Eisenstein Rediscovered

By Ian Christie; Richard Taylor | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Eisenstein and Shakespeare

N.M. Lary

Eisenstein's English-speaking audience views his last film project from a perspective dominated by the histories and tragedies of Shakespeare. Echoes of the plays abound in the two parts of Ivan the Terrible the Soviet film-maker was allowed to complete. Of course Eisenstein worked with a multiplicity of models; examples from many different artists were constantly finding application in his work. He noted with surprise the way something out of the great fund of works he had read and seen would come to mind at the very moment it could be useful to him. Other artists helped him-also challenged him: Naum Kleiman has spoken about the sense of contest or competition in Eisenstein's relations with other artists. 1 While acknowledging the role of the many other artistic examples that continually interact in Eisenstein's work, we may focus on what Eisenstein learned from Shakespeare. And we are free to pass to the questions of how he measured himself against the playwright and how we ourselves measure Eisenstein against Shakespeare.

My undertaking here is a preliminary one, a clearing of the ground. I will review the history of Eisenstein's engagement with Shakespeare, consider some of the evidence that Eisenstein conceived his last film project as a tragedy and look at his late writings on Shakespeare to see how they bear on his use of Shakespeare in his creative work.

One difficulty may be mentioned at the outset. We are well advised to look for a typology of Elizabethan and Jacobean moments in the Ivan films but we cannot consider Eisenstein's relation to Shakespeare alone. We also need to remember the relevance of Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Webster (possibly his favourite 'Elizabethans'). 2 He soon learned to see Shakespeare in relation to these other playwrights. He was helped in this by his friend, the scholar, critic and translator of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, I.A. Aksyonov (who also wrote two studies of Eisenstein and one of Picasso), and by T.S. Eliot's Sacred Wood, which he read with close attention. 3

Take Yevfrosinia's descent into madness at the end of Part II of the film as she clutches her dead son, mistakenly killed in place of Ivan as a conse-

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