Friday, July 20, 2012

Shakespeare on film

Two different friends, in very different settings, recently asked me the same question: how do I get into Shakespeare?  We know Shakespeare's supposed to be great, and we've probably had to read him in high school, often in a setting that pretty much guarantees he won't seem cool.  Still, people I trust tell me Shakespeare's awesome.  How do I get into him?  What do you recommend?

My first reaction is to point out that Shakespeare was a playwright, a theatre guy, writing plays for dramatic production.  So the best way into him should be by seeing really good productions of his work.  The problem with that is finding those productions.  Shakespeare's performed a lot, and often rather badly.  If you go to a production and are bored out of your mind, my guess is, you won't be in any hurry to repeat the experience.  And there are no guarantees.  I've seen Shakespeare done in major productions by important, famous actors which sucked, and I've seen Shakespeare done in tiny fifty-seat theaters by actors no one had ever heard of and it was brilliant.  (Including the best Twelfth Night I've ever seen.) 

You could read the plays.  I've read them all, and I've read some of them many times over, and I think reading Shakespeare can be a rich and rewarding experience, but for people just discovering Shakespeare, he can be difficult.  He was writing poetry in 16th century English.  Make sure you have a good edition--the Riverside or the Arden or something--with lots of footnotes, or you're going to spend a lot of time just trying to figure out what the heck he's talking about.  If you're lucky enough to take a Shakespeare class from an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and patient teacher, you'll have a tremendous experience.  But Shakespeare is taught poorly about as often as he's performed poorly.

But you can watch movies.  And here's the secret: Shakespeare works brilliantly on film. I can think of three reasons for this.  First, the stage Shakespeare was writing for was very fluid--just a bare platform, with maybe a chair or two in some scenes.  The plays were meant to flow, meant to really move.  Film does that: a jump cut in film isn't far off from a Shakespearean exuant.  Second, at the heart of any Shakespeare play is the soliloquy, those amazing moments when a character addresses the audience, tells 'em what s/he's thinking.  It actually works better in a film closeup than in some theaters, especially big proscenium houses, where the audience is way . . . over. . . . there.  Third, Shakespeare's language is poetic, built on imagery, on verbal equivalents to visual beauty.  Elaborate stage sets don't serve Shakespeare well--they take too long to move on and off.  But scenery is great in film.

Ron Rosenbaum has four films he recommends for starters.  One is the 1953 Peter Brook King Lear film, with Orson Welles.  It's available on Netflix, which has, I'm not kidding, like ten Lears available.  I prefer Ian McKellen's.  Rosenbaum also loves Olivier's Richard III. It's good, but McKellen, again, also has a good one.

This happens a lot. Henry V? Olivier's is great, but I prefer Branaghs.  Much Ado About Nothing?  Again, I love Branagh's, but can't wait for Joss Whedon's.  Do you prefer Baz Luhrman's Romeo + 
Juliet, or Franco Zeffirelli's more classically romantic Romeo and Juliet

I've previously blogged about Ralph Fiennes' new Coriolanus film.  A few friends responded by asking if I'd seen the David Tennant Hamlet.  I hadn't but checked it out, and was astonished by Patrick Stewart's superb Claudius.  Some people, including Rosenbaum, rave the Richard Burton Hamlet, which is indeed very good, but I'm still a fan of Derek Jacobi's, and think there's a lot to be said for Branagh's (just fast-forward his 'to be or not to be,' which he punts), and Ethan Hawke's (which has Bill Murray as a wonderful Polonius). 

Here's a starter kit of ten films I really like a lot, all of them available on Netflix:

Hamlet: Branagh's is uneven, but some scenes are terrific, and it's close to the entire play, uncut.  If you want to see a theatre-on-film version that's very good, try Kevin Kline's. 

King Lear:  Ian McKellen.

Macbeth: The one with Patrick Stewart.

Othello: I really love Laurence Fishburn's.  Very non-Matrix-y.

Much Ado About Nothing:  Branagh's version is so charming and lovely, this might be the one film I'd urge you to start with.

A Midsummer Night's Dream:  I really like Peter Hall's 1964 one, but there's a movie star version that's pretty good too, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart and Dominic West and Christian Bale and Stanley Tucci, and . . . .

Romeo + Juliet. High school English teachers hate the Baz Luhrman film, which is as good a reason as I can think of to see it. 

As you Like It: Branagh again, this time with Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind. 

Coriolanus: with Ralph Fiennes.

Titus Andronicus, directed by Julie Taymor.  As close as we're ever going to get to Quentin Tarantino's Shakespeare.

This is only a few.  Shakespeare, it turns out, really is the best screenwriter in Hollywood right now. 


  1. I watched Hamlet to feed my obsession with David Tennant, and at the end of the film rekindled an old obsession for Patrick Stewart's work. I typically loathe tragedies, but Hamlet gets me every time.

  2. Have you seen the Twelfth Night directed Trevor Nunn and with Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio and Ben Kingsley as Feste? It is my favorite filmed Shakespeare.