The works of William Shakespeare have stood the test of time. They’re something we continue to adapt whether in the same form or through a more modernized lens. With playful animated adaptations like The Lion King or Hamlet, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Taming of the Shrew, we’re no stranger to a Shakespeare story.
But what are some of the best Shakespeare movie adaptations out there to watch? Let’s get into it. I’ve only included adaptations of his plays that include Shakespeare’s own dialogue versus those like She’s the Man and West Side Story, which are adaptations of the work with a different book/script. From multiple tellings of Romeo and Juliet to losing ourselves in the woods with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let’s talk about Billy Shakes!
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2022)
Joel Coen took the world of Macbeth’s Scotland and brought it to life through a black and white lens in the 2022 movie The Tragedy of Macbeth. Starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, the movie is a pretty spot-on interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedies (and my personal favorite).
Macbeth is a show about a man destined to defy his own fate and, in doing so, seals it. What works with this adaptation, in particular, is Washington’s ability to convey Macbeth’s energy towards the end of the show beautifully while still making his pompous attitude known. There is something about Coen’s work that just flows with The Tragedy of Macbeth and works as both a modern adaptation of the work while still remaining true to Shakespeare’s original text. It also helps that Washington is one of our greatest Shakespearean actors and that he brings Macbeth to life with nuance.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017)
A Midsummer’s Night Dream is whimsical and while it is typically done with period dress, the 2017 Casey Mott-directed adaptation is not and it weirdly works in a more modern setting. The show is about a group of people trying to understand love and acceptance within their group but is mixed with a traveling group of theatre people (that feature Nick Bottom’s turn into a donkey) as well as a fairy queen and more.
At its core is Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander. In the 2017 adaptation, we are gifted with Lily Rabe as Helena, a woman who is in love with Demetrius (Finn Wittrock) who mocks her for her emotions because he is in love with Helena (Rachael Leigh Cook) who is in love with Lysander (Hamish Linklater). The modern setting does make them getting lost in the woods just seem like a group of people running around on the side of the freeway in California, but it is worth it.
All you really need to know is that Michael Fassbender is Macbeth and Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth and they have sex while plotting. My favorite thing about modern Shakespeare adaptations: Characters having sex while plotting things. With Lady M and Macky, it works wonderfully and brings to life their warped relationship with each other. They love each other so much through their murderous ways.
It’s a pretty standard telling of the Scottish Play but it does a great show of highlighting Lady Macbeth’s ability to warp Macbeth’s thoughts so that he will do her bidding (one of the reasons I love her so much). She manipulates Macbeth into believing things that eventually make the witches’ prophecy a reality. But she is doing it from a place of power and greed, much like Macbeth himself. She’s just determined to have his hands be the ones that are dirty, even if she does have to help him.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Back to the world of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the 1999 film, directed by Michael Hoffman, gave us Christian Bale as Lysander and Calista Flockhart in inspired casting. Set more in the standard staging for the show, the 1999 movie is still a great look at Helena, one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare women.
The thing about Helena is that she could easily be played for laughs and as pathetic. It’s happened time and time again when, in reality, she is a woman with a crush that doesn’t love her back and her pain is something that many of us have experienced. So to see that displayed for jokes can hurt. But Flockhart plays Helena beautifully and the movie as a whole does a good job of telling this story without anyone being that much of a joke. And who doesn’t want to see Kevin Kline take on Shakespeare as Nick Bottom?
No one quite does Shakespeare like Kenneth Branagh. Before he directed Thor and became one of Christopher Nolan’s favorite players, Branagh made a name for himself in the world of Shakespeare but, more specifically, bringing Shakespeare plays to the screen. His 1996 Hamlet is long but it is the most accurate Hamlet we have. Playing Hamlet himself with a 21-year-old Kate Winslet as Ophelia, he brought the dramatic Prince of Denmark to life in a way that only Branagh can.
