Shakespeare & Trek from TOS to Discovery
“We make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.” (King Lear, act 1, scene 2)
Star Trek: Discovery’s Mirror Universe episodes have two titles and several narrative threads inspired by the writings of William Shakespeare, continuing a tradition linking the Bard to the 23rd and 24th centuries that began in the earliest days of Star Trek. Indeed, there has always been a connection between Star Trek and literature, even before a single episode was filmed. Gene Roddenberry’s March 11, 1964, memo proposing his show describes James T. Kirk’s prototype Robert M. April as “a space-age Captain Horation (sic) Hornblower, lean and capable both mentally and physically,” referring to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels that started during the 1930s. (Germaine to our discussion here as a fun note, the name “Horatio” was itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
However, few literary artists get as much reference in Star Trek adventures as Shakespeare. From episode titles to entire plots, the use of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets fit well in the worlds of the future because many of the same themes – love, adventure, exploration, friendship, rivalries, and the qualities that make the human condition – which Shakespeare captured in his writings with unique wit are relevant to the worlds of Archer, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Burnham. As much as Shakespeare’s characters of our past still speak to us today, so do the characters of the future.
Lines (or riffs of lines) from Shakespeare’s plays and poems form the inspiration for the titles of episodes from every incarnation of Star Trek. A sampling of some favorites:
- The Original Series: “Dagger of the Mind” (Macbeth) and “By Any Other Name” (Romeo and Juliet)
- The Animated Series: “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” (King Lear)
- The Next Generation: “Thine Own Self” (Hamlet)
- Deep Space Nine: “The Dogs of War” (Julius Caesar) and “Past Prologue” (The Tempest)
- Voyager: “Mortal Coil” (Hamlet)
- Enterprise: “Sleeping Dogs” (Henry IV, Part 2) and “Breaking the Ice” (Taming of the Shrew)
- Discovery: “Vaulting Ambition” (Macbeth) and “What’s Past is Prologue” (Tempest)
Shakespeare has provided far more than episode title inspiration, however. Entire or substantive plot elements from Shakespeare – including direct use of scenes from his plays – are elements of Star Trek episodes and films. “The Conscience of the King” premiered December 8, 1966, and the first-season TOS episode – the title of which was inspired by Hamlet – featured scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth. And its themes of revenge and tragedy are at place both amongst the worlds of Hamlet and Macbeth as much as Karidian and Lenore.
The use of Shakespeare also provides a familiar connection between the audience and characters of Star Trek. Most especially, this is the situation with Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Data. From the first episode of TNG, “Encounter at Farpoint,” viewers learn of Picard’s affinity for Shakespeare when he quotes Henry VI, Part 2. Indeed, Q must bring out the Bard in Picard because in his very next appearance “Hide and Q”, Picard is frustrated both by Q’s misappropriation of the line “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It (“All the galaxy’s a stage,” intones Q) and by the triviality Q appears to associate with humanity. Picard tells Q, “Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction: What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” It seems entirely appropriate that Picard should choose Shakespeare to defend the human condition, warts and all.
Shakespeare is also used to show the friendship and mentoring relationship between Picard and Data. In “The Measure of a Man,” we learn that Picard gave Data a book of Shakespeare, which contains the Hamlet quote “He was a man. Take him for all in all.” “The Defector” begins with Picard providing advice about Data’s performance in the play Henry V and whose themes of leadership amidst the possibilities and realities of war run throughout the entire episode. As a fun aside, Patrick Stewart not only plays Picard during this holodeck sequence, he is also playing the role of Shakespeare’s Michael Williams. Academy Award winner Doug Drexler was the makeup artist for Stewart in this scene, his first in a legion of important contributions Drexler would make to Trek for decades to follow. Again, Picard uses Shakespeare to teach something about the human condition, and the Bard’s words create an emotional bond between Picard and Data.
Of course, Picard is not above using Shakespeare for fun, either. His verbal rescue of Lwaxana Troi in “Ménage a Troi” involves his liberal utterances of Shakespeare’s sonnets and even some Othello.
We also sometimes learn about guest characters via Shakespeare. Writer and director Nicholas Meyer understood the connection between Star Trek and Horatio Hornblower instinctively, and he brought to his three films even more literary connections, from Sherlock Holmes to Charles Dickens. The character of Chang from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, however, easily wins as the most Shakespeare-inspired guest character. Indeed, much of his dialogue is inspired by Shakespeare. A sampling: “Ah, the game’s afoot, eh?” hails from Henry V, “I am as constant as the Northern Star” is from Julius Caesar, and “To be or not to be” from Hamlet serves as theme throughout the film – appropriate, because even the title derives from Hamlet. It is this film that will serve to forever connect the Klingons with Shakespeare, something that resulted in the publication of The Klingon Hamlet.
The cover here shows the amazing reach of both Shakespeare and Star Trek. It is for the German-language edition of an English play translated into Klingon!
It is through Shakespeare that we get to know Chang’s ideologies and beliefs – the quotes he chooses tells us about who he is and what he wants. The film’s usage of Shakespeare also teaches us something about McCoy (who becomes annoyed at the constant quotations) and Spock (who feels the need to cite as any scientist would the origins of the lines).
Meyer’s Star Trek VI writing partner, the late Denny Martin Flinn, wrote a fascinating sequel novel published in 1995 called The Fearful Summons (which features some scenes originally scripted but not filmed for The Undiscovered Country). This title is also inspired by the line “Upon a fearful summons, I have heard” from Hamlet.
If you watch carefully during the scene scripted by Meyer for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in the pawn/antique shop, there is a picture of the Bard watching Kirk and Spock from above the stairs.
It is an appropriate symbol because, from the start, Shakespeare’s words and inspirations have been a source of inspiration for the writers, actors and Trek fans, a tradition continued by Discovery and which is likely to endure with whatever crews and adventures are in our collective future. After all, as Shakespeare writes in Macbeth, “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.”
NOTE: The article above, of course, doesn’t mention every reference, dialogue line or Star Trek title inspired by Shakespeare. Indeed, many of the common phrases that people speak today in everyday conversation, including “as good luck would have it” and “forever and a day,” originated with his plays and sonnets. Do you have a favorite Shakespeare-Trek connection not mentioned in this article? Please share yours in the comments.
Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio, and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They recently researched all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to be sharing some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans. Contact the Tenutos at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.