The works of William Shakespeare are some of the most influential and widely known in the history of storytelling. While to some they may simply be boring plays that they’re forced to read in their high school English classes, the stories that Shakespeare wrote have stood the test of time and are still widely seen as true works of art. Throughout Hollywood’s history, there have been countless cinematic adaptations of the Bard’s plays. The earliest known instance of Shakespeare’s work appearing on film goes as far back as the medium’s earliest days, with an 1899 version of King John.
With the innumerable film versions of Shakespeare that exist, it can be hard to tell which are worth your time. Even today, there are still way too many modern Shakespeare adaptations to easily sift through. To make that task a little simpler, we have gathered a list of what are considered the best Shakespearean films of the last 30 years. According to the gathered reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, these are the films that have done the best job at bringing these iconic stories to the screen in a manner that is both accurate to the original writing and also digestible for modern audiences.
10 My Own Private Idaho (1991) – 80%
1991’s My Own Private Idaho stars Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in a modernized adaptation of Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s story through the lens of queer cinema. This approach has earned My Own Private Idaho a long-standing reputation as a stellar and refreshing perspective from which to view the original story.
Although the film was by no means a billion-dollar grosser, it had a tremendous impact and is now seen as an important landmark moment in LGBTQ filmmaking. It holds a certified fresh 80% critic approval from 60 reviews, while the audience score also sits at an 80% rating.
9 Macbeth (2015) – 80%
The 2015 adaptation of Macbeth from director Justin Kurzel is considered one of the most visually stunning representations of Shakespeare in recent years. The film stars Michael Fassbender in the eponymous lead role, while Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, and Jack Reynor round out the cast.
The film faired solidly well among critics, as it received an 80% approval from 199 reviews, and it was nominated for a variety of awards including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With a 64% audience score, general viewers weren’t quite as enthralled.
8 Much Ado About Nothing (2012) – 87%
Although The Avengers was undoubtedly Joss Whedon’s most famous work from 2012, the director also released a much-smaller film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that same year. With a budget of just $5 million, compared to the $220+ million of The Avengers, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing brings the original Shakespeare story to the modern day.
Not much of the actual plot of the play is altered for the film, and the result was pretty well-received. The film earned an 87% approval rating from 178 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, while the audience score is a solid 77%. The film, which has been largely forgotten about in the last decade, also features some familiar faces such as Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion in its cast.
7 Haider (2014) – 88%
One of the lesser-known entries on this list is 2014’s Haider, which is a Hindi-language adaptation of Hamlet from Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj. This was not Bhardwaj’s first adaptation of Shakespeare, in fact it was his third, following his acclaimed adaptation of Macbeth, 2003’s Maqbool, as well as his adaptation of Othello, 2006’s Omkara. Neither of those films have enough reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes to generate an approval rating, but Haider holds an 88% approval based on 17 reviews.
The audience score is also a strong 86%. The film, which also adapts the memoir Curfewed Night from Basharat Peer, shifts the setting of Hamlet to Kashmir in the midst of the military conflicts and insurgency in the region in 1995.
6 Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – 90%
The first appearance of Kenneth Branagh on this list is for his 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. The film starred Branagh, as well as Keanu Reeves (in his second entry on this list), Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and more. The film holds a certified fresh 90% from 48 reviews, and audiences have given it an 86% approval.
This was Branagh’s second cinematic adaption of Shakespeare, following his 1989 adaptation of Henry V, which was also his directorial debut. Branagh’s Henry V does not appear on this list, as it pre-dates the parameter of 1990 that we have set, though it is worth noting that the film holds an impressive 98% from 41 reviews.
5 West Side Story (2021) – 91%
While it’s obvious that William Shakespeare did not write West Side Story, the original 1957 musical from Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim was directly based upon Romeo and Juliet. With that, West Side Story is technically an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, and the 2021 musical from Steven Spielberg in turn qualifies for this list.
With a 91% critic rating from 386 reviews and a 93% audience score, West Side Story is considered to be one of Spielberg’s all-time best directorial outings. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, of which its sole win was for Ariana DeBose as a supporting actress.
4 Coriolanus (2011) – 92%
One of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies is the story of Coriolanus, which was adapted to film in 2011 by the actor Ralph Fiennes in his directorial debut. The film stars Fiennes opposite the likes of Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and John Kani, and it transfers the setting to a contemporary Balkan environment. It was an outstanding debut for Fiennes as a director, and it earned a 92% critic rating from 157 reviews, though the audience score was a far less kind 58%.
Though it was shut out from the Academy Awards, Fiennes’ Coriolanus did receive nominations from the BAFTAs and the Berlin International Film Festival.
3 The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) – 92%
Spielberg’s West Side Story was directly competing with another lauded Shakespeare adaptation at the 2022 Academy Awards. The film it was competing with was Joel Coen’s expressionist masterpiece The Tragedy of Macbeth, which competed with West Side Story in the production design and cinematography categories – though they both lost to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune in both categories.
Regardless, The Tragedy of Macbeth, which stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand,is certainly in the running for not just the best modern adaptation of Shakespeare, but it might be one of the best Shakespeare films of all-time. The film, which has been underappreciated in the years since its release, holds a 92% from 283 critic reviews and the audience score sits at a 75% rating.
2 Hamlet (1996) – 95%
Kenneth Branagh’s third adaptation of Shakespeare came in the form of 1996’s Hamlet. With the film, Branagh cemented his place as an outstanding director with a keen eye for what has made the Bard’s stories stand the test of time. The film holds a 95% approval from 57 reviews, which makes it the second-highest-rated film of Branagh’s directorial career (only behind 1989’s Henry V).
Hamlet was nominated for four Academy Awards – Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design and Original Dramatic Score – though it did not win any of them. Branagh played the lead role in the film, and he was joined in the cast by Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Richard Attenborough, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Judi Dench
1 Richard III (1995) – 96%
Finally, the last film on this list is not one of Branagh’s, but its existence was undoubtedly a result of the Shakespeare film trend in the ’90s kicked off by Branagh with Henry V. 1995’s Richard III was directed by Richard Loncraine, and it has an enormously talented cast consisting of Ian McKellen, Annette Benning, Robert Downey Jr. Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith and more. The film shifts the setting of Richard III to 1930s Britain, with McKellen playing the lead role as a fascist gaining influence and sway over England.
The film holds a 96% from 50 critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience score is also a solid 85%. The film was nominated for a handful of Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes, though it was shut out of any wins aside from two BAFTAs.