Shakespeare on Film

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Infoplease picks the best film adaptations of Shakespeare

by Shmuel Ross

Relatively Faithful Adaptations

“An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.”


Henry V (1944)

Directed by and starring: Laurence Olivier

Description: This play, about a British military campaign, was filmed during World War II to boost the morale of British troops.

Hamlet (1948)

Directed by and starring: Laurence Olivier

Description: Simplified version of Hamlet as "a man who could not make up his mind."

Macbeth (1948)

Directed by and starring: Orson Welles

Description: Employs a mixture of stage and screen techniques. See the uncut version if you can.

Othello (1952)

Directed by and starring: Orson Welles

Description: Made over several years on a shoestring budget. The soundtrack was completely reconstructed forty years later.

Richard III (1955)

Directed by and starring: Lawrence Olivier

Description: Olivier, now in Technicolor!

Falstaff / Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Directed by and starring: Orson Welles

Description: Cobbled together from the five plays featuring Falstaff: Henry IV Parts I and II, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Othello (1965)

Directed by: Stuart Burge
Starring: Lawrence Olivier

Description: A staged version of the play recorded on film. Disconcertingly, Olivier performs wearing blackface.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Directed by: Franco Zeffirelli

Description: Has teenaged actors in the leading roles, as written.

Macbeth (1971)

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Description: Cinematically rich. Absorbing, bleak, and drenched in blood and gore.

Henry V (1989)

Directed by and starring: Kenneth Branagh

Description: The first of Branagh's Shakespearean films, this is a dark film with realistic scenes of war.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Directed by and starring: Kenneth Branagh
Also starring: Emma Thompson

Description: This screwball comedy is fun for all, whether or not they're fans of Shakespeare.

Othello (1995)

Directed by: Oliver Parker
Starring: Lawrence Fishburne & Kenneth Branagh

Description: The Moor of Venice is finally portrayed on film by a person of color.

Richard III (1995)

Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Starring: Ian McKellen

Description: Transposes the play to a 1930s England that never was.

Hamlet (1996)

Directed by and starring: Kenneth Branagh

Description: The definitive film version is an unabridged 4-hour epic.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

Directed by: Michael Hoffman
Starring: Kevin Kline & Michelle Pfeiffer

Description: Set in late 19th-century Italy and has characters on bicycles, but retains Shakespeare's dialogue.

Titus (1999)

Directed by: Julie Taymor

Description: Visually eclectic adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's goriest play.

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

Directed by: Michael Radford
Starring: Al Pacino & Jeremy Irons

Description: Places the controversial play in historical and geographical context.


Looser Adaptations

“More honored in the breach than the observance.”


Kiss Me Kate (1953)

Directed by: George Sidney

Description: About a divorced couple asked to put on a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, with songs by Cole Porter.

Kumonosu Jo / Throne of Blood (1957)

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Description: Japanese version of Macbeth in which samurai take the place of Scots.

West Side Story (1961)

Directed by: Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

Description: Romeo and Juliet re-envisioned as a New York City turf war, with frequent dance numbers.

Strange Brew (1983)

Directed by and starring: Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas

Description: Hamlet in a Canadian brewery, featuring Bob and Doug McKenzie. Beauty, eh?

Ran (1985)

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Description: Japanese version of King Lear which also draws on samurai legends. The title means "Chaos."

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Directed by: Gus van Sant
Starring: River Phoenix

Description: A road movie that's a loose adaptation of Henry IV.

Green Eggs and Hamlet (1995)

Directed by: Mike O'Neal

Description: Spoken almost entirely in Dr. Seuss style couplets. (It's lots of fun when you begin / But very soon the joke wears thin.)

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio

Description: Moves the action to contemporary "Verona Beach," using music-video cinematography.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Directed by: Gil Junger
Starring: Heath Ledger & Julia Styles

Description: Romantic teen comedy with a great soundtrack, loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew.

Hamlet (2000)

Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Ethan Hawke

Description: Sets the play in contemporary New York, with CEOs taking the place of kings.

Romeo Must Die (2000)

Directed by: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring: Jet Li & Aaliyah

Description: Romeo and Juliet as a martial-arts action film, with the rival houses becoming Asian and African American gangs on the Oakland waterfront.

My Kingdom (2001)

Directed by: Don Boyd
Starring: Richard Harris & Lynn Redgrave

Description: King Lear involving a crime boss and his family in contemporary Liverpool.

O (2001)

Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Mekhi Phifer

Description: Othello moved onto a basketball court.

Macbeth: The Comedy (2001)

Directed by: Allison L. LiCalsi

Description: Features a lesbian couple as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and three gay men as the Weird Sisters.

Scotland, PA (2001)

Directed by: Billy Morrissette
Starring: James Legros & Christopher Walken

Description: This parodic adaptation sets Macbeth at a burger stand. Really. Duncan gets killed using a deep fryer.

She's the Man (2006)

Directed by: Andy Fickman
Starring: Amanda Bynes

Description: Twelfth Night at a British prep school.


Films that use Shakespeare as a starting point and take it elsewhere

“All the world's a stage.”


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Directed by: Tom Stoppard

Description: Focuses on two minor characters from Hamlet. What do you do when you're not the star of your own life?

Looking for Richard (1996)

Directed by: Al Pacino

Description: A documentary about the challenges of producing, performing, and enjoying Richard III.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Directed by: John Madden

Description: A clever and anachronistic tale of Shakespeare being inspired to write Romeo and Juliet.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (2000)

Directed by: Paul Kafno

Description: The Reduced Shakespeare Company's hilarious presentation of 37 plays in 88 minutes.

Sources +