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Shakespeare and Star Trek

on Wed, 08/07/2013 - 00:00

The Conscience of the King
In Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, the sixth and final motion picture featuring the original cast of the classic sci-fi television series, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise escorts a contingent of Klingons—once the bitter enemies of Starfleet—to a peace summit. The film’s title is from Hamlet and is also used as a toast by a Klingon chancellor.

“You have never experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” the chancellor says afterwards, to which his chief of staff adds, “To be or not to be, that is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain Kirk.”

Of course Hamlet and all of the other plays attributed to William Shakespeare were never originally written in Klingon but in English during the end of the Sixteenth and early part of the Seventeenth Centuries. Yet 400 years later, they still resonate with the inhabitants of the planet Earth and, according to the mythology of Star Trek, the home world of the Klingons as well.

“Shakespeare said it himself that theatre is meant to ‘hold a mirror up to nature,’” Andy Kirtland, artistic associate of the Pittsburgh-based theater group Unseam'd Shakespeare Company, explains of the Bard’s continued popularity. “Which is to say that any audience should see itself in a performance. His plays tell us nothing that we do not impose upon them. We wish to see ourselves reflected and Shakespeare’s mirror allows us to do that.”

In many ways, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a similar ambition for his science fiction television series. Although Star Trek is set 300 years in the future, many of its episodes indirectly, and at times even directly, reflected the uncertainty of the Twentieth Century.

Military conflicts, the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, racial tensions, gender inequality—all were contained within the Star Trek narratives despite the fact that most of those social and political issues had been eradicated by the time James T. Kirk took command of the USS Enterprise in the year 2265. For Roddenberry, Star Trek was itself a mirror that reflected both present day realities and a utopian future that no longer contained the worst elements of mankind.

Apparently Gene Roddenberry also understood the similarities between Shakespeare and the mythology he envisioned for Star Trek as fragments from a number of Shakespearean plays seeped into the narratives of various episodes. During the first season of the original Star Trek, for instance, Captain Kirk suspects that the main actor in a traveling theater troupe is a former colony governor responsible for the massacre of 4,000 people. Entitled “The Conscience of the King,” the installment even features small scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth that correspond to the narrative itself.

Other episodes of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation likewise contain similarities to everything from The Taming of the Shrew to Antony and Cleopatra to Henry V.

“I’m not terribly familiar with Star Trek,” Andy Kirtland admits. “However, the themes that are touched upon such as fate, man versus the elements and God, making sense out of a changing world—are all universal and any institutions as prolific and with such a scope as Shakespeare and Star Trek are bound to touch upon the same themes from time to time. Smart writers won’t try to reinvent the wheel, and so plots and characters are borrowed in such a way as to nod to the past, but be relevant to the present.”

That does not mean that there is a direct correlation between the works of William Shakespeare and contemporary science fiction like Star Trek. “Science was never really a topic for Shakespeare,” Kirtland explains. “He wrote about magic, medicine and the dark arts, but very rarely. Most times they are only commented on or made the subject of comedy. He also looked towards history for his stories, and either set them in the past, or in an indistinct present, but never in the future. However, science fiction is not a genre that is set in stone either. Is it science in fiction, or fiction in science? Does it take place in the future, or in the past? Is it comedy or drama? Science fiction is all of these elements in any number of combinations, and in that way Shakespeare can be a good match for the genre as far as source material goes.”

Despite the fact that William Shakespeare wrote a total 38 plays over the course of his lifetime, it is his last play that has been used the most as a “source material” for sci-fi narratives. “Of all of Shakespeare’s work, The Tempest probably fits best into a science fiction mode given that it deals with themes that come up often in that genre—exploration, colonization, isolation, the meeting of cultures, magic or unknown technology, reconciling the past with the future and in general, dealing with a world in transition,” Andy Kirtland contends. “Here’s where you will find Shakespeare’s correlation with science fiction.”

As testament to the observation, two episodes from the original Star Trek of the 1960s—“Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “Requiem for Methuselah”—borrow plotlines and characters from The Tempest, as the does “Emergence” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Emergence” even offers a brief performance of the final scene from the Shakespearean play, and includes Captain Jean Luc Picard’s own observations in regards to the text.

“Shakespeare was witnessing the end of the Renaissance and the birth of the modern era, and Prospero finds himself in a world where his powers are no longer needed,” Picard explains. “So we see him here about to perform one final creative act before giving up his art forever.” When the android Data agrees that there is a tragic aspect to the character, Picard adds, “There’s a certain expectancy too. A hopefulness about the future. You see, Shakespeare enjoyed mixing opposites. The past and the future. Hope and despair.”

The Tempest was also the basis for the classic 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which Gene Roddenberry himself cited as an early inspiration for Star Trek. Instead of stranded on a remote island like Prospero and his daughter Miranda, however, Dr. Edward Morbius and his daughter Alta are the lone survivors of a space expedition that travelled sixteen light years away from Earth.

“Had The Tempest been merely relocated in time and space, with all of the language, topical references and Jacobean humor intact, the result would be a horrible film,” Andy Kirtland says of Forbidden Planet. “The story, and those characters adapted to another time and space, however, gives a modern audience a relevant telling of an old story.”

They may indeed be “old stories” but the works of William Shakespeare contain universal themes that resonate in both the Seventeenth and the Twenty First Centuries nonetheless. It does not matter if they are performed for the traditional stage or wrapped within the narrative of contemporary science fiction, they still offer a reflection of humanity in its purest sense. One could even argue that the works of Williams Shakespeare are the most “democratic” form of literature because they allow for diversity in terms of both production techniques and personal reflection.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Defector,” Data remarks to Captain Jean Luc Picard that he plans on studying all of the great Shakespearean performances of the past in order to better understand the plays themselves. “You’re here to learn about the human condition and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare,” Picard replies. “But you must discover it through your own performance, not by imitating others.”

While Star Trek may have borrowed from Shakespeare in much the same way that Shakespeare himself borrowed from other playwrights, it was never a mere imitation of the old but a new interpretation for the present. The works of William Shakespeare, after all, are timeless as well as universal—regardless if they are in English or the original Klingon.

Anthony Letizia

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