“Why is Shakespeare so boring?” — a thought many of us probably had when studying the Bard at school. Hoping to make Shakespeare exciting, teachers ritualistically play Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, dread accompanied by groans follow. Shakespeare seems more distant and irrelevant to teenagers than ever. But what if I told you that this was far from the truth? Swap out the ruffled collars for Hawaiian shirts and trade sonnets for MTV pop hits. In tales of high school drama, Shakespeare's legacy isn't just surviving but seemingly thriving in the world of teen films.
We often see Shakespeare as highbrow, detached from what is interesting or attainable to the youth. On the other hand, teen movies are lowbrow entertainment, consistently looked down upon by critics. So how has Shakespeare become cool again? Enter postmodernism where high and low cultures blend, and the Bard finds his new home among the ‘lowest of low culture’ — teen flicks.
Yet, this isn’t far removed from the original context of Shakespearean plays performed in the Elizabethan era, where all social classes mingled in the theatre and Shakespeare wasn’t yet a playwright reserved for the elites. Teen film adaptations of Shakespeare seem to replicate this original structure by granting an often overlooked demographic access to the lofty world of Shakespeare. Shakespeare is truly appreciated once removed from the boredom of the classroom.
Enter Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 masterpiece Romeo + Juliet. Young heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio? Check. MTV hit songs? Double check. Despite being side-eyed upon release by critics due to Luhrmann’s unconventional and kitsch take on the classic, the film has earned its spot as a cult classic, introducing generations of teenagers to the exciting world of Shakespeare. Luhrmann’s adaptation didn’t shy away from the contemporary, featuring Mercutio in full drag, replacing swords for guns and switching the setting from Verona, Italy to ‘Verona Beach’, Florida. By retaining much of the original language set against the backdrop of ‘90s Miami gang rivalries, Luhrmann blurred the distinction of time, making Shakespeare accessible to the very demographic who had once loathed him, paving the way for future adaptations that we know and love.
Following in Luhrmann’s footsteps, filmmakers realised Shakespeare’s potential with a younger crowd. His themes seemed a perfect fit for a high school setting: what screams highschool more than romance, betrayal, comedy, and chaos? Out of this perfect storm came the 90s teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You, set fittingly in Padua High School. While the film follows the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, upon first watch many wouldn’t liken the film to a Shakespearean comedy, yet the modern spin introduces some much-needed nuance. The original play, while a beloved comedy, is filled with timely misogyny, the remake managed to keep such Elizabethan ideas at bay. Here, ‘Kat’ is set up to be a so-called ‘angry feminist’ while Shakespeare’s Katherine’s anger lacks depth; she is a mere nuisance to society. Indeed, why should a woman ever be angry?
The 2000s teen cinema magnum opus Mean Girls also takes inspiration from the Bard. While not a direct adaptation of Julius Caesar, it cleverly borrows elements from the tragedy and transplants them into a high school setting. Mean Girls turns high school rivalries into political intrigues; the power plays and alliances formed between Cadie and Janis mirror the political machinations of Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar. The rise and fall of Caesar echoes the rise and fall of Regina George; the consequences of wielding too much influence are central to both as, of course, “Brutus is just as cute as Caesar”. The political drive for popularity is never again as prominent as it is in high school, thus hosting the perfect setting for political scheming, because in high school, friendships are fragile, and loyalty can quickly turn to betrayal. The struggle for influence transcends time and context because, yes, in high school it is that serious.
Through centuries, Shakespeare's themes remain universal, speaking to the heart of human passions. Whether it's a Prada-clad Romeo or a high school Brutus, the Bard's legacy persists, proving that even in the realm of teen movies, all the world's a stage.
Illustration by Callum Mayor