Why Station Eleven Is Obsessed With Shakespeare

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Station Eleven, streaming now on HBO Max.

Even released during its ironic time, Station Eleven's depiction of a pandemic doesn't fall victim to the gloomy, melodramatic tone that many post-apocalyptic shows adopt. Instead, it uses the melodrama of William Shakespeare's plays to bring light to the characters who need it the most.

Station Eleven takes place in multiple times, all surrounding a flu pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of the Earth's population. The protagonist, Kirsten, is first introduced as a young girl with her heart set on acting, and the show constantly switches back and forth between her younger self during the early days of the pandemic and her older self 20 years, who has adjusted to the life forced upon her. But one thing that has always stayed constant in her life is her love and passion for acting Shakespeare's work.

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As an adult, Kirsten spends her time living and working with the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who perform concerts and Shakespearean plays at different settlements. Strangely, they have a rule where they only perform Shakespeare, except for Dan's Independence Day audition in Episode 2. There's also constant debate among the performers about rewriting Shakespeare's Hamlet, as many believe it's untouchable.

Kirsten's life since the pandemic has been a whirlwind of chaos and lack of structure, and the only thing that gives her stability is Shakespeare's work, which, coincidentally, was written during a time when England was plagued by pandemics. She always seems to be at her happiest when performing one of his plays but finds the pain of his characters, such as Dane in Hamlet, representative of the internal agony she has endured since getting separated from Jeevan. But Kirsten isn't the only character influenced by the British writer.

Once every main character has been given a proper backstory and arc, it becomes clear that the connecting centerpiece of the story is actor Arthur Leander, whose death kicks off the series. He suffers a heart attack when performing as King Lear, a character who suffers from an immense amount of regret in a story about societal collapse, similar to Arthur and his role in Station Eleven. His divorce from his ex-wife Miranda is deeply rooted in her obsession with finishing her graphic novel, also titled Station Eleven. In some ways, the novel becomes a Shakespeare classic of its own.

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Kirsten has the same fascination with Station Eleven's characters and stories just as Miranda does, and uses it as a source of comfort when times get hard. While she believes she has the only copy, it's revealed that Arthur's only son with his second wife received a second copy of the book and used its story as the foundation of his cult of rogue children. For the artists of the Traveling Symphony, Shakespeare is one of the only true things that lived pre-pandemic and has an impact on their lives. But for Kirsten and Tyler, Station Eleven is their Shakespeare.

At its core, Station Eleven reflects on how artists transform their lives into their work, and it uses one of the greatest dramatists to represent these transformations. The series also takes into consideration Shakespeare's art by making it its own, using Hamlet's play-within-a-play strategy but with novels (or in this case, a television show). It's also made pretty clear from the influence of the space novel that Miranda is the creator that may live to be the next Shakespeare in Station Eleven's post-pandemic world, and Kirsten and Tyler are the artists to weave her work into the real world.

To find more ways Shakespeare has influenced the post-pandemic life, stream Station Eleven on HBO Max.

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Katie Doll (50 Articles Published)

Katie is a writer and film & television enthusiast based out of Tennessee. After graduating with a degree in Creative Writing and Film Studies, she has been itching to bring her love for writing and film together by writing freelance. You can often find her binging her favorite TV shows and attempting to start new ones (but failing at that sometimes) and ranting about films on Letterboxd. Follow her on Twitter at @katiexdoll

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