Hands down, the most popular type of web series is a Shakespeare series.
In 2017 I watched around 100 series and the majority was based on the Bard of Avon. Of those, the most common play reworked was Romeo and Juliet. Which poses some problems for me. Mostly it’s that I really hate Romeo and Juliet.
I’ll explain in a moment, but first I want to address why Shakespeare is popular. Still.
Common for the Common Man
Most of us read Shakespeare’s works in high school. Starting from junior high, at least in the US, they force feed us the simple, fun, and basic works. The first one I read in school was Midsummers Night Dream, followed by Romeo and Juliet. Then we got to read Twelfth Night and Othello, doubled back to see the various modern remakes of the stories, caught up with West Side Story and Ten Things I Hate About You, and so on.
William Shakespeare is hugely popular. Still. Unlike other classics we read, like Dickens or Hemingway or a thousand other white guys, Shakespeare turned entertainment on its ear and it’s end and made people laugh at the common. But more than that, he made us aware of the ambiguity of the world.
Speaking of school… we all had access to Shakespeare and his works. Right now I have a complete collection of it all on my bookshelf. I don’t read it often, usually to grab a quote or remember a scene. I’m still faster flipping through the book than a Google. But as a student, especially in the pre-internet age, it was the most accessible and friendly work available.
If I told a teacher I wanted to read, say, Titus Andronicus, they’d happily help me out. Well. Maybe not that particular play, but certainly the others. The flip side is that when I asked about Dante’s Inferno, I got weird looks until I was a senior. Even so, they’d be willing to talk to me about the horrors of the play, How Shakespeare improved from a by-rote revenge drama that was over the top, and into the classic Hamlet.
Open To Interpretation
One of the things that makes his works so popular, even 400 years after his death, is that they can easily be transmuted. And this is why web series pick it so often. With exception of the historical plays, and possibly the aforementioned Titus Andronicus, you can pick up Shakespeare’s works and plunk them down in any high school, any town, any world. The genders and races and sexualities are mutable and always have been.
Oh yes, Shakespeare’s audience was always in on the jokes of the cross dressing.
Why I Hate It So
I don’t hate all of his works. I like most of them. I love how he tells Hamlet, and Midsummers Night Dream is a classic. Others make me sad, like Othello, or Merchant of Venice. And then I get really pissy when I read Taming of the Shrew. And yet I love Ten Things I Hate About You. Go figure.
But I really am tired, so damn tired, of Romeo and Juliet, because the majority of the interpretations miss that it’s full title is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s not tragic because the kids die, it’s tragic because of why they die. It’s not tragic love, it’s not even their death that makes it so. It’s the fact that the whole goddamned thing could have been avoided.
However. So so many retellings paint it as a sad love story. Even the way people tell about West Side Story, which absolutely ends in death and sorrow and sadness that could be avoided if only we learned not to be our parents, gets told as love. Have you noticed how when Glee did that as their musical, they skipped over how it’s about kids craving love and a place in the world so much that they literally die to get there?
I get that people pick Romeo and Juliet because it’s easy. Because we all know the story so well now, they can skip or gloss over some details and we will still follow along. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do for everyone.
The Best And Popular Aren’t The Same
In 2017, Pricenomics took a look at the data and determined the most popular play, based on performance, was Midsummers Night Dream, followed by Romeo and Juliet.
I propose that, when you’re looking to make your next web series about the Bard of Avon, you check out this chart and pick something you’ve not tried before.
What if the reason the twins in Comedy of Errors never find each other is because one is trans? What if the Merry Wives were men and women, all queer? The histories would need a little work, but it could happen.
But … maybe take a pass on Titus Andronicus. It’s a little dark.