"Textual and Sexual Anxieties in Michael Hoffman's Film of A Midsummer Night's Dream"

By Buhler, Stephen M. | Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

"Textual and Sexual Anxieties in Michael Hoffman's Film of A Midsummer Night's Dream"


Buhler, Stephen M., Shakespeare Bulletin


Bringing Shakespeare to mass-market motion picture audiences is never a safe proposition. At times, film makers and producers have attempted to hedge their bets by offering moviegoers implicit--and nearly explicit--contracts suggesting that immediate entertainment rewards will accrue in return for their dollars and time. Most of these contracts have not been successful: the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet promised both star power and pageantry; instead, it confirmed the Hollywood notion that Shakespeare was box-office poison. A few proposals, however, have worked exceptionally well: Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo+Juliet promised star power and a completely up-to-date milieu and presentation; it attracted exactly the youthful audiences to which the film reached out. For his 1999 A Midsummer Night's Dream, director Michael Hoffman tried to follow in this tradition, with a few extra safety nets set in place. The resulting film provides recognizable stars, but also promises familiarity in approach: this is, allegedly, Shakespeare according to Kenneth Branagh (with, perhaps, a little Merchant-Ivory thrown in). Among the many elements that Hoffman does borrow from Branagh is a keen desire not to offend, especially where gender is concerned. Rather like Bottom and the other Mechanicals in the play, Hoffman is anxious about aspects of the comedy "that will never please" (3.1.10; Hoffman 47). Instead of reframing those aspects, he attempts to remove them.

The indebtedness of Hoffman's Dream to Branagh's Much Ado has been widely noted; initial reviewers marked the connection both approvingly (Gantz) and disapprovingly (Bemrose, Carr). The most obvious influence is the Tuscan setting at or near the turn of the previous century; more complex negotiations have been traced by Mark Thornton Burnett (186-89). A deeper connection, I would argue, is the employment of avoidance strategies: neither Hoffman nor Branagh wish to give audiences any further excuse to stay away from Shakespeare. Stanley Kauffmann, in his New Republic review, opines that what Hoffman hoped to avoid was the perception of "being dull" (32)--an anxiety from which Branagh, the reviewer believes, generally does not suffer. I would argue that both directors would rather be dully inoffensive than controversial: they want to forestall possible criticism of the plays and of their films not for being dull, but for being sexist, for perpetuating unenlightened views of women. They are anxious, first and foremost, that women in the potential audience will not be alienated from seeing their motion pictures; to avoid this, they take pains to present the principal male characters of the plays--and, by extension, the plays themselves and their playwright--as exceptionally nice, sensitive guys. This strategy, however, reveals more than it conceals. The plays depict male anxieties about authority, affection, devotion, and duty; they present the sexual, social, and personal politics involved in ways that invite analysis and critique. The films, in their haste to prevent any distaste, even if it might prompt audiences to participate in such critique, effectively enact male anxieties. To borrow from the title of Courtney Lehmann's fine essay (260), they seek to take "the rage out of feminism" preemptively by eliminating from the plays male attitudes and behaviors that could provoke justifiable outrage.

At the heart of Hoffman's and Branagh's shared anxiety is an attitude that Douglas Lanier has termed "the burden of the text" ("Drowning" 191)--a sense that the "monumentality of the Shakespearean book," along with the "textual authority" represented by the plays, must be confronted and challenged as part of "the perennial struggle of Shakespearean cinema to free itself from the constraints of bookishness" (192). Lanier is accurate in his description of the attitude; Burnett astutely points out its applicability to the intertextual resonances at work between Hoffman's Dream and Branagh's Much Ado (194). …

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