“You have never experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” At least that’s what Klingon chancellor Gorkon tells Spock in The Undiscovered Country, the last installment of the original Star Trek film series. Like self-serious English majors, Klingons quote the Earth-poet Shakespeare more than any other author—yes, sometimes even in their native tongue. Klingon warriors, however, aren’t the only faux-philosophe inhabitants of the Star Trek universe to use (and sometimes abuse) the Bard.
Trekkers have catalogued the franchise’s many allusions, plot borrowings, and recitations down to the minutest particle. What they may not know is that the Klingon’s mutant form was partly inspired by the humanoid Caliban from The Tempest. Costume designer Robert Fletcher (Harvard Class of ‘45) recounts the story in his recent memoir, A Trunk Full of Yak Hair or How the Klingons Got Their Look.
Fletcher took charge of the wardrobe department at Paramount after being hired by director Robert Wise to overhaul the costumes from the original series. At the urging of creator Gene Roddenberry, he also made over the Klingon race. Roddenberry envisioned them looking much like humans, as they had appeared on TV in the late 60s. Fletcher disagreed, convinced that audiences wanted to see an alien being. During their interview, Fletcher recalls reaching for his portfolio and pulling out sketches of the costume he had designed for Jack Palance as Caliban in a 1955 production of The Tempest at Stratford, Connecticut. Many of these drawings are now part of Fletcher’s papers in the Harvard Theatre Collection. With a little more digging, we turned up a memo from Roddenberry in which he insists on some resemblance to the television series Klingons.
The two settled on a fierce, crustacean-like species, “a kind of hairy lobster” that Roddenberry conceded might have evolved from a spiny lizard. Klingons kept their human shape, bronze complexion, and beards, and Fletcher gave them their distinctive ridged forehead and feudal armor.
Fletcher, now age 93, is characteristically modest about his contributions to the first four Star Trek films. Still, it must have amused him when Christopher Plummer was cast as the Shakespeare-spouting Klingon, General Chang, in Star Trek VI. Fletcher had dressed Plummer as Julius Caesar in 1955 and again as Iago in a 1981 production of Othello at the American Shakespeare Theatre opposite James Earl Jones. (His costume design for Jones is on display in an exhibition on Shakespeare at Houghton through April 30th.)
To read more about Fletcher’s career and his archive, check out earlier posts to this blog: Yak Hair, Klingons, and Orson Welles and Outfitting the Enterprise.
Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.