Criticism for the Filmed Shakespeare

By Homan, Sidney R. | Literature/Film Quarterly, Fall 1977 | Go to article overview

Criticism for the Filmed Shakespeare


Homan, Sidney R., Literature/Film Quarterly


We have grown accustomed, perhaps too accustomed, to fairly well-defined approaches in literary criticism-formalism, Marxist critiques, psychological analysis, the historical method. That these separate approaches get us closer to the "truth" of a literary work is a moot point, and Morris Weitz in his study Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism wisely suggests that each critical performance is finally an honorific redefinition of the principles of the individual writer.1 Indeed, the exclusive nature of these schools, when they are pushed to the extreme, has properly spawned a counter-movementa more charitable approach combining several methods- interdisciplinary methodology.

Yet when we look at current film criticism, particularly that given to Shakespeare in films, we find no such clearly defined schools, but rather what could most accurately be called a rich confusion- or, as a colleague recently put it, merely "a messy house." When a particular "approach" is attempted, it is often criticized more for its shortcomings than its accomplishments. A short time ago, for instance, a scholar delivered a rather new-critical paper on Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, in which the movement of characters across the screen, at oblique angles to its four corners or in circles, was woven into a thesis about the moral aesthetics of the camera: namely, that the frantic energy of angular movements was at odds with the orderly, restorative pattern of circles. An approach perfectly at home in a formalistic reading of, say, a Henry James novel, it drew something less than praise when applied to a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare. Or, to cite a more general case, look at the collected pieces in Charles W. Eckert's Focus on Shakespearean Films and you will find the overwhelming number of articles clearly eclectic.2

What I want to talk about here are the types, as I see them, of current criticism of the filmed Shakespeare, then some of the problems peculiar to these types, and-since problems are often only the other side of the coin-some of the possibilities, the potentialities of this "new" field.

I

Categories are, of course, only arbitrary impositions on reality, and so, although I intend the following five to be more inclusive than exclusive, there is considerable overlapping.

(1) The Film as Play or Interpretation: A good deal of criticism, particularly earlier criticism, sees the Shakespeare film as essentially a filmed play. The critic's authence has witnessed an identical version; it is in the can with the finality of the published text. Here the critical vocabulary is quite often indistinguishable from that used in straight literary criticism; there is, correspondingly, little sense of the role of the medium. As a result, we are left with a question unanswered: in committing Shakespeare to film rather than to the stage, are we not in some ways determining the philosophic structure of its fictive world?

If one is willing to consider the film as almost exclusively a "criticism" of the play, then this method is valid. Yet, with this approach film and play often lose their uniqueness, their identities. Mary McCarthy talks about Olivier's Hamlet as if she were seeing not a film, with all the possibilities of that medium, but a live stage production:

Already, in his first scene, Hamlet is grieving for the death of his father, but woodenly, uncomprehendingly, bitterly, as a child grieves who refuses to countenance that such things can happen in the world. The Ghost's appearance is to him almost an adventure. He rushes down from his interview full of jokes and wildness; his boredom is gone- at last he has something to do. But the Ghost's commission is not really quixotic. The enterprise loses its zest with Hamlet's recognition that it is an actual man he must kill, his uncle, whom he knows very well, a sleazy piece of the old, tedious reality. Bored, sullen, and angry, he diverts himself by tormenting Ophelia, whom he suspects of being One of Them. …

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