Sunday, August 12, 2007

"All the Galaxy's a Stage": Shakespeare in the Star Trek Universe


by Sean Hall

In the classic Star Trek episode "Catspaw," the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise beams down to the surface of the planet Pyris VII. Once on the ground, they investigate and are confronted by three witches who chant: "Winds shall rise / and fog descend / So leave here all / or meet your end." At this point, the logical character Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) replies, "Very bad poetry, Captain." Thus, we have not only a reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth, but also a rather wry comment on the immortal bard's rhyming ability.

Shakespeare and the science fiction series Star Trek have always been linked together in an almost symbiotic bond. Characters in the series quote the bard, episodes are titled after his works, and stories are adapted to fit the outer space locales. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by the noted Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation) has a worn copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare handy. Alien species such as the race known as the Klingons, created for the show, quote Hamlet, both in English and in their own fictional language. If Shakespeare is the foundation for modern theater, it is only fitting that he becomes the basis for drama in the future.

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 shape-shifter Marta (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 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 D.C.) 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 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 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 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, you would think that the symbolism would be lost and eventually become stale, and in fact, it 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 series and the 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.

*This student essay was orignally published here.