Category Archives: Shakespeare

Two items of (Shakespearean) note:

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these two bits of news. One of them is actually old news, but I never got around to posting about it. What can I say? Life’s busy.


1. Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous opens this weekend. It’s based upon the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship, which suggests that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. I have to admit to having been a fan of this particular theory, as it has some really good points. However, this piece in last week’s NYT Magazine has shown me the error of my ways. I don’t entirely agree with his take on the movie itself; I don’t think that it’s going to completely change the way people think about who Shakespeare was. I do think it looks a bit ridiculous, but it’s got a good cast, and I support anything that is a starring vehicle for Rhys Ifans, so I hope it does well. I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it eventually. Anyway, here’s the trailer.


2. Apparently, Joss Whedon has completed a “secret movie project”: Much Ado About Nothing. There’s very little information about it; mostly just what appears on the website, there. Now, despite being a fan of Shakespeare, Joss Whedon, and (most importantly) Nathan Fillion, I am a good deal skeptical about this. First of all, I think that 1993’s Much Ado about Nothing (the Branagh version) is a movie that belongs on the “Do Not Remake” list. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s a film adaptation of a play by Shakespeare, and as such is performed over and over and over again. For me, though, having a film version is a little more lasting, and I just don’t believe that the performances (Branagh and Thompson’s in particular) can be improved upon. I do hope (and assume, although maybe not) that Fillion is playing Benedick, which I think is a pretty good fit, but beyond that, most of these people are either semi-minor players in the Whedonverse or complete unknowns, and I’m just not sure how it’ll all play out.
One can probably infer from the picture on the website that this version will have some sort of modernized setting, and I personally wonder if they will be using the Shakespearean text. Something about the vague “Based upon a play” tagline leaves me considering the extent to which this is really going to be Much Ado. Basically, there are lots of questions. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for more news of this, so stay tuned.

Update: Here’s a more detailed story from Fillion is not Benedick (boo!), it is definitely “modern,” based on the pictures. Enh?
Update 2: Clearly, I should have done more research. It wasn’t up when I checked yesterday, but now if you click on the movie page, you will be redirected to the press release, which gives a complete cast list. Which is exceedingly disappointing. I fail to understand why you would take what is easily the most recognizable name you have and give them the lousiest role. Fillion probably wanted to play the “clown” part, but Dogberry is, I think, the worst clown in the entire Shakespeare repertoire. Sorry, Whedon. This fan is not on board.

That’s all from the Shakespearean News Desk for now. I’m still waiting for Taymor’s The Tempest to get a DVD release date. And for someone to make my blockbuster, star-studded adaptation of Macbeth. I’m also pondering the fact that Branagh ought to take his breakout star from Thor (that’d be Tom Hiddleston) and get back to his roots. Hmmm. Which play is due for a film version … ?

Trailer: Coriolanus

FINALLY. Shakespeare. Ralph Fiennes directing and starring. Also starring: Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain. Woo-freaking-hoo. No, seriously.

Review: The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Taylor. Burton. Zeffirelli. Shakespeare. What could go wrong? Not a lot, as it turns out, in this fun adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. Hollywood’s greatest lovers team up to bring Shakespeare’s moneygrubbing Petruchio and feisty Katharine to life, and the result is, if not exactly electrifying, certainly entertaining.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, here it is. It’s actually reasonably uncomplicated, by Shakespearean standards. Baptista of Padua has two daughters: Katharina, who is a terror, and Bianca, who is all things sweet and lovely. Bianca has three suitors, among them the handsome scholar Lucentio (introducing Michael York!), lately come to Padua. Unfortunately for them, Baptista has sworn that he will not marry off Bianca until he has found a husband for Katharina, which is well-nigh impossible because she is so disagreeable. Enter Petruchio, an acquaintance of one of the suitors, who has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife. He declares that he will marry anyone if she comes with a large-enough dowry, and agrees to take on the wooing of Katharina. In short order they are married, and he then sets about “taming” her by making her as miserable in her new life as possible, and showing her the effect her type of behavior has on other people. Meanwhile, Lucentio is posing as Bianca’s tutor in order to woo her, and his servant, Tranio, is posing as Lucentio. Their deception comes unraveled when Lucentio’s father arrives, but all is sorted out and Lucentio wins Bianca’s hand. Petruchio and the (now-tamed) Katharina return for the wedding celebration, where Katharina delivers a speech on the appropriate duty of women to their husbands, and they all live, presumably, happily ever after.

