Film musicals based on, or inspired by, Shakespeare’s plays – Part I

This year the world is acknowledging the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. With theatre companies and television channels all over the world commemorating the event, it’s impossible not to wonder which musicals have also found inspiration in the work of one of the most renowned and beloved writer of the world.  

Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of some film musicals which contain characters and narratives clearly inspired on the work of this English writer.

We’ve limited our picks to movie musicals, thus excluding any material which hasn’t been adapted from theater to the big screen, as well as recorded versions of musicals.


Film musicals based on, or inspired by, Shakespeare’s plays – Part I


  • Film musicals based on Romeo and Juliet

One of the most popular Shakespearean plays, the doomed romance of two teenagers from rival families has spawned a myriad of similar tales since its creation in the late 16th century. When it comes to film musicals, it’s not uncommon to see members of feuding societies or families involved in a romantic relationship which is widely criticized and resisted by its peers.

The presence of antagonizing groups is a basic staple of the musical, and given its propensity to narrate romantic stories, it’s not surprising that many of them reproduce –either consciously or not- the tale of Romeo and Juliet.

However, most of these films have a much friendlier resolution in which the characters do finally consummate their love and manage to solve the conflict between the disputing crowds.

West Side StoryA notable exception is, of course, West Side Story (1961). The stage-to-screen adaptation of the controversial musical presented two quarreling bands of misfits who are joined in mutual hatred and constantly compete over the control of the streets. However, when Maria and Tony, who belong to different gangs, fall in love, the two must face the on-going squabble in order to protect their affection.

Yet, West Side Story doesn’t shy away from the tragic ending of the original tale, like many other musicals. Indeed, one of the lovers perishes in the end, and what seems to be a simple romantic tale turns into a discourse about xenophobia, hatred and inadequate institutions.

Amongst the many other musicals with elements from the play, yet considerably different resolutions, are: Pocahontas (1995), The Lion King 2 (1998) and The Fantasticks (1995).


  • Film musicals based on Hamlet

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the gruesome tale of the Prince of Denmark hasn’t been a favorite of film musicals. The most well-known musical reinterpretation of the Shakespearean play can be identified in Disney’s animated musical The Lion King (1994).

The Lion KingIn the film, elements such as the murder of the king, the betrayal of the uncle and the otherworldly presence of Hamlet’s father, can still be found. Nonetheless, the most ghastly topics, such as the incestuous relationship between the uncle and the queen, the prince’s descent into madness and Ophelia’s suicide, are -as is expected due to the movie’s target audience- completely absent from the narrative.

In The Lion King, the characters are embodied by humanized felines and a cast of other African animals, and although Simba, as Hamlet, does execute his revenge upon his uncle, he, unlike the original character, doesn’t perish in the process, and goes on to become the new ruler of the kingdom instead.


  • Film musicals based on The Taming of the Shrew

The “taming” of a particularly hot-blooded female is not an uncommon subject for the film musical, with most audacious and disruptive ladies often bound in marriage at the end of each narrative in order to place them in their conventional role of wife and mother.

Yet, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew goes one step further by completely transforming the troublesome woman into a passionate advocate of respecting and honoring a husband as an almost holy figure. This is a resolution which, nowadays, would almost certainly produce rejection unless treated comically, which is why it’s not surprising that a musical comedy is the most clear example of a movie musical based on the play.

Kiss me KateIn Kiss me Kate (1953), the stage-to-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical with music by Cole Porter, two sets of lovers experience quite a confusing situation in the midst of putting on a show. The Shakespearean composition is presented as a play-within-a-play in which the two couples act as Petruchio and Katherine, and Bianca and Lucentio; while also serving as a reflection of the main character’s disputes.

Although it involves a sub-plot about a gang, as well as some other noticeable changes –for example: the main couple is divorced, the original bet from the play is gone, etc.-, the musical concludes in the same way as the play: with Lilli –embodying Katherine- accepting her husband’s command through a long speech, and the subsequent reunion of husband and wife.


In the next part to be published next week, we’ll be listing film musicals based or inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, A Comedy of Errors, amongst others.


In the meantime, tell us: which of this films have you seen? Which one’s your favorite? Do you know any other movie musical based on the aforementioned plays?


V. Wonka



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