5 Empire Themes Pulled Straight From Shakespeare

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To reference, or not to reference? For the inspiration behind their record-breaking hit show Empire, series co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have admitted they turned to a literary kingmaker: William Shakespeare. 

And the shout-outs aren't always subtle. Earlier this year, co-executive producer/writer Wendy Calhoun tweeted, "Every #EMPIRE episode is inspired by a quote & theme found in #Shakespeare." The Bard even got a name-check in the first 10 minutes of the series's pilot, when middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) asks his terminally ill father, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), "We King Lear now?"

In anticipation of tonight's season two premiere, here are five more themes that Empire has borrowed from the man who rarely believed in happy endings. (Note: Season one spoilers ahead.)



Even without the confession of Daniels and Strong, it’s clear that the hip-hip saga borrows its premise from Shakespeare's King Lear, which features an aging British monarch who decides to divide his kingdom based on which of his three daughters he determines cherishes him the most. And as the competition for their father's empire heats up, so does the tension. It's no different between the Lyon brothers—Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem—who repeatedly step on each other on their way to the top.



It’s fitting that Empire's sixth episode, in which Lucious's nagging guilt over killing his childhood friend Bunkie (Antoine McKay) causes him to spill to a friend, is entitled “Out, Damned Spot!” after one of the most famous lines in Macbeth. In Shakespeare's version, Lady Macbeth utters the words as she imagines washing the blood off her hands after she and her power-hungry husband commit murder. Bunkie's death is Lucious's "damned spot."



Empire features a handful of couples who just can't seem to make it work, the most prominent of them being Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious, who just can't seem to get back to their pre-Empire romance. Not quite on that list: Camilla (Naomi Campbell) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray). "We are like Antony and Cleopatra, darling," the model tells Hakeem in the opening scenes of the series's 10th episode. But their romance isn't exactly ripped from Antony and Cleopatra and, luckily, Jamal is there to point it out. "Y'all know that's a tragedy where they end up dying at the end, right?" he later explains to Hakeem.



Almost every character on Empire has faults, but if one person is going to get singled out as the show's villain, it's Lucious. The title of the third episode, "The Devil Quotes Scripture," riffs on a line from The Merchant of Venice: "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose," which Antonio says to Shylock, who is attempting to use the Bible to justify lending money with interest. Like Shylock, Lucious claims that the intentions behind all of his actions are good intentions, whether that is shunning his son Jamal because of his sexuality, beating up a manager who disagrees with his decisions about a music video, or covering up a murder.

5. WAR


No one literally suits up for battle in the music-fueled drama, but wars are constantly raging, whether it's between eldest son Andre and his bipolar disorder or with a Boo Boo Kitty infringing on a longstanding relationship. There's a reason Empire's ninth episode is named after one of the greatest war speeches, "Unto the Breach." It's the rallying cry of the British King as he preps his troops for war with the French army in Act 3, Scene 1 of Henry V—and apt for an episode where the entire Lyon family preps to defend themselves against their rival label, Creedmoor.