This is a really fun adaptation to watch. It’s a very earthy, physically humorous production, and of course the lead actors are completely mesmerizing. This was my introduction to Richard Burton, and for the most part he did not disappoint. He started out as a classical actor on the stage, and it’s clear that Shakespearean verse comes as naturally to him as breathing. His Petruchio is very rough-and-tumble, and it added an interesting dimension to the plot in that while he is taming Katharina, she is also taming him. Elizabeth Taylor is not the first actress who would come to mind for the shrewish Katharina, but she holds her own quite admirably. She’s not as comfortable with the lines, but in her early scenes she lets go of her typically glamorous personae and is a shrieking terror; throwing everything she can get her hands on at anyone who crosses her path, glaring and fuming and cursing. I wouldn’t want to mess with her. The supporting cast are all quite funny and capable, but really, you’re only watching for the Burtons, and it’s totally worth it.

The film is not without flaws, but they’re mostly due to the screenplay, I think. It feels very rushed and choppy some of the time, since with Shakespeare one usually has to make a fair amount of cuts in order to have a movie of tolerable length. The end, where Katharina shows up “tamed” (which is only loosely interpreted here, I think) seems to come from out of nowhere. It’s typical Shakespeare in that he ties up all his loose ends for the finale, but I can’t recall if it’s quite so cut-and-dried in the play, or if it’s always this abrupt. Overall, though, everyone onscreen seems to be having such a good time that you’ll be taken along for the ride.

It’s easy to see how the star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could be accused of overshadowing the films in which they appeared, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t, in my opinion) detract from their abilities as actors. The great aspects of this production are the little things, the little glances and expressions and small moments that these two world-class performers bring to their roles. It doesn’t always happen in Shakespeare that you see the characters as real people, but that’s what Taylor and Burton have managed here. Katharina and Petruchio are two flawed individuals who end up together, and slowly realize that they’re pretty happy about that, and that it’s changing them for the better. In this interpretation, we are not necessarily lead to believe that “happily ever after” will be a quiet affair, but then, whose ever really is?

Shakespeare’s Comedies: Much Ado About Nothing

Where tragedies end in deaths, comedies end in weddings, especially where Shakespeare is concerned. In fact, the more, the merrier! We get two in Much Ado About Nothing, which was adapted fabulously for the screen by Kenneth Branagh in 1993. Much Ado, particularly treated by Branagh, is an excellent introduction to the form and style of Shakespearean comedy … the only thing it really lacks is cross-dressing. Still, outside of that particular convention, the rest of the tricks that the Bard usually employs are here: a playful game, mistaken identities, the “romantic” lovers and the less conventional ones, a “villain,” a dramatic turn, some bizarre “rustic” types, and the eventual happy ending.

Don Pedro and his entourage, including young Claudio, rogueish Benedick, and “reformed” villain, Don John (Pedro’s brother) are on their way to Messina to quarter with Leonato. Their arrival is anticipated by Leonato’s household, including his daughter, the lovely young Hero, and her cousin, Beatrice, who is Benedick’s counterpart in wit. You can already see the match-ups happening, right? Claudio and Hero fall in love, while Beatrice and Benedick mock them, until Don Pedro has the idea to trick the two clever people into falling in love with each other, with great success. Of course, however, the course of true love never ran true, and so Don John, sickened by all the happiness and merriment, sets out to upset the party. One of his henchman engages in an amorous encounter, orchestrated to be witnessed by Claudio and Don Pedro, with Hero’s serving woman, whom he calls “Hero” in Claudio’s hearing. Drama ensues, Claudio publicly denounces Hero on their wedding day, Hero’s death is staged, friends become enemies, and it’s all a big mess.

