The Shakespearean Roots of Star Trek

To reach for the stars, Gene Rodenberry's sci-fi vision first had to master the bard.

The Shakespearean Roots of Star Trek
Photo: Art by Chloe Lewis

Gene Roddenberry’s vision of space-age utopia has always been one of idealism and intelligence, of peace and prosperity. From the start, he wanted Star Trek to showcase the best of humanity, confronting modern-day issues and appearing as an aspirational model for society. So, naturally, when it came time to hurl us 300 years into the future, he did it by building on stories from 400 years in the past.

Having cut his teeth writing on early Westerns and police procedurals, Roddenberry wanted to elevate his sci-fi weekly into something more than typical genre television – he wanted to appeal to intellectuals. (Something he may have been a little too good at; Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage,” was turned down for being “too cerebral.”) And how better to appeal to the thinking person than with a library’s worth of bookish influences.

Classic literature was right there in Roddenberry’s original pitch: Captain Kirk was described as a Horatio Hornblower-type, while the show itself was referred to as Gulliver’s Travels in space. His sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, went even farther, bringing in Raymond Chandler, Sherlock Holmes, and Mark Twain.

But no authorial influence is felt anywhere as strongly as that of William Shakespeare. The bard’s works have been an integral, foundational part of Star Trek from the very beginning.  

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The original series’ season one episode “The Conscience of the King” not only takes its title from a line in Hamlet, but borrows the plot: Captain Kirk spends the hour trying to suss out a suspected murderer while watching a theater troupe putting on productions of Macbeth and, yes, Hamlet. Season two’s “Catspaw” found inspiration in Macbeth, with the Enterprise crew confronted by three chanting witches, a medieval castle, and a clear Lady Macbeth-type for a villain. “Elaan of Troyius,” from season three, was a retelling of Taming of the Shrew (with a little of the Iliad’s Helen of Troy thrown in for good measure).

Even the USS Enterprise itself may very well have been inspired by a line from Julius Caesar: “The heavens speed thee in thine enterprise!” The story goes that Roddenberry nearly named the starship the Yorktown before having a sudden and unexplained change of heart. Given all the other Shakespearean references, it seems unlikely he wouldn’t have been familiar with such an eminently perfect quote.

But it wasn’t only the writing and creation of Star Trek that fell under Shakespeare’s shadow; the cast, too, was stacked with actors well-versed in the bard’s work. William Shatner was, at the time of the original series’ premiere, known as much for his theater credentials as anything else. And, in fact, it’s been theorized that his … unique acting style was a holdover from his time on the stage, where broader actions were more commonplace.

The movies brought in noted Shakesepearean thespians Christopher Plummer and David Warner as Klingons (and posited that Shakespeare himself was one of the warrior aliens). Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us Patrick Stewart, member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Trek actor most synonymous with the bard. Kate Mulgrew went from Shakespeare in the Park to the USS Voyager. But, surprisingly, it’s Deep Space Nine that holds the title for most Shakespearean actors on-screen at once: René Auberjonois (Odo), Avery Brooks (Captain Sisko), and Armin Shimerman (Quark) all trod the boards at one time or another. In fact, Alexander Siddig (Dr. Bashir) once stated that DS9 actors had performed more Shakespeare than he’d had hot dinners.

But Shakespeare’s influence on Star Trek goes still deeper than all that. The everlasting truths of his work, the transcendental qualities of existence Shakespeare made his name exploring, are woven into the very ethos of the show. Instead of the hero’s journey of, say, Star Wars, Star Trek, as a franchise, has always been more interested in philosophy, ethical dilemmas, and discussions of the soul – the same dissections of humanity that keep Shakespeare relevant.

Look at the original series’ season two episode, “Obsession.” For as much as it’s about trying to destroy a blood-sucking cloud monster, it’s also about Captain Kirk’s obsession and guilt. Subjects that Shakespeare tackled more than a few times, in plays like Othello, Macbeth, and Richard III.

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And all this Shakespeare talk isn’t idle speculation, either. In The Next Generation’s season three episode, “The Defector,” Picard says as much out loud. With Patrick Stewart playing the dual roles of captain and holodeck soldier, Picard coaches Data (Brent Spiner) through a scene in Henry V. When Data stumbles, Picard says to him: “You’re here to learn about the human condition, and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare.”

Certainly, newer iterations of Star Trek haven’t been quite so Shakespeare-heavy as the original series or Next Generation. Even Picard mostly held off until the last moments of the finale. But, as the infamousHamlet, hell yeah!” quote from Discovery’s Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) can attest, the Bard’s influence on Star Trek is nearly impossible to escape, no matter how far the franchise boldly goes.By connecting the best of the future to the best of the past, Gene Roddenberry traced an unbreakable line throughout all of humanity, setting a course for the Enterprise and every other starship that followed.