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Shakespeare on Film


My story starts at sea... a perilous voyage to an unknown land... a shipwreck... the wild waters roar and heave... the brave vessel is dashed all to pieces, and all the helpless souls within her drowned... all save one... a lady... whose soul is greater than the ocean... and her spirit stronger than the sea's embrace... not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. It will be a love story... for she will be my heroine for all time. And her name... Viola.

Though the Shakespeare we know could not have imagined his plays being turned into films, the prescient Shakespeare that appears in "Shakespeare in Love" certainly could. In the final moments of John Madden's 1998 film, we hear the voice of the playwright Will Shakespeare describing the opening moments from his soon-to-be-written play, "Twelfth Night." "My story starts at sea," he says, and he proceeds to speak of the perilous voyage, the storm, and the shipwreck in purely cinematic terms. Of course the sea, the storm, and the shipwreck would not have been seen on the Globe stage; instead, the Elizabethan audience would have heard the Captain's eye-witness account:
...after our ship did split, When you and those poor number saved with you Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother, Most provident in peril, bind himself (Courage and hope both teaching him the practice) To a strong mast that lived upon the sea, Where, like Arion on the dolphin's back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves So long as I could see. (1.2.10-18)
But in their screenplay's synopsis of "Twelfth Night " for "Shakespeare in Love," Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman didn't begin with Orsino's "If music be the food of love..." or Viola's "What country, friends, is this?" as she steps on to the seacoast of Bohemia. The need to emphasize the visual for a 20th century audience was too tempting for them to ignore. Audiences would have to wait about 300 years before they could actually see Shakespeare on film, and the love affair between the world's greatest writer and the world's most popular art form hasn't stopped since.

The Silent Era: "The rest is silence"

It didn't take long after the invention of the cinema for filmmakers to adapt Shakespeare's plays to the screen. Perhaps the first example is an 1899, four-minute scene from a London production of "King John." What makes this first attempt so interesting is that the film shows King John signing the Magna Carta, an event which Shakespeare does not include in the text of the play. By putting his own spin on Shakespearean film, the actor and director, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree began a tradition of adaptation that still exists.

Though "Silent Shakespeare" might seem like an oxymoron, Shakespeare was a favorite of the early filmmakers. While Englishmen regarded the whole phenomenon as blasphemous, American, French, German, and Italian filmmakers knew that their audiences would be familiar with the plots and started cranking their cameras, adding title cards with Shakespeare's dialogue, and creating mostly ten-minute, one-reel versions of the plays. In a 1910 Vitagraph adaptation of "Twelfth Night," Viola emerged from the wild waters of Illyria onto the sands of the south shore of Long Island, an image that would make Joseph Fiennes' Shakespeare proud. Several American producers soon attempted grander projects. In 1916, D.W. Griffith signed Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree for $100,000 to play Macbeth. Griffith said he wanted Beerbohm Tree's performance as Macbeth to be immortalized. Sadly, the film is now lost. Another notable lost film was the 1916 Romeo and Juliet with Francis X. Bushman and Theda Bara.

While it's possible that a ground-breaking teacher somewhere actually used some of these silent films in a 1920's classroom, I doubt it. Using film to teach Shakespeare would not happen for quite some time.

The Sound Era: "You ain't heard nothin' yet"

The transition from silent to sound was best typified in 1929's "The Taming of the Shrew" with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. It was filmed originally as silent; dialogue and sound effects were added later because sound was suddenly available. Other notables from those early years were Max Reinhardt's 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Mickey Rooney, James Cagney, and Joe E. Brown and the 1936 "As You Like It" with Laurence Olivier. These were followed by Olivier's British masterpieces, the 1944 "Henry V," the 1948 "Hamlet," and the 1955 "Richard III."

In the 1950s and 1960s, schools began to show Shakespeare films, but only in a limited way. Olivier's "Hamlet," Orson Welles' 1948 "Macbeth," Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 "Julius Caesar," and Franco Zefferelli's 1968 "Romeo and Juliet" were popular mostly because not much else existed. Some veteran teachers can recall loading their students onto buses and attending a special daytime showing of a film at a local theater. Sometimes these showings were timed to the scheduled run of the film, but the theater owner could also be persuaded to rent the film for a private showing. Usually the teachers would arrange the showing soon after reading the play. To guarantee enough students to cover the rental cost, several teachers - or in some cases, several schools - would bring their classes at the same time, even though they all might not have taught the play just yet. The field trips were fun and "educational," but they were rarely integral to the actual way the schools were teaching the plays.

