“The heavens speed thee in thine Enterprise!”: Shakespeare in Star Trek

Star Trek
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Shown from left: David Warner (as Chancellor Gorkon), Christopher Plummer (as General Chang), William Shatner (as Captain James T. Kirk), Walter Koenig, Leonard Nimoy (as Captain Spock), Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan. Paramount Pictures.

For me the answer to the question “How did you first connect with Shakespeare?” is unquestionably via the landmark television series and cultural phenomenon Star Trek.

Pitched by its creator Gene Roddenberry as a “Wagon Train to the stars” led by a “space age Horatio Hornblower”, Star Trek possessed literary DNA from its conception, and no strand was as striking and prevalent as its thematic and linguistic debt to William Shakespeare.

Episode titles are borrowed from Shakespeare — “Dagger of the Mind,” “The Conscience of the King,” “All Our Yesterdays,” and “By Any Other Name” just from the original series alone — and in fact entire plot lines (from the “Catspaw” and “Elaan of Troyius” episodes) are lifted from Macbeth (including witches!) and The Taming of the Shrew, respectively. Quotations pop up from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and the sonnets, and in one instance “the Earth poet Shakespeare” is specifically cited, indicating to me as a boy watching 60s TV that this Shakespeare fellow was cool enough to be referenced and quoted hundreds of years in the future.

William Shatner
William Shatner as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, 1960 (CBC Still Photo Collection)

But it was Captain James T. Kirk himself, in the form of actor and Stratford Festival alum William Shatner, who brought an authentic (and weirdly old school) Shakespearean swagger to the 23rd century. Shatner established a boldness in performance that subsequent starship captains needed to match or surpass, which Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Patrick Stewart easily did, playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and soon-to-be (what, the seventh? Eighth? Is Star Trek: The Animated Series considered canon?) series, Star Trek: Picard.

Many episodes throughout the series used Shakespeare’s plays, and playacting generally, to illustrate and underscore character and theme. Roddenberry’s famous conception of space as “the final frontier” brings the 19th-century tradition of Shakespeareans performing in saloons and camps across the American west barnstorming into the 23rd-century Alpha Quadrant when, in the first-season episode “The Conscience of the King,” the starship Enterprise encounters a troupe of traveling Shakespearean actors who may be concealing a mass murderer, and Captain Kirk struggles Hamlet-like to determine the guilt or innocence of its leading performer.

Patrick Stewart in Star Trek
Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard holds his “Globe Illustrated Shakespeare” in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In “The Defector,” Captain Picard coaches Lt. Commander Data (the android referred to as ‘Pinocchio’ because his greatest desire is to one day become ‘real’) in a scene from Henry V on the Holodeck (with another holographic actor also played by Stewart in heavy make-up) and tells him, “You’re here to learn about the human condition, and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare”. In another episode, Data intentionally misquotes The Merchant of Venice when he asks, “If you prick me, do I not… leak?”

Quoting Shakespeare, of course, is a great shortcut to legitimacy, a way to give your characters (and your project) a depth and richness they might not earn on their own. But it also taps into Shakespeare’s strength as a cultural touchstone, an artist and body of work shared across the globe (and apparently the galaxy). With the Reduced Shakespeare Company, my ironic claim that “Shakespeare is America’s greatest living playwright” plays off Shakespeare’s timelessness and the idea that in every country I’ve performed him (the US, China, Israel, Singapore), Shakespeare is claimed as a product of that nation; he belongs to everyone. That idea is expanded across galaxies in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (another title borrowed from Shakespeare!), in which the Klingon general played by Oscar-winning Shakespeare veteran Christopher Plummer (whom Shatner famously understudied at the Stratford Festival) quotes Shakespeare repeatedly and Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (played by another Shakespeare veteran David Warner) claims that “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

Claudius Marcus in Star Trek
Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey) in Star Trek’s second season episode “Bread and Circuses” (courtesy of Memory Alpha).

There are hundreds of other Shakespearean echoes across the Star Trek universe, including Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms worn inexplicably on the tunic of a character on a planet where the Roman empire never declined and fell.

As we celebrate in 2019 the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the 50th anniversary of the final episode of the original series, it seems clear that Gene Roddenberry’s creation has a pretty good jump on its own 400-year cultural legacy — and it couldn’t have got there without William Shakespeare.