Don't know Shakespeare? Let Hollywood be your cheat sheet

Don't know Shakespeare? Let Hollywood be your cheat sheet

Getting modern audiences to understand William Shakespeare is a tough act.

If you have read his plays in school, chances are, after puzzling over the "thees" and "thous" and dirty jokes so old no one gets them any­more, you just gave up on the Bard altogether.

Thank goodness then that Hollywood has condensed all the complexity of Shakespeare's works into two-and-a-half-hour movies that cut straight to the chase. More fights, intrigue and romance, and less waffling on about bizarre Elizabethan things.

And you don't have to see the actors prance around in frocks either.

Hollywood is rife with directors dipping into Shakespeare for inspiration, and modern-day film adaptations that retain the original lines are still big business, with one coming at us every few years - the latest being the lesser-known Cymbeline.

Here's our cheat sheet on what happens in these movie interpretations and how much you'll actually understand...


(Now showing)

Set in a corruption-riddled 21st-century America, motorcycle gang Britons start a turf war with corrupt cops Romans when their leader, Cymbeline (Ed Harris), refuses to pay them tribute under the advice of his poisonous queen (Milla Jovovich).

Meanwhile, trouble brews between Cymbeline's daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), and her husband, Posthumus (Penn Badgley), when the evil Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) schemes to split them up. With a name like Iachimo, you just know this guy is shady.

In the original play, Cymbeline was king of Britain and fighting actual Romans, not cops. The plot is super-confusing with mistaken identities galore, one of which involves a headless body.

Best to study a little first before attempting to watch this one.

Cheem factor: 8/10



Coriolanus echoes the plot of Julius Caesar, with a good dose of ambition, betrayal and violence. It's set in a present-day alternate version of Rome, with battles that resemble Call Of Duty sessions.

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Coriolanus, a Roman general who rises to power after several successful military campaigns. His arch-enemy is Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) from the neighbouring Volsci.

The story is told in a clear, thoughtful manner, and everything's easily digestible because the top-notch cast act their hearts out.

Cheem factor: 5/10



Shakespeare fan Ethan Hawke plays the titular hero in this earlier companion piece to Cymbeline, both by director Michael Almereyda.

Instead of a Danish prince, Hamlet is a stoner film student set to inherit the Denmark Corporation. The famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy takes place in a video store as he ponders what movie to rent, and the ghost of Hamlet's dad appears on CCTV.

The tragedy of Hamlet is all about the futility of revenge and how it can consume you completely. You accidentally kill your girlfriend's father, she kills herself and finally you kick the bucket too. Surprisingly relatable.

Cheem factor: 5/10

Romeo + Juliet


Starring the very dreamy Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, this was probably the boldest departure from traditional Shakespeare ever.

Director Baz Luhrmann re-imagines the tragic love story in modern-day Verona Beach, Florida, where two mafia families, the Montagues and the Capulets, duke it out while their kids fall in love.

Psychedelic, colourful and hyper-stylised, this is Romeo and Juliet on steroids.

It's a credit to the entire team that you're never in doubt as to what's going on.

Cheem factor: 4/10

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

The Taming Of The Shrew, on which this was based, suggested that spirited women could be tamed with a mixture of humiliation, trickery and a good dose of love.

Mercifully, this teen adaptation starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger is a lot more fun - and politically correct.

Set in Padua High School, Stiles plays the feisty Kat, whose younger sister, Bianca, can't date unless Kat does so first.

Enter Patrick Verona (Ledger), who is paid by Bianca's suitor, Cameron, to woo Kat. Kat and Pat soon get on like a house on fire and her mean demeanour starts to soften.

Distilling the original play to such a simple premise means 10 Things focuses on the important stuff - the chemistry between Ledger and Stiles.

And with all the teens spouting everyday lingo, you won't be scratching your head over this one.

Cheem factor: 2/10

This article was first published on May 6, 2015.
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