By the middle of the 1960s schools began to use their noisy 16mm projectors to show films other than Drivers' Education, Personal Hygiene, or Home Economics. English teachers discovered catalogues in which they could rent Shakespeare and other films at a hefty price. But the cost was just the beginning of the problems. To be economical, the films usually had to be shared, and they required rewinding at the end of each period - tough to do if you had only four or five minutes passing time before the next class showed up to see the film. Sometimes the films were shown in the school auditorium for larger groups, but the image and sound were never really good enough for that. Teachers often had trouble synching the picture with the sound and had to make desperate calls to the AV Squad. The film stocks were often worn and cracked and might break during a crucial scene. The most serious liability was that the schools had ordered the films early in the year (usually the previous spring) and had to return the reels after one week. The high cost prevented a school from renting a film more than once a year, so when a film arrived, everything else stopped.

In these scenarios, the film was either used to whet students' appetites for a play they would be reading later in the year or as a reward for getting through the play. Afterward, teachers would certainly discuss the films in class, but again the discussion usually wasn't central to the Shakespeare unit and probably didn't have much to do with the text. Stopping a film mid-reel to discuss the director's vision was simply out of the question.

The TV and Video Era: "Let's go to the videotape."

As Shakespeare films started to appear on television in the '50s and '60s, many teachers recommended that their students watch them, but there wasn't much chance that the films could be tied to the curriculum. Hallmark, the Kansas City greeting card company, produced several Shakespeare productions for American television between 1953 and 1970. For many Americans, this was their first taste of "live" Shakespeare, but it gave many of them the false impression that Maurice Evans was the only actor capable of playing Shakespeare's leading men. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) Shakespeare series, "The Shakespeare Plays," began taping in 1978 with "Romeo and Juliet" and completed its 37-play cycle in 1985 with "Titus Andronicus." The productions tended to closely follow the text and were broadcast first in the UK and the following year in the US on PBS. Though only occasionally inspired, they did feature some significant performances.

Some blockbuster movies were also released in theaters at this time: Olivier's 1965 "Othello," Franco Zeffirelli's 1966 "The Taming of the Shrew" with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Tony Richardson's 1969 "Hamlet" with Nicol Williamson, Peter Hall's 1969 "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Roman Polanski's 1971 "Macbeth." But the English classroom remained the same - and film instruction was tied to either field trips or those unmanageable 16mm projectors.

In 1975, Sony sold the first Betamax home video cassette recorders, and a year later the first VHS (Video Home System) machines appeared. Schools were slow to adopt the new technology, and it wasn't until the early '80s that teachers had access to VCRs. Of course, the problem now was that there were not many plays available on tape, and that didn't really change until the early '90s. Teachers sometimes taped plays at home from TV and showed these in classes, but except for the flexibility in scheduling, the way teachers used film didn't change. The students would enter the classroom, the lights would go off, and the machine would begin to play. Actually this experience might have been worse than that of the 16mm films because students now had to squint at a small television set and strain to hear sound coming from a 3-inch speaker.

What really changed the way teachers use film didn't happen until the mid '90s when films became widely available. Armed with multiple versions of the same play, they tossed out the old linear paradigm of watching the film chronologically and began to show clips of the same scene for comparison. The teacher could hand out videos for students to view at home in groups. Or she could show only part of a film or different versions for different scenes. The class could break the film down into its individual components - sound, cinematography, set design, screenplay, or acting - and intelligently discuss what they had observed. The teacher could use the remote to freeze-frame the image and discuss the director's shot composition.

Now students began talking about directors' visions and actors' choices. They were learning that Shakespeare was wide open to interpretation. They might soon learn that Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were not the only actors who could play in "Romeo and Juliet," and that that theme music didn't have to be playing throughout the film.

And of course, there were suddenly many wonderful examples to use: Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" (1989) and "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993); Franco Zefferelli's "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson (1990); Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet" (2000); Michael Hoffman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Kevin Kline (1999); Oliver Parker's "Othello" with Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago (1996); Richard Loncrane's "Richard III" with Ian McKellan (1995); and Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (1996).

But now we are in the 21st Century and the way we use film to teach Shakespeare will certainly continue to change. With the addition of DVDs with director and actor commentaries, TiVO, video on demand, broadband access, streaming video, and whatever the next innovation is, the way we use film to teach Shakespeare will not look like it does today. And smart teachers everywhere will use the latest technology wisely to create a new vision and a new pedagogy that will help their students appreciate and love Shakespeare's words.

About the Author

Michael LoMonico teaches at Stony Brook University and is the Associate Director of Education for The English-Speaking Union of the United States. He is the founder and editor of Shakespeare magazine and has served as Master Teacher and Director of the Folger Library's Teaching Shakespeare Institutes.
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