Even people who have never seen a play by Shakespeare are likely to have read somewhere or heard quoted the speech from As You Like It that begins: “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare, an actor who became the greatest dramatist in English literature, drew his images from theatre, divid- ing human life into seven “acts” between the “entrance” of birth and the “exit” of death.
But if the writer had lived in recent decades – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 falls on 23 April – it’s tempting to wonder if he’d have taken the metaphors from an art form that has the position in our culture that theatre had in his. Might Jaques, the old man looking back in As You Like It, see human life as a screen, on which people had their establishing shots and their fade outs?
Whether or not, though, Shakespeare would have been turned on by television, the medium is indebted to him. Although the biggest literary influence on TV fiction is Dickens (in the use of episodic form and exaggerated characters such as Del Boy Trotter and Horace Rumpole), many broadcasting classics, in both the UK and US, contain direct or indirect references to Shake- spearean characters or plots. Here are popular culture’s leading Shakespeareans...
Mistress Quickly — Peggy Mitchell
Speakers at conferences on TV drama frequently suggest that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing soap operas. One thing that the canons certainly have in common is larger-than-life pub owners. Mistress Quickly, the hostess of an Eastcheap tavern in the Henry plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, has multiple successors in continuing drama, from Annie Walker (Doris Speed) in Coronation Street onwards.
However, as Quickly is a bawdy, bouncy figure with relatives prone to criminality, she most resembles Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor) in EastEnders. As Mistress Quickly’s dialogue is filled with innuendo – and she’d have been played in Elizabethan theatre by a man – she can also be seen in Agnes in Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Rude Mechanicals — The Grundys
Another shake-down into soap has been Shake- speare’s habit of using manual workers as farci- cal relief from more serious parts of the plot. The befuddled Athenian craftsmen (the weaver Bottom and carpenter Quince) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have cousins in the Grundy clan in Radio 4’s The Archers. Good-hearted but not fast-thinking farmer Eddie Grundy (Trevor Harrison) is very much a descendant of Shakespearean “rude mechanicals”. In Athens, the artless artisans put on a production of the tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe; in Ambridge, they take part in Lynda Snell’s annual pantomime.
Juliet Capulet — Elizabeth Poldark
The conflict between the Poldark and Warleggan clans in Winston Graham’s novels was consciously a Cornish version of the Montagues and Capulets, ancient social enemies of Verona, in Romeo and Juliet. Although older than Shakespeare’s heroine, Elizabeth (played by Heida Reed in BBC1’s Poldark, back for a second series this autumn) also intensifies the hostility by marrying into the other side.
Although few viewers may have made the connection, Dallas creator David Jacobs origi- nally pitched his CBS soap opera as “Romeo and Juliet in the oil business”. His Texan Montagues and Capulets were the Ewing and Barnes dynas- ties. The union of Bobby Ewing and Pamela Barnes fared better, especially as the American Romeo, unlike the Italian one, was able to have his tragic death rewritten as a dream that his Juliet had while he was in the shower.
Malvolio — Captain Mainwaring
The steward Malvolio in Twelfth Night is delu- sional, pompous and regularly duped or humili- ated by wilier colleagues who exploit his weak- nesses. It’s unclear if Dad’s Army writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft intended a connection when they invented Mainwaring, but Arthur Lowe, who played the Home Guard leader in the BBC sitcom, and Toby Jones, in the recent movie remake, have strong theatrical credentials and would both be excellent casting as Malvolio.
The steward, in his most famous scene, is tricked into appearing in ridiculous garb (“yellow stockings, cross-gartered”) and this is mirrored in various visual gags in which Mainwaring miscalculates his appearance, look- ing ludicrous in a wig or a cricket blazer.
King Lear — Lucious Lyon
Terrence Howard’s character in Fox’s Empire (Monday 10pm E4) is a king of hip-hop, whose three sons fight for control of Empire records, in a clear reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy of an English monarch who starts a family war by dividing his empire between three daughters.
