One of the most fascinating aspects of William Shakespeare's plays has been the ability to adapt them to fit modern circumstances and contemporary settings. In recent years, teachers gained a great tool for introducing students to these plays with modern updates such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet in 1996 that featured gun-toting Capulets and Montagues in a gang feud. But while this is certainly not the first film to update the bard's plays, it is also not necessarily the best example. Other film versions have been made that can also be used by teachers to gain the interest of students or simply by lovers of Shakespeare seeking a new approach to time-honored classics. Here, then, are some of the best modern performances of Shakespeare.Titus (1999) - One of Shakespeare's most underappreciated plays is Titus Andronicus. This play is so over-the-top when it comes to sex and violence that it turns off elitists who like their Shakespeare dry and boring. As such, Julie Taymor's modern update of the play is a great way to show those who aren't used to Shakespeare that his plays can be anything but stuffy. This film, which stars Sir Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) and Jessica Lange (American Horror Story), is an exploration of vengeance and the modern obsession with violence. It involves a father seeking revenge on the rapists who attacked and brutally mutilated his daughter. The film is a curious blending of ancient Rome, Mussolini-era fascism, and modern teenage violence.
Richard III (1995) - Many teachers have a very hard time teaching Shakespeare's history plays because of student's lack of background knowledge when it comes to the politics of the War of the Roses. However, Richard Loncraine's 1995 version of Shakespeare's great historical villain, Richard III, transfers the play to a fascist 1930's England. Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings, X-Men) plays the title character as a Hitler-like figure who murders most of his family members in his rise to the crown. Besides the brilliant performances, the film shows the timelessness of Shakespeare as it brilliantly moves the specific time period to a modern setting.Macbeth (2010) - One of the most taught plays in the Shakespeare canon is his Scottish play, Macbeth. In 2010, Great Performances aired a production of the play starring Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as the title character. As with his X-Men co-star's version of Richard III, Stewart played the part of the murderous tyrant as a Hitler-Stalin hybrid. The 20th century setting is not simply window-dressing and most first timers will love the introduction of the three witches who appear as war hospital nurses murdering one of their patients.
Scotland, PA (2001) - Taking the same Shakespearean play in a completely different direction is Scotland, PA, a modern retelling of Macbeth. This film is set in a 1970's Pennsylvania fast food restaurant as one of the managers (Macbeth) plans to murder the owner of the restaurant (Duncan) at the behest of his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (The Good Wife's Maura Tierney). This film version uses modern language instead of Shakespeare's original iambic pentameter but it does not reduce the quality of the movie which can show students again how timeless and applicable Shakespeare is to modern audiences.
The four modern performances of Shakespeare are just a sampling of the material that is available to teachers and fans of the bard. They represent a cross-section of styles and genres that show the versatility and range of Shakespeare in performance.