Enter the rustics, Dogberry and his sidekick, Verges. They happen to overhear Don John’s minions boasting of their trick, and take it upon themselves to arrest the gentlemen and turn them over to Leonato. Meanwhile, Claudio is remorseful at the supposed death of Hero, and a plan is derived to have him marry another of Hero’s “cousins,” who will really be Hero herself. In due course, everything is revealed, Don John is revealed as a villain, Beatrice and Benedick’s love is revealed, and Much Ado ends with the requisite weddings and dancing.

In writing all that out, I realize how convoluted and complicated it sounds. But when you’re watching Branagh’s film, you might not care that you don’t quite catch every little twist, because the whole thing is just so lovely. The film is set in the sunny Italian countryside, the cast is handsome, and there’s some great use of color (nearly everyone wears white except for the rustics, who are sort of dusty and grey) to really hit the right mood of joy and playfulness. We are reminded throughout, even when things get serious, that it really is all “much ado about nothing.”

And about that cast: I would call it 99.9% brilliant, but I actually differ slightly from most people in the casting I feel is problematic. We’ll get to that in a minute. Beatrice and Benedick are some of my absolute favorite characters in Shakespeare, and accordingly, Branagh saves them for himself and his (then-) wife, the lovely and absolutely fantastic Emma Thompson. Truly, the two of them have never looked as gorgeous as they do here, and I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere, any time mastering the banter between these two characters any more successfully. The young lovers are played with youthful earnestness by Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard, and they are no less convincing in their sweet innocence. Particularly if all you know of Beckinsale is her inclusion in second-rate action-y flicks, I would recommend watching this film. There are some acting chops there, I promise.

Denzel Washington and Richard Briers are excellent as Don Pedro and Leonato, respectively. And here’s where we get to everyone’s problem with this film: Don John is played by Keanu Reeves. Yep, Theodore “Ted” Logan, doing Shakespeare. And here’s where I differ from popular opinion. I think he does just fine.  Don John is a pretty taciturn and sullen fellow, really. While you could play him with scenery-chewing savagery, it’s not really necessary, and so I think that Reeves’ expressionlessness works for him here. The casting that I have a problem with is Dogberry, played by Michael Keaton.  Part of the problem could be bigger than Keaton – the Dogberry scenes don’t fit in to the play as a whole as well as, say, the rustic scenes in Midsummer Night’s Dream (which we’ll get to later, I promise), but particularly, Keaton is just sort of manic, mumbly and hard to follow. Every time I watch this movie, I am tempted to fast-forward through his parts. Whatever he’s trying to do with the character, it comes off as less funny and more … slightly off-putting. But don’t let that deter you!!

Seriously, this is a beautiful movie, and the major acting (Branagh/Thompson and Beckinsale/Leonard) is of the highest caliber. I think it’s hard to analyze the comedies through the same lens as the tragedies, because they’re really supposed to be light and fluffy. As complex as we think a Shakespearean comedy is today, it was pretty much the equivalent of a rom-com in Elizabethan times. There could have been some satire going on, maybe certain characters were supposed to evoke certain social stereotypes of the day, but mostly, these plays were just cheap entertainment for the masses.  At any rate, I think that Much Ado About Nothing holds up really well, thanks to Mr. Branagh’s excellent treatment, and as an introduction to Shakespearean comedy, you could do a whole lot worse.


Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet

In theatrical parlance, a tragedy is defined as “a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, esp. one concerning the downfall of the main character.” For Shakespeare, this can often be summed up as “a play in which nearly everyone dies by the end.” The most well-known examples of Shakespeare’s offerings are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. We shall start with one of the giants of Shakespearean tragedy …

Everyone knows the story of Hamlet, right? Danish prince may or may not be driven mad by the realization that his uncle has murdered his father the king, taken over the throne, and married the queen (an action that was considered incestuous at the time). In plotting the wrong-doers’ downfall, Hamlet racks up collateral damage in the form of Polonius and his daughter Ophelia (whom Hamlet may or may not be in love with), stages a play that informs the king of Hamlet’s ire, takes a side-trip to England, and ultimately has his revenge, although he (and his mother, Gertrude) also dies in the process.

