Shakespare and Star Trek

With all the gratuitous use of Shakespeare language and imagery in the series (including its four spin-offs, a successful franchise of feature films and a short-lived animated series), is there an underlying reason to the use of the Bard’s works? Does the combination of classic literature and pop-culture sci-fi result in something greater than the sum of its parts? According to Stephen M. Buhler, the use of Shakespeare in the Star Trek universe, specifically the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, serves to define which characters are the villains. (Buhler 18) In general, he says the contemporary popular film use of characters who have the ability to quote Shakespeare is used as a device to establish moral ambiguity and to symbolize personal viciousness. (Buhler 18) Here he relies on the many quotes of the villain of the film, General Chang (Christopher Plummer) and the chameleon shapeshifter Martia (supermodel Iman). (Buhler 22)

However, not every Shakespeare-spewing character is evil and Mary Buhl Dutta argues that, instead, the use of Shakespeare in the original Star Trek series served as endorsement for the male-centric, Americanized ideal of a typical Shakespeare hero. (Dutta 38) Within the progress of the series, the lead character of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) “becomes” Macbeth, Hamlet, Ferdinand, and Petruchio. Always the hero, he has the ability to defeat the villain, even when his Shakespearean counterpart could not. For example, Dutta points out that in the episode “Catspaw”, Kirk is essentially Macbeth (Dutta 40), yet here he has the ability to resist the evil pressure of the Lady Macbeth figure of Sylvia, unlike the original Macbeth.

Marc Houlahan furthers this theory by arguing that the use of Shakespeare in Star Trek is not only an endorsement but rather a continuation of America’s attempts to Americanize Shakespeare. (Houlahan 29) As the financing of BBC’s official versions of Shakespeare, by four major American corporations (Time-Life, Exxon, Metropolitan Life Insurance and the Morgan Guarantee Trust Company) and the creation of the Folger’s Shakespeare Library (located between the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress in Washington DC) serve to show America’s attempt to claim Shakespeare as their own, so does Star Trek’s use of the Bard’s materials. (Houlahan 29) Thus he uses again the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to illustrate the assumption the Captain Kirk and the system of government that he works for, the United Federation of Planets, is a representation of the United States of America. Thus, Kirk’s use of Shakespeare, as well as General Chang’s serve as an attempt to mainstream Shakespeare for a primarily American audience. (Houlahan 30)

Going in a totally different direction, Emily Hegarty argues that the use of Shakespeare in Star Trek: The Next Generation serves as a symbol of high culture. (Hegarty 55) She writes, “It [the series] uses Shakespearean allusion to underwrite repressive and elitist ideological gestures within its populist format.” (Hegarty 55) She uses the example of a Next Generation episode “The Perfect Mate”, in which Captain Picard uses Shakespeare sonnets to express desire, confirming the ideology that Shakespeare is the quintessential symbol of love poetry in our culture. (Hegarty 56)

With all the use of Shakespeare in Star Trek, one might think that the symbolism would be lost and eventually become stale and, in fact, it arguably has. Fewer references to Shakespeare are found in the last three series spin-offs, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. However, within the framework of the original series, The Next Generation and the (at least early) films, Shakespeare has become an integral part of the universe that the show inhabits. It uses Shakespeare as a springboard to discuss new ideas and to maintain a connection with the future and the past. —Shakespare and Star Trek (Memory Alpha)

If I recall correctly, wasn’t there an episode in which Picard had to pretend he was in love with a woman, possibly as part of a bluff? I seem to recall that he started off giving a very vague, unconvincing declaration of love, and then when he shifted into poetry, he started hamming it up. The subtext to the audience was clear — he didn’t love her at all, he was just drawing on his knowledge of Shakespeare to simulate love, and part of the point was that the aliens involved (the Ferengi — depicted in The Next Generation as greedy and rather stupid caricatures, if it’s possible to caricature a fictional race) weren’t expected to recognize Shakespeare. I wonder if Hegarty takes that into account. (I just looked it up… the episode was Ménage à Troi.)