Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Cleft in twain: The Shakespearean parts of “Barbenheimer”

A close-up black-and-white image of a man staring into the camera. He wears a fedora-style hat and has a cigarette in his mouth.
A close-up black-and-white image of a man staring into the camera. He wears a fedora-style hat and has a cigarette in his mouth.

When Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer debuted on the same day last month, they created a “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that witnessed close to eight million people seeing two wildly different movies back-to-back on their opening weekend. Despite their comically different tones and subject matter, both movies wrestled with Shakespearean themes of identity, hubris, and redemption, suggesting the filmmakers had taken King Lear and — like the atom — split it in two.

Oppenheimer’s focus on its title character’s destruction of his family and reputation most clearly resembles Shakespeare’s Lear, and prompts similar questions: Is he mad, arrogant, or hopelessly naive? One could argue that in his famous map scene (“Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom”), Lear was trying to responsibly establish a civilized succession plan until his ego got in the way. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was called upon to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did during World War II, but didn’t foresee the inevitable result or fully consider the horrifying uses to which it would be put. Oppenheimer and Lear both think they can harness the elements — quick, name the one who said, “Rage, blow, / You cataracts and hurricanoes!” — but it isn’t until they’re confronted with nature’s unimaginable power that they begin to realize what they’ve unleashed.

King Lear has his Fool, the truth-telling confidant who offers counsel and barbed criticism in the form of jokes, riddles, and observations like “All thy other titles thou hast given away, that [of Fool] thou wast born with.” In Nolan’s film, physicist Isidor Rabi fulfills a similar function, telling Oppenheimer, “You drop a bomb, and it falls on the just and the unjust.” (In response, Oppenheimer argues, not unreasonably, “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t.”) Their advice going unheeded, both Shakespeare’s Fool and Rabi remain loyal and follow their leaders into literal and metaphorical storms, unable to protect them from their own hubris.

King Lear is most afraid of losing his sanity and outraged by what he perceives as betrayal by his favorite daughter, Cordelia. Oppenheimer seems most afraid, not of destroying the world, but of losing his reputation and the betrayal of his colleagues. With their worlds both irrevocably changed (in the storm on the heath and the successful test explosion in the New Mexico desert) — and still with over an hour to go in their respective stories — both the king and the physicist must navigate the fallout (sorry) and struggle with achieving a measure of redemption, something their authors both seem to think they deserve. Reasonable viewers can disagree.

A woman driving a car through a desert landscape with a man in the backseat. Both are singing. Their clothes and the car are pink. A Barbieland sign appears on the horizon behind them.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie (2023). Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2023 – Warner Bros

With Barbie, it’s not as if Greta Gerwig suddenly discovered King Lear’s heretofore unexplored funny side, but she manages to spin existential reckoning into comic gold. Near the end of Act One, after dividing both his kingdom and his family, Lear wonders forlornly, “Who is it who can tell me who I am?” Gerwig turns this fundamental question of identity into the inciting incident of her film when Barbie asks with a comic suddenness, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” It’s not until Lear unthinkingly relinquishes the totems that give him his power that he realizes he’s “nothing” without them. Barbie’s questioning of the literal plasticity of her entire existence, and subsequent journey out of Barbieland into the real world, is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream in reverse; as if that play’s fantastical fairies in the forest suddenly ventured into Athens instead of the lovers and mechanicals from the city stumbling into Fairyland.

Gerwig plays all this with knowing humor, and has talked about how “Shakespeare’s comedies” informed Barbie’s screenplay (co-written with Noah Baumbach). As she clarified:

Shakespeare was a maximalist. There wasn’t anything that was too far or too crazy that couldn’t be worked through, and then there’d be something in the middle that felt quite human. I was thinking about [Barbie] in those terms: a heightened theatricality that allows you to deal with big ideas in the midst of anarchic play.

Like Shakespeare, Gerwig throws a lot at the audience: wordplay, pratfalls, music, dance numbers, fish-out-of-water comedy, satire, and parody, all grounded by an underlying intelligence. Certain moments stand out when a funny line happens in an emotional moment, such as when Barbie cries over her lost purpose because she’s “not pretty anymore,” and the omniscient narrator (Helen Mirren) interrupts to comment, “Note to filmmakers: Margot Robbie is not the actress to get this point across.” This is the kind of fantastically meta joke Shakespeare frequently employed, for instance: in the final scene of the very long Love’s Labor’s Lost, Berowne says flatly, “That’s too long for a play;” or in Twelfth Night, when Fabian, in the midst of the plot’s ridiculous machinations, complains, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

Gerwig also includes a downright Shakespearean soliloquy (impeccably delivered by America Ferrera) that is simultaneously insightful and obvious, rabble-rousing and heavy-handed, momentum-killing and an emotional highlight. It’s complicated and amazing…you know, like Shakespeare.

Perhaps the most distinctively Shakespearean achievement is how both Gerwig and Nolan make the political personal, spinning lofty ideas into entertaining, compelling, best-selling narratives that make people leave their homes in record-setting numbers. Oppenheimer depicts a man who, like Lear, learns too late the consequences of his actions, but it’s the funny and candy-colored Barbie that successfully makes the case that maybe self-awareness and a raised consciousness can never come too soon.