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Shakespeare & Beyond

“His style admirèd everywhere:” All things Shakespearean

I see Shakespeare everywhere I look in popular culture, and it feels increasingly (and happily) like I’m not the only one. It’s not just prestige dramas like Succession, either (which had so many articles parsing its Shakespeare pedigree — including mine — that The New Yorker published a very funny parody of them); even supposedly mindless escapist fare like reality shows and action movies are being ennobled by the grandly epic adjective “Shakespearean”.

Almost every review I read of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, the conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe trilogy about a band of misfit superheroes, used the word, specifically referencing Chukwudi Iwuji, the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who said he drew inspiration from Henry IV to play the film’s villain. One critic said Iwuji played the role of the High Evolutionary “with Shakespearean intensity,” and other reviews confirm that the actor brought to his comic book baddie the kind of power and emotional richness that we associate with so many of Shakespeare’s characters.

In another action movie, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, the heroic leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, speaks (according to one reviewer) “in a voice that’s noble, stentorian, maybe even a dash Shakespearean.” (For those unfamiliar with the toys these films are based on, the Autobots are robots that can walk on two legs or transform into large trucks, the Maximals are robots who assume the shapes of animals, and they all fight other robots called Terrorcons. Talk about rude mechanicals.) The dignity and gravitas of the voice performances help add an unexpected and welcome level of emotion to the franchise, despite the inherently Shakespearean “bombast built into the material.”

Even Vanderpump Rules, the wildly popular reality show about a celebrity restaurateur and her friends, gets talked about in Shakespearean terms. “I know we bandy about this word ‘Shakespearean’ so often these days,” Amil Niazi said on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, “but [Vanderpump] really did feel Shakespearean in its level of malice and…betrayal.” Vanderpump Rules is not a scripted show (except insofar as editors shape the footage they shoot) so these are real people behaving like characters in a Shakespeare play. It’s not art imitating life, it’s life imitating Shakespeare.

The popular scripted Netflix series The Diplomat has Shakespeare baked right in. Kate Wyler (Keri Russell), the American foreign service officer suddenly thrust into the role of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, is called “the Dogcatcher” because she “leashed [Shakespeare’s] dogs of war” before they could be let slip. The gardens of Winfield House, the ambassadorial residence in London, are said to have a connection to Macbeth because a “sneaky Winfield groundskeeper…lopped a cutting off the last Birnam Oak and planted it in the garden.”

Keri Russell and Rory Kinnear in “The Diplomat” on Netflix.

But The Diplomat’s Shakespearean echoes ring most noticeably in its scripts and casting. The geopolitical maneuvering in this populist thriller is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s history plays, especially in how abstract political issues are made deeply personal, and the dialogue has a literate snap and crackle that if not faux-Shakespeare is at least pseudo-Sorkin. Many of the actors surrounding Russell are stage veterans, especially Rory Kinnear as UK prime minister Nicol Trowbridge. Onstage, Kinnear has played Hamlet, Angelo in Measure For Measure, and Macbeth, among other roles, and he gives Trowbridge a commanding poise that’s, yes, Shakespearean, and — in a perhaps unintended consequence — slightly at odds with the character as he’s described. We’re told that the international crisis at the heart of The Diplomat is “the best thing that ever happened” to this unpopular prime minister, which I for one found unconvincing; for goodness’ sake, this is the same actor who played Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, in The Hollow Crown’s Richard II! You have to think Kinnear’s prime minister must have something devious going on and — as in his Olivier Award-winning performance as Iago in Othello — it turns out he does.

Keri Russell also starred in this winter’s surprise hit, the horror comedy Cocaine Bear, in which a several hundred-pound black bear ingests massive amounts of the titular drug and goes on a berserk killing rampage. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the film is based on a historical incident, but with invented events and fictionalized characters to create a dramatic narrative. Cocaine Bear’s most Shakespearean aspect is its tone, a mixture of broad comic characters with intense earnest naturalism, and with violence so grotesque and over-the-top — as with Titus Andronicus — it’s clearly meant to be satirical. Exit, pursued by Cocaine Bear, indeed.

Summer ’tis the season for epic quests, dynastic power struggles, political intrigue, and forbidden love (as in Pixar’s animated Elemental, which already this month has conceived Romeo and Juliet as a pair of “star-cross’d lovers” in which she’s made of fire and he’s made of water). It’s great to see “Shakespearean” become such a popular cultural shorthand, a ubiquitous way to describe them all.