Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video

By Lynda E. Boose; Richard Burt | Go to book overview

5

POPULARIZING SHAKESPEARE

The artistry of Franco Zeffirelli

Robert Hapgood

“I have always been a popularizer, ” Franco Zeffirelli declares in the self-portrait that concludes his Autobiography (Zeffirelli 1986:341). He is speaking of his work in staging and filming opera, but his words apply equally well to his Shakespeare films: The Taming of the Shrew (1966), Romeo andJuliet (1968), and Hamlet (1990). As he once explained to an interviewer: “I have always felt sure I could break the myth that Shakespeare on stage and screen is only an exercise for the intellectual. I want his plays to be enjoyed by ordinary people” (Lucas 1967:94). Comparison will show that in all three of his Shakespeare films his efforts in this direction have much in common. The differences among them will also reward analysis and help to explain why of the three-all of them estimable in their own ways-Romeo and Juliet is the most successful, artistically as well as commercially.

Two reasons make Zeffirelli's success as a popularizer especially worth examination now. Costs of filmmaking have risen so high that if full-budget Shakespeare films are to be made at all they must have a wide appeal that only Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Kenneth Branagh have so far achieved. Furthermore, it is beginning to look as though Zeffirelli's approach will prove to be more durable than Olivier's. Olivier's most popular films, Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1947), have dated badly; now about fifty years old, they have for some time been virtually intolerable-even laughable-to my college students; while Zeffirelli's nearly thirty-year-old Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet seem almost as accessible as ever and indeed still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. Of Branagh, and his work as a popularizer of Shakespeare, more will be said at the end.

As Zeffirelli's career as a filmmaker attests, a popularizer and a popular artist are not necessarily the same. At best, his recent forays into films with a directly popular appeal have had mixed results. 1 It was as a popularizer that Zeffirelli made his name in films, and it is as such that his greatest successes have come. In a sense Shakespeare himself was not only a popular artist but also a popularizer. For a largely illiterate audience he transferred from page to stage and from narrative to drama some of the central writings of his time, such as the historical chronicles of Plutarch and Holinshed. Like Zeffirelli, Shakespeare's gifts were not

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Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Plates vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Totally Clueless? 8
  • Notes 20
  • 2 - Race-Ing Othello, Re-Engendering White-Out 23
  • Notes 41
  • 3 - War is Mud 45
  • 4 - Top of the World, Ma 67
  • Notes 78
  • 5 - Popularizing Shakespeare 80
  • Notes 93
  • 6 - Shakespeare Wallah and Colonial Specularity 95
  • Notes 102
  • 7 - Poetry in Motion 103
  • References 119
  • 8 - When Peter Met Orson 121
  • References 134
  • 9 - In Search of Nothing 135
  • References 146
  • Stage Performances of King Lear Cited 147
  • 10 - A Shrew for the Times 148
  • Films and Videos Discussed 168
  • 11 - Shakespeare in the Age of Post-Mechanical Reproduction 169
  • References 185
  • 12 - Grossly Gaping Viewers and Jonathan Miller's Othello 186
  • 13 - Age Cannot Wither Him 198
  • Notes 213
  • 14 - Asta Nielsen and the Mystery of Hamlet 215
  • References 224
  • 15 - The Family Tree Motel 225
  • References 239
  • 16 - The Love That Dare Not Speak Shakespeare's Name 240
  • References 267
  • Index 269
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