Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Cinematizing Shakespeare

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Cinematizing Shakespeare

Article excerpt

It's been said that if William Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing for the movies. More likely, he'd be engaged in acrimonious credit-battles with the Writers Guild to ward off his plagiarists. I can visualize the financially astute playwright trying to persuade someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger that he'd make a "terrific Coriolanus" or sweet-talking Leona Helmsely or Martha Stewart into playing Lady Macbeth. If he ever won an Oscar, his acceptance speech, thanking all the sources he himself had plagiarized, would probably make the show run disastrously overtime.

According to the official filmography, there are over five hundred videos and films of Shakespeare's plays. That doesn't include plot rip-offs like Joe Macbeth, Forbidden Planet and 10 Things I Hate About You, scrounged from Macbeth, The Tempest and Taming of the Shrew respectively. The first film treatment was the rather uncinematic King John, a silent film made by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899. What's memorable about that little item is not so much the work of William Shakespeare (which hangs like a dank mist over the picture) but the insight it gives us into the late nineteenth-century acting-style which, as we all know, was histrionic, overstated and, what we disdainfully dismiss today as "hammy"--although Tree, like Forrest, Booth, Kean and Kemble--were considered consummate classical actors in their day and so there was obviously something compelling there which we're unable to appreciate in our post-Stanislavskian era.

There is no way that anyone can possibly survey over five hundred varied artifacts and come to a conclusion that holds true for them all. But "generalizations" are the distant cousins of "conclusions," and because less sweeping, they might conceivably throw a little light on the subject.

I've never met a Shakespearean purist who has ever been satisfied with a film adaptation of any of his plays. The feeling persists that no matter how cinematic a motion picture might be, the fact that it's been clawed out of the root-and-branch of a theatrical work suggests one is always assessing some degree of molestation or rape. Given Shakespeare's proclivity to ravage literary sources for his own works, this is a fairly untenable position. If you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, you certainly can't make an effective Shakespearean film without pillaging the plays' basic ingredients.

One has only to look at those films which have tried to cleave loyally to the originals-like Paul Czinner's As You Like It or the Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer Romeo and Juliet or the entire canon adapted into a white-bread-television

series by Jonathan Miller for the BBC--to recognize that stage-transplants are biologically rejected by the metabolism that conditions movies.

But we also have to recognize that taking liberties can be just as disastrous, and that a Peter Greenaway riff on The Tempest like Prospero's Books starring the voice, rather than the persona, of John Gielgud, can come across as a beautifully embossed platter of artificial fruit.

So the question arises: if one can't simply train a camera on a classic and make it work as a movie, and if inflating a work with dazzling cinematic imagery is just as hazardous, what is the middle-ground? And is the middle-ground where artists should be pitching their tents, since we know that real artists usually gravitate towards the margins rather than towards the center. There are some provisional answers to these questions but in order for them to be persuasive, we have first to examine some of these films.

Film directors continually talk about "opening up" Shakespeare for the big screen. To me, this always brings to mind Jack-the-Ripper "opening up" the innards of his East End victims in order to slice out their entrails. "Opening up" a story, so as to make full use of the cinematic medium, is a necessary tactic in all film-adaptations, but as any surgeon will tell you, if you go too far in "opening up" up a sentient being, you stand a good chance of closing down the patient altogether, illustrating the old gag in which "the operation was a success, but the patient died. …

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