Hamlet isn’t an easy play and it is often chopped up for time (much like Macbeth) but with that slicing comes important aspects of Hamlet’s story being left out. Luckily, there are people like Kenneth Branagh who understand the importance of Shakespeare’s work and bring complete versions of it to life and it is through his take on Hamlet that we can really understand how deep his love of Shakespeare goes.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Much Ado About Nothing is a fun comedy from Shakespeare and getting to watch Kenneth Branagh tackle it with the 1993 cast that he had is incredible. Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Emma Thompson, and more all in one movie? It’s a dream come true for fans of Shakespeare and the show as a whole. Who doesn’t want to see Branagh take on Shakespeare?
When it comes to Much Ado About Nothing, it is a show about plotting that results in chaos. When Hero (Beckinsale) and Claudio (Leonard) are to be wed, they also want to get Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Thompson) together. But with Don John (Reeves) plotting against them all, it is just a failed system of twists and turns for everyone to fall in love with each other. It’s a classic Shakespeare comedy and works to keep us engaged and interested in these characters despite all the chaos surrounding them.
Richard Iii (1995)
In his quest for power, Richard III turns to madness and a thirst for blood in order to succeed. Starring Ian McKellan as Richard III, the movie has a 1930s setting with England in the midst of a civil war and is filled with an all-star cast of Dame Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening, and more.
Richard wants power and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there, including murdering his own family for it. Knowing he must kill his brother, his nephews, and his brother’s wife, he’s ready to do what is necessary to win but when he’s abandoned by the Duke of Buckingham (played by Jim Broadbent), his plans must change.
It’s a fine and fun adaptation of not the most popular of Shakespeare’s histories but it is a good movie if you want to understand Richard III and get into it with some of the best actors in the business.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
One of Shakespeare’s most iconic pieces of work is Romeo and Juliet and yet the 1996 Baz Luhrmann take on the movie is probably the most recognizable version of it yet. Thanks to Claire Danes’ angel wings and Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a Hawaiian shirt throughout most of this movie. With guns, a Los Angeles that is the stuff of legends, and aggressive cinematography, it is just a movie you have to experience to understand it.
With a pretty modern setting and with iconic performances like Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, the movie is strange and yet got an entire generation of people into Shakespeare, myself included. It was the way that Luhrmann mixed the story so many had come to know with a new setting and world that brought audiences in and kept us there and interested. So if you haven’t, watch Romeo + Juliet and experience the love story of Romeo and Juliet in a new and exciting way.
Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)
Yet again, we’re in the world of a Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare adaptation but it is because he’s great at it. In this one, he plays Berowne along with Matthew Lillard as Longaville and an all-star cast surrounding them. When three friends decide to remain celibate for three years, they’re tested when three women come into their lives and catch their eyes.
Once again we’re thrust into the world of a Shakespeare comedy in the best way because he loved to have his characters be stuck in a will-they-won’t-they before we understood what that meant. This adaptation is set in 1939 and has some fun little songs in it but Love’s Labour’s Lost is also a pretty mild show overall. Not really a stand-out classic but a pretty good one when you stop and revisit it. So a great movie to watch if you’re just in a Shakespeare kind of mood but don’t want to emotionally destroy yourself.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Yes, I am sorry. I’m including Joss Whedon‘s Much Ado About Nothing because, again, it does my favorite modern thing and has two characters plotting while having sex with each other. The black and white take on the comedy was filmed in Whedon’s house with some of his friends and is a surprisingly fun take on the play, even if we now have to consider it canceled as a whole because of Whedon.
It’s pretty cut and dry and comes to life through its performances and not really anything that Whedon did given the script was…already written back in 1612. It’s a fun way to explore Much Ado About Nothing that breaks it down to its bare parts making it easy to understand for those who might not have the patience for Shakespeare normally but if you’re not trying to give Whedon any clicks, there are better options for this story. Which is sad, given this was fun!
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Rachel Leishman is a writer based in New York City. She specializes in yelling about her favorite properties. A real-life Leslie Knope, she loves her fictional characters and knows probably too much about Harrison Ford's career.