Where Lear develops dementia, Lucious is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There was a similar nod from Coronation Street in 2006, when Mike Baldwin, Weatherfield’s knicker king, stricken with Alzheimer’s, had his lingerie legacy fought over by his three sons. Lear-like, Mike caught his death outside in a storm, cradled by Ken Barlow as his Fool.
Henry V — Jonathan Pine
Tom Hiddleston played King Henry V, the dash- ing young English warrior who persuades his men to follow him unto the breach at Agincourt, in the first part of The Hollow Crown in 2012, the BBC’s mash-up of the English history plays that returns next month. And, although Henry V never ended up in the Swiss hospitality industry, Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine in the BBC1 hit, The Night Manager, has certain over- laps with the Shakespearean role. Pine is a beau- tiful and brave soldier who, especially in the climactic scenes, obeys Henry’s instruction to his troops to “hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit/ To his full height”.
Guildenstern — Gilda Stern
Perhaps TV’s most unlikely Shakespearean reference was a 1978 episode of the American series The Rockford Files called Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead. It was a reference to Act V of Hamlet, where an ambassador reports on the death of two Danish courtiers, in a line that Tom Stoppard borrowed for the title of his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Othello — DCI John Luther
It will not surprise diversity campaigner Sir Lenny Henry, himself an award-winning theatre Othello, that there are few TV equivalents of Shakespeare’s only black tragic hero to choose from. But Idris Elba’s title character in BBC1’s Luther is, like the Moor of Venice, isolated and disturbed by the experience of being a black leader (Othello a military commander; Luther a top cop) within a white culture.
And, whether or not the shared first syllables of the names was deliberate, their lieutenants – Iago/DCI Ian Reed – are both allies who, for reasons including sexual jealousy, turn against the heroes and plot to destroy them.
Macbeth — ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Walter White
￼￼￼￼￼￼In Act III of what superstitious actors call “The Scottish Play”, Macbeth, after murdering King Duncan to claim the throne, comes to the realisa- tion that, in order to maintain power, he will now have to kill others as well. He says: “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
This metaphor – of a man so deep in a river of blood that there’s no point in returning to the shore of normality – summarises the narrative of the revered AMC series Breaking Bad, in which Bryan Cranston’s chemistry teacher Walter White starts with one act of criminality and ends up as an international drug baron.
When I mentioned this to showrunner Vince Gilligan, he confirmed that Macbeth had been one of his plot models: “Only steal from the best!”
Lady Macbeth — Claire Underwood
One area in which Breaking Bad departs from the Caledonian tragedy is that Walter’s wife, Skyler, is initially innocent and discouraging, unlike Lady Macbeth, who almost literally puts the knife in her husband’s hand. In this respect, TV’s most obvious Lady M is Robin Wright’s First Lady (and UN ambassador and congres- sional candidate in her own right) in the Netflix version of House of Cards.
The parallel is pointed, as Hillary Clinton, on whom Claire Underwood seems increasingly to be based, has, like most powerful female politi- cal spouses, suffered innumerable “Lady Macbeth” insults over the years. However, in a departure from theatrical tradition, Mrs Underwood is married to a different murderous Shakespearean monarch.
Richard III — Frank Underwood
Although orthopaedically more upright than Shakespeare’s crookback king, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is just as bent on the corruption of political power. He also shares with the Plantagenet Tricky Dicky a satanic kind of charisma, as did Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart in BBC’s 1990 House of Cards, on which the current Netflix version is based. This is another of television’s deliberate Shakespearean references.
Andrew Davies, who adapted Michael Dobbs’s novel for the British series, hit on the idea of Francis Urquhart addressing viewers directly in a version of the darkly funny soliloquies in which Richard III updates the audience on the progress of his ambitions.
The device was borrowed for the US series, and the main actors on both sides of the Atlantic instinctively knew how to deliver these speeches: Richardson and Spacey had each played Richard III on stage to acclaim.