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Shakespeare & Beyond

Shakespeare & Star Trek Today

Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Michael Burnham in season 5 of Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Michael Burnham in season 5 of Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Michael Burnham in season 5 of Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Michael Burnham in season 5 of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY; Photo Credit: James Dimmock/Paramount+

Last Thursday, an adventurous and, at the end, sentimental series finale for Star Trek: Discovery marked the conclusion of a show that single-handedly brought the notion of new Star Trek series back to life. Discovery, which debuted in 2017, came after a 12-year dry spell with no Star Trek series. During its five-season run, stretched out by the pandemic, a new flurry of Star Trek shows appeared, some aimed at different audiences, in different formats (including animation), and set in different times and locations, with many of them tied to Discovery. Today, even as Discovery comes to an end, still more series and films lie ahead, including a film meant for streaming that stars Michelle Yeoh—a popular member of the Discovery cast from 2017 to 2020 who also, of course, won an Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

A volatile, unpredictable show that frequently reinvented itself, Discovery was originally meant to be a prequel, occurring about 10 years before the original Star Trek. It also centered on a Starfleet officer who wasn’t a captain, breaking with a tradition dating back to Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner): Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Burnham came with a surprising backstory—although she is human, after a family tragedy she was brought up on the planet Vulcan as a sister to Spock, who is about her age. By last week’s final episode, however, Burnham had long since been promoted to captain and resolved her family differences with Spock, and the Discovery series was no longer a prequel—we’ll say no more than that, to avoid spoilers. Throughout its run, the show also broke new ground with several major LGBTQ characters in its cast.

Since Star Trek debuted in 1966, it’s almost become a given that Shakespeare is woven through Star Trek series and, eventually, films. Austin Tichenor has written on this blog that there are literally hundreds of connections between Shakespeare and Star Trek, from episode titles taken from Shakespeare’s works to characters freely quoting Shakespeare, to whole plotlines from the plays, other verbal and visual references, and more. Perhaps the most famous example is “The Conscience of the King” episode in the original series, involving a traveling theater company putting on Macbeth—followed closely by a memorable quote from the Klingon chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, who explains to Captain Kirk that “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” (The film’s title “the undiscovered country” is itself from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech.)


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Shown from left: David Warner (as Chancellor Gorkon), Christopher Plummer (as General Chang), William Shatner (as Captain James T. Kirk), Walter Koenig, Leonard Nimoy (as Captain Spock), Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan. Paramount Pictures.
Patrick Stewart in Star Trek
Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard holds his “Globe Illustrated Shakespeare” in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As Tichenor explains, there was another underlying connection as well: Shatner brought his Shakespearean acting experience from the Stratford Festival company in Canada to the original Star Trek series, to which Patrick Stewart, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, richly added when he starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. (Our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast interviewed Stewart after he published his memoir Making It So, a Star Trek-inspired title.)

But does the recent flowering of Star Trek series, beginning with Discovery, continue that link with the Bard? In a word, yes. Not every new series touches base with Shakespeare, but nearly all of them do—and often at key plot points or season or series finales. Here are some highlights, drawn from the wiki encyclopedia Memory Alpha:

Star Trek: Picard

In the series finale of Picard, a show centered on Picard after his retirement from Starfleet, he joins with old and new Star Trek characters to stave off a momentous threat to the Federation. As they gather together afterwards, he offers a toast from Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serve
Or lose our ventures.

Image of cast members from Lower Decks, an animated series
Star Trek: Lower Decks / Paramount +

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Lower Decks includes Shakespeare quotations by characters in different episodes. Most notably, though, Lower Decks has a rare and somewhat racy episode title from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, “Where the Pleasant Fountains Lie,” from Venus’s words to Adonis:

Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

Star Trek: Prodigy

One of Prodigy’s most self-referential episodes is entitled “All the World’s a Stage.”

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Just two titles from Shakespeare: “A Quality of Mercy” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”

Star Trek: Discovery

Multiple episodes of Discovery had Shakespearean titles, including the two-part finale, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” for the second season, which marked a major shift to a new setting—and the start of a lasting separation between Burnham and Spock. In an episode not long before that, Spock quotes a line from Hamlet to Burnham as she faces another grueling moment of Star Trek derring-do and moral gravity, perhaps foreshadowing what is to come:

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite
That [ever] I was born to set it right!

In last week’s series finale for Discovery, there was no overt Shakespeare connection. Still, the pairing up of some major characters in the last part of the finale had a certain Shakespearean flair, with the notion of multiple couples suggesting the happy end to many of his comedies.