Hamlet has the distinction, perhaps, of having had three quite well-received adaptations brought to film. I have to admit that I have not seen the Mel Gibson version yet, and I quite enjoyed the Kenneth Branagh, but the prize for best Hamlet goes, undoubtedly, to Laurence Olivier. The film was released in 1948. Olivier not only starred in the title role, but also directed and adapted the play for the screen, and it’s really a masterpiece. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier.

The main thing to understand about Olivier’s Hamlet is that every aspect of it is designed to remind us of the overall feel of the piece. It’s filmed in black and white, which captures the bleak world into which Hamlet finds himself thrown. There’s a certain Dali-like quality to the castle in which all of the action takes place, all sharp angles, hard stone, and dizzying staircases, adding to the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity that hangs over Hamlet and the people he comes into contact with. The whole thing is bleak and foreboding, albeit not without a slight amount of humor.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and so it is often quite cut-down for performance. In this instance, numerous characters (Fortinbras, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern) do not appear at all, but I wouldn’t say that the production suffers overall. The removal of Fortinbras and the whole “invading army” subplot makes the action that much more insular and frightening. It’s as though the people on screen are the whole world, and that world is crumbling before our eyes. Without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we do lose some of the humor of the play, but this, too, I think is part of Olivier’s plan, and he does give some of their lines to other characters.

Of course, when discussing Shakespeare, the all-important thing is the acting. This is some first-rate acting, folks. Polonius and Claudius (the uncle/king) are a little cartoonish, but even that sort of works, given that this is Hamlet’s world. He doesn’t see them as truly worthy adversaries. Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and Ophelia (Jean Simmons) are both riveting in their confused hysteria, again, perhaps as echoes of how Hamlet perceives them. But of course, it is Hamlet himself that draws us in from beginning to end. Olivier was 41 when he made this movie, perhaps a bit old, but one never really notices. His Hamlet is brilliant, capricious, charismatic, and utterly dynamic. One has the sense that the other characters are being drawn into his web almost knowingly, but with no power to resist. They’re simply playing the part he has orchestrated for them, marching to their own ends. One has to wonder if the fact that Olivier also directed had anything to do with that sense, but I have to say that it seriously works in his favor.

The entire feel of the movie is really quite meta, and I think that is how Olivier (and perhaps Shakespeare) intended it. The biggest ambiguity of Hamlet is the question of whether or not Hamlet himself is really insane, or whether he is playing a part in order to achieve his revenge. In Olivier’s mind, I think, Hamlet is play-acting, and it’s sometimes even against his own will. There are scenes where it seems as though Hamlet is ready to just accept things as they are and to stop causing pain and torment for everyone involved, but he is compelled to finish what he started. It’s a comment on the larger world that we all occupy, in which perhaps we know we are doomed, but we have no choice but to continue on our paths to destruction. The interpretation, and the production as a whole, is one of which I imagine Shakespeare himself would have approved.

Shakespeare in Movies: An introduction

I’ve been meaning to start posting on this topic for a while, but it’s so huge and daunting that I have been afraid to begin. To repeat that notion another way, a major caveat. Shakespeare in film is a massive subject, one that is no doubt covered in numerous books and college classes and so forth. I am merely a humble movie blogger with very little in the way of credentials. I’ve got a BA in English and I like Shakespeare and movies. This is all to say that I am by no means an expert, and what you are going to read (hopefully) is merely my (only slightly-informed) opinion.

Having said that, my discussion on Shakespeare is going to happen in three segments of posts: tragedies, histories, and comedies. In each post I will focus on one of three examples of each (maybe, histories are hard to come by). These examples are going to fall under the category of “major motion picture” because it would just be too overwhelming to try and sort through the mountains of various staged productions filmed for television and so forth. These three movies will be things that I’ve seen and thought were good in their treatment. Knowing me, I’ll probably mention others if I feel like it. I’ll try to discuss why I think the adaptation is a good one, and how it addresses the themes of the work.

Hopefully, this won’t make you feel like you’re back in English class (unless you enjoy that sort of thing), but will maybe heighten your interest, either in the movies or the plays, or both! Shakespeare is still around for a reason, and I am always excited to pass my excitement on to someone new.

And so … read on!