of Netflix.

King Lear’s eponymous patriarch is a fickle, capricious old man with a pretty bad temper. On the eve of his retirement, he demands that his three daughters tell him how much they love him, and conditions their inheritance on how effusively they can fawn. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play his weird flattery game, he disinherits her. This sets into motion a tumultuous backlash among his children, their spouses, the peerages, and the whole of England.

So, too, is the plot of Netflix’s Bloodline, albeit set in sunny, modern-day Florida and without causing a literal war. Nonetheless, Bloodline’s Rayburn clan are Florida Keys royalty in their own right, an old and sprawling family full of shifting allegiances and bitter secrets. When Papa Rayburn’s dying act is to disinherit one of his children, the benefitted siblings can’t reconcile their awkward good fortune, and it tears their family apart. Like Lear’s offspring, they alternately pander to and dismiss their father’s wishes. And like the cast of Lear, by the end, there’s blood on their hands.

All episodes of Bloodline, seasons 1 and 2, are currently streaming on Netflix.

Download King Lear on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iTunes.


The Tempest and Lost

The Tempest and Lost
Photo: Evangeline Lilly and Matthew Fox in Lost. Courtesy of ABC.

Two groups of survivors—each thinking they’re the only ones to weather a terrible wreck—find themselves stranded on a mysterious island. They meet a brilliant, mysterious man who exerts a suspicious control over the island and its newest inhabitants. So much so that they begin to wonder if he might even be the reason they washed ashore in the first place?

Is this Lost, the ABC drama that hooked viewers for the better part of a decade? Or is this Shakespeare’s last play, the whimsical and magical The Tempest? Prior to the beginning of The Tempest, sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda are shipwrecked on an otherworldly island. But, the play’s action only starts when a new group of castaways arrive, including the handsome Prince Ferdinand. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between Prospero’s clever, powerful, self-interested scheming and long-time islander Ben Linus. We can imagine that fellow DHARMA bum Juliette Burke stands in for Miranda, who falls in love with a newly-shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand, aka Jack Shepherd. And here we thought Jack was the hero!

Projecting the Bard’s final play onto this TV show isn’t completely lost among viewers: in the show, the DHARMA Initiative built a station called “The Tempest”–a faux weather center designed to manufacture poison gas. Perhaps the Lost creators intended to insert The Tempest into a modern science fiction piece, or maybe the show is just an act of parallel inspiration. But with how often the Lost creators included mythology as plot points and with the winking gesture at a “Tempest” station, we think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare’s influence is anything but accidental.

Download The Tempest on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iTunes.


Macbeth and House of Cards

MacBeth and House of Cards
Photo: Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards. Courtesy of Netflix.

Not since Lord and Lady Macbeth have a husband and wife schemed so murderously and shamelessly for power. That is … until we met the Underwoods.  House of Cards begins by introducing us to Frank and Claire Underwood, a childless couple with influential Washington jobs. Like the Macbeths, both are vague members of the ruling class who seek greater, all-encompassing, totalitarian power. They scheme and they plot, propelled by a singular, sinister ambition. But power always comes with a price: in later seasons, Frank is tormented by ghostly visions, with so many reminders of his Banquo-like sins.

Though many critics have noted that Frank’s fourth-wall-breaking asides are straight out of Richard III (and so, too, is Frank’s apparent “determination to prove a villain”), only a comparison to Macbeth makes room for analysis of Claire. It’s always seemed counterintuitive to us that Lady Underwood’s carefully-chosen wardrobe is almost always shades of light neutrals and whites — she’s such a dark figure to be cloaked so brightly. But what a backdrop for blood to spread. Claire is so contained, so coiffed, so “alienatingly self-disciplined,” that we all await the inevitable unravelling.

For those of us who buy into this comparison, we’re left to wonder: where is Macduff? And in the final moments of the last season, we may have gotten our answer in the form of Remy Danton. Though he’s not the only person to appreciate Frank’s true nature (Underwood’s brazenness and shamelessness have ensured a universally-foul reputation), he may be the only person poised to keep Frank from actually getting away with it. Like Macduff, Remy is not a perfect character, but he is an important—and perhaps the only—foil to the Underwoods.

All episodes of House of Cards, Seasons 1 through 4, are currently streaming on Netflix.

Download Macbeth on Amazon, and iTunes.


Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy

Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy
Photo: Katey Sagal and Charlie Hunnam in Sons of Anarchy. Courtesy of FX Network.

Connections between Sons of Anarchy and Hamlet are not just the work of overthinking book-lovers like us: show creator Kurt Sutter has admitted that he loosely based the motorcycle-club drama on the Prince of Denmark’s tale. As the show begins, the leader of SAMCRO (“Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original”) has died. Like King Hamlet, the death seems oddly attributable to his right-hand man who–you guessed it–went on to marry the leader’s widow himself. The lost son, rightful heir to SAMCRO, returns home and is haunted by his father’s unfinished novel, which guides him, ghost-like, to discover the truth about his father’s death.

If this sounds like Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude, you’re right. And this ancient foundation supports Sons’ increasingly-bloody drama of motorcycle gangs, drug-runners, and inmate beatings. Under another writing team, Sons could feel hyperbolic, shallow, and extreme. But its Shakespearean roots help guide Sons into a respectable, meaningful tragedy about loyalty, power, and the most violent people of them all: family. Haunted by our familiarity with Hamlet’s ultimate fate, in the end we’re left with a sense that something may be rotten in SAMCRO.

Download Hamlet on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iTunes.


Still Star-Crossed and Romeo and Juliet

Romeo & Juliet and Still Star-Crossed
Photo: Lashana Lynch and Wade Briggs in Still Star-Crossed. Courtesy of ABC.

Each of these examples has been fairly subtle: Even when the themes draw heavily from a Shakespearean work, none of these shows attempts to literally re-mount a Shakespeare play. Until, that is, Still Star-Crossed. Based on Melinda Taub’s book of the same name, this upcoming show will follow the Montagues and Capulets in the aftermath of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic ending.

Produced by TV-hit powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, Still Star-Crossed is a period piece that will lay its scene in 16th century Verona. Though it remains to be seen how the show unfolds, the main character of Taub’s books is Rosaline —that Rosaline, the pre-Juliet object of Romeo’s affection, the one who causes him to sneak into the Capulet’s ball in the first place when—what light through yonder window breaks! Following the disastrous suicides of Romeo and Juliet, Rosaline (a Capulet) is forced to marry Benvolio (a Montague) to salve the feuding families’ wounds.

Fans of the book tout Rosaline as a clever, witty, and reasonable girl—a personality perhaps a far cry from the impetuous, fawning romance of the ill-fated Juliet. Fans of the play will get to revel in period-style dialogue and a revisit to Italy’s favorite family feud. And we’ll all get to celebrate that our frenemies are tame by comparison.

Shonda Rhimes’ new series is slated to premiere in 2017.

Download Romeo & Juliet on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.