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Saranghae, Shakespeare: The Bard in K-dramaland

Since 1995, World Book Day has been celebrated on April 23, the death anniversary of famous playwright William Shakespeare. We raise our glasses to Shakespeare in this feature on his influence in k-dramaland.

Many people have the impression that the study of Shakespeare is best left to the elite. But the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon would surely find that ironic since his plays were created for the masses and not just the wealthy or the learned. If Disney can make a hit out of some lions re-enacting Hamlet (We’re looking at you Lion King!), then it’s not a stretch for Shakespeare’s plays to be likened to today’s soap operas and k-dramas. (Do you see where we’re going with this one?)

Joseph Fiennes plays Shakespeare

William Shakespeare lived between 1564 – 1616 in England and is credited with writing 37 plays in his lifetime. He drew inspiration from history, as well as common legends and stories. The themes of death, love, ambition, guilt, regret, joy, humor, and magic are hardly “high-culture.” It is perhaps because the themes are so relatable and realistic that even hundreds of years later, the plays are staged in almost every country and translated in almost every living language. His stories transcend race and culture, and influence many artistic works even to this day.


With a trained eye, anyone can see some tropes and themes that Shakespeare popularized even in a place as distant as k-dramaland.

“A pair of star-crossed lovers”

Is there anyone at all who still doesn’t know the story of the ill-fated teenagers who take their lives because of their parents’ feud? Certainly, Shakespeare could not have been the sole inventor of Romeo-Juliet type of love story. In fact, you’ll find traces of the story in the Greek myth of "Pyramus and Thisbe" and in other older stories from Asia. But Romeo and Juliet are arguably the best known literary figures. It all starts with the reason why two people should NOT be joined and should NOT have met, let alone fallen in love, and the rest of the story can pick up from there.

Could North Korean soldier Captain Ri be Romeo and South Korean chaebol Yoon Se-ri be Juliet in the recent global hit Crash Landing on You (2019-20)? It’s not too far-fetched to think of them that way. It’s not just their families keeping them apart; it’s two nations at war. How about the story of the con artist who falls in love with a mermaid and ends up dying to save her in their past lives in Legend of the Blue Sea (2016-17)? Or the Joseon slave who falls for the noblewoman in Mr. Sunshine (2018)? We could fill this entire article alone with these examples but for now we’ll leave it at that.

Romeo and Juliet really are a pair of lovers whose very existence screams, “It’s you and me against the world!” Sometimes the world is kind. Sometimes, it isn’t. That still holds true whether it’s modern-day Korea or16th century Verona.

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons”

In "Twelfth Night," a pair of twins are on a journey at sea when a storm throws them off course. Thinking her brother is dead, the female twin Viola dresses up as her brother to protect herself as she gets shipwrecked on an unknown land. Disguised as Cesario, she hires herself out to the Duke of Orsino who is in the process of wooing Countess Olivia. Unfortunately for Viola, she starts to fall in love with Orsino, while Olivia starts to fall in love with her. Orsino, meanwhile, couldn’t possibly be falling in love with Cesario, could he?

The cross-dressing mistaken identity trope provides loads of laughs even for modern audiences. And k-drama fans might find some of it familiar. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) has Park Min-young dress up as her brother to help her family, and ends up being a scholar. The only problem is, in the Joseon dynasty, the only other scholars are male. She must now act like she’s one of the boys, which is a little tricky since she’s starting to fall in love with one of them. Even earlier than this cross-dressing story is the well-loved drama Coffee Prince (2007) that has Go Eun-chan (Yoon Eun-hye) pretending to be a boy in order to be hired at a coffee shop. Her chaebol boss, Choi Han-kyul (Gong Yoo) begins to question his sexuality as he starts to have feelings for his disguised employee.

“Kiss me, Kate!”

In the "Taming of the Shrew," Katharina is a wealthy shrew. Her younger sister Bianca is mild-mannered, innocent, and sweet. Their father refuses to marry off Bianca until her sister gets married, too. So Bianca’s suitors arrange for a man named Petruchio to marry Katharina so they can woo Bianca. Petruchio doesn’t seem to mind that his wife has a reputation for being spoiled and mean. He marries her and eventually starts wearing her down by psychologically “schooling” her until she becomes his tame, biddable wife.

Of course, if the story were adapted in its entirety, women and men would be up in arms at its misogynistic theme. But that doesn’t mean it still isn’t used. Those with a keen eye will find that every other ornery, shrewish, arrogant chaebol is just the 21st century male version of Kate. And since tormenting the poor fellow into submission is unacceptable, the female lead (with the feisty spirit and the heart of gold) just wears him down with her love and inability to be intimidated by him. Does any of this ring a bell yet?

Consider the male leads in the following k-dramas and the women who love them… What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Her Private Life (2019), The Secret Life of My Secretary (2019), and Master’s Sun (2013) to name a few. They’re basically 21st century Kates dressed in three-piece suits who turn into adoring, lovable boyfriends in the end.

“To have a thankless child”

"King Lear" is about, well, Lear who is not only a king but also a father. In the mood for some affirmation, he asks his three daughters to tell him just how much they love him. The first two daughters are profuse in their expressions of love. His third and favorite daughter merely keeps quiet much to his annoyance. King Lear eventually discovers much too late, however, that words are cheap and that silence accompanied by action is love proved true.

In Mother (2018), veteran actress Kang Young-sin (Lee Hye-young) observes from her sickbed that Hyun-jin (Go Bo-gyeol), the youngest of her three daughters, has been reading King Lear so intently, as if it were the news. She then asks her eldest daughter Su-jin (Lee Bo-young) to read her a chapter from the Shakespearean tragedy, as her second daughter Yi-jin (Jeon Hye-jin) discovers a secret that makes her question her love for her mother. King Lear obviously inspired this suspense drama's writer, as the relationships between the matriarch and her three daughters help form the emotional core of its story.

In many makjang dramas, the dutiful child is always played up against the rebellious one especially in wealthy families. There is a preoccupation with who gets the inheritance as in the case of Mask (2015), Monster (2016), Money Flower (2017), Golden Garden (2019), and Graceful Family (2019). Whether this is a function of Shakespeare’s influence or just a shared value with the Confucian concept of filial piety, the experience is comforting and disturbing at the same time.

“It is the green-ey’d monster”

Iago from the play "Othello" is perhaps one of the best villains created by Shakespeare. (Even Disney gives a nod to Iago by naming the villain Jafar’s pet parrot after him in the animated film Aladdin.) Othello tells the tragic story of an African general in a Venetian army. He has recently married Desdemona. Enter Iago, who for various reasons, starts manipulating Othello and everyone around him for his own gain. With his scheming wit, Iago pushes Othello to start doubting his own wife, whom Othello kills in a jealous rage.

Choose any sageuk that deals with politics and you will inevitably find an Iago-like character (or two or ten) lurking in the wings, waiting and scheming for the monarch’s downfall. Those closest to the king or queen are often the most ambitious and so it will no longer surprise audiences if the betrayal comes from that front. Iago-like characters in sageuks are the schemiest (even if their schemes are sometimes absurd). You can find many of them in Jumong, Empress Ki, and Queen Seondeok. And those are just the heavyweights, the shorter sageuks will have their own versions.

For sure there are countless more similarities in Shakespearean plays and modern k-dramas. Whether that similarity is a function of coincidence, correlation, or causation is best left to the scholars and experts. All the world’s a stage, and we’re just glad we get front row seats to the best shows.


If you enjoyed this article, you might want to read our other Saranghae Series articles:


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