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7 movies you didn't know are based on Shakespeare plays

William Shakespeare’s plays are renowned around the world for portraying complex characters navigating dramatic conflict. Shakespeare, the Great Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, is best known for his stage plays (both performed during his time and also more modern interpretations), but it should surprise no one that his writings, musings and musical monologues have made their way to the big screen.

Instantly recognizable titles like Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet have all seen movie interpretations honest to their stage play counterparts.

Surprisingly, Shakespeare titles have also inspired a number of not-so-instantly-recognizable films. Here are seven movies worth watching for their Shakespearean connection, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or a movie buff.

Big Business (1988)

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Inspiration: The Comedy of Errors

Farcical errors are the name of the game for many movie comedies. In fact, the phrase “a comedy of errors” is often applied to any kind of bumbling, slapstick, situational movie, television show or written work, and the phrase comes directly from Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors.

The play is a convoluted one that takes some unraveling to understand due to its two sets of identical twins. Big Business, the 1988 movie starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, plays with the twin sister parallel and was inspired by the Shakespeare play in more than a few ways.

Men of Respect (1990)

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Inspiration: Macbeth

Macbeth’s dramatization of the physical and psychological toll wrought on those who seek power for power’s sake is a mob story interpretation no-brainer. Hostile takeover spurred by/for a woman? That’s a classic crime film plot point. Again, Shakespeare’s Macbeth was perfectly poised to one day become a mob movie. Men of Respect instills Macbeth-like discomforts as John Turturro’s character Mike Battaglia attempts to dethrone mob bosses and wrestle with his demons.  

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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Inspiration: Henry the IV, Henry the V

Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI slice out a substantial piece of the Shakespeare pie, so it’s no simple task to turn them into bite-size retellings. The bard-like dialogue may be enough to give away My Own Private Idaho’s inspiration to the Shakespeare-savvy movie viewer, but you might have missed the connection if you’re not well-versed in the source material. Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix are two rebels who hit the road and grow apart as time passes, both helped along the way by a Falstaff-like mentor character.

The Lion King (1994)

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Inspiration: Hamlet

Shakespeare adaptations aren’t limited to live-action movies. One of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays was inspiring source material for Disney’s The Lion King. Both Hamlet and The Lion King share a simple plot synopsis—uncle murders father and marries mother—so it’s the subtleties (songs and animated talking animals) that set The Lion King apart.

A Thousand Acres (1997)

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Inspiration: King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear centers around a king, his three daughters and a divided estate. It’s a familiar plot that’s played out a number of times in movies and television—mostly seen as a father whose sons are fighting over an inheritance or a company—and it serves as the foundation for the 1997 movie A Thousand Acres.

The modern re-tellings (both the book and the movie) are boiled down to King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. The movie sees Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jessica Lange as three daughters coming to terms with joint ownership of the family farm.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

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Inspiration: The Taming of the Shrew

Shrewish Katarina is resistant to the wooing of the charming Patrick while two suitors (Cameron and Joey) attempt to court Kat’s younger sister Bianca. That’s the plot of the high school romantic comedy movie 10 Things I Hate About You in a nutshell. Sound familiar? It should because the movie is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and the film pulls its plot points (and character names) from the play without trying too hard to hide the connection.

Warm Bodies (2013)

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Inspiration: Romeo and Juliet

Two star-crossed lovers trying to find a way to be together in a world that’s intent on keeping them apart. The template for Romeo and Juliet is open for both literal and more experimental interpretation, and the 2013 movie Warm Bodies (based on the 2011 book of the same name) proves those interpretations aren’t limited to the living.

What if Romeo was a zombie named “R” and Juliet was a human named Julie? Warm Bodies is more romantic comedy than dramatic family turmoil, but the formula’s heart beats in a way that makes Warm Bodies worth the watch as both its own movie and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic love story.

Shakespeare will continue to inspire

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There’s no denying that Shakespeare’s works have spurred many different mediums toward adaptation, and it would be folly to believe those same works won’t continue to inspire new interpretations in the future. Whether they come in the form of truthful adaptations trying to tell a modern story with dialogue pulled directly from a play or a completely new, imaginative retelling you might not recognize is anyone’s guess. Did any of your favorite plays make the list of surprising Shakespeare movie adaptations above? If not, maybe they will soon!