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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Shakespeare’s Ideas: What Have They Done to the Bard?

Shakespeare’s Ideas: What Have They Done to the Bard?

Forbidden Love: West Side Story/Romeo & Juliet - Smatprt
Long regarded as an icon of English cultural history, Shakespeare’s works have been subjected to more adaptation on stage and film than almost anybody else.

In January 2010 Chicago news reporter, Karen Meyer, wrote about disability issues in some of Shakespeare’s plays: not a topic much thought about by Shakespearean purists. Books, articles, theses, even cartoons and manga-style comics about Shakespeare and his folklore, magic, feminism, history-apology and patriotism abound, sitting alongside studies of his language, poetry, vocabulary, foreign words, invented terms and phrases that have become international quotations.

However, it’s how his work has been interpreted and adapted that causes people to restate that ‘in their view Shakespeare can only be done in Elizabethan costume,’ with the same lyrical poetry as the original, not, for example modernised (like putting Titus Andronicus into 21st century Iraq).

Others take different views. English is a living language; a play from the past can be revisioned for today with a message still relevant; times change, views change. So an all-female cast is acceptable, albeit unthinkable in the 16th century. UK actress Helen Mirren turned Prospero in The Tempest into Prospera, a female spright in the 2010 movie. In the words of Lady Macbeth (Act 3, Sc 2): ‘What’s done, is done.’

Shakespeare in the Movies

Shakespeare’s themes of murder, ambition, revenge and betrayal, often with a rewrite of history, are the stuff of good fiction, powerful movies. Romeo and Juliet became the stage and film versions of West Side Story (1956). The Taming of the Shrew became the musical, Kiss Me Kate (musical 1958, movie 1953) and the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. The two minor, but significant characters from Hamlet were leads in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead (1966, movie 1990).

Absolute Shakespeare lists over 250 Shakespeare movies, adaptations and Shakespeare-inspired works, saying ‘they are so numerous, they form their own sub genre’, proving that the man, his works and the productions have enduring appeal.

Hamlet alone has seen, according to Absolute Shakespeare: ‘sixty one film adaptations and twenty one TV adaptations, the earliest in 1907 and the latest in 2000’. Other notable commitments to celluloid include: The Taming of the Shrew, (1929), featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; Romeo and Juliet, (1935), directed by George Cukor. Laurence Olivier directed Henry V (1945), Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955). 1948’s Macbeth and 1952’s Othello were directed by Orson Welles, of War of the Worlds fame.

Forbidden Planet (1956), directed by Fred M Wilcox was based on The Tempest. Throne of Blood / The Castle of the Spider’s Web / Cobweb Castle (1957) were derived from Macbeth in Japan. A TV movie of 1960 was The Tempest, starring Richard Burton, and he starred again in 1964’s Hamlet, and in 1967’s Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Zeffirelli.

Shakespeare Attracts Star Directors and Actors

Zeffirelli did Romeo and Juliet in 1968 and Hamlet in 1991 and was one of many famous, top-class directors who have put on Shakespeare on film in every conceivable style. Peter Brook did King Lear (1970), Roman Polanksi tackled Macbeth in 1972, Trevor Nunn and John Schofield did Anthony & Cleopatra in 1974, and Nunn teamed with Philip Casson in 1978 to direct The Comedy of Errors, starring Judi Dench and Francesca Annis.

The Godfather was Scorsese’s 1972 homage and Ran was Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 take on King Lear, which was redone by Jean-Luc Godard in 1987. Kenneth Branagh kick-started his Shakespearean movie career in 1989 with Henry V, and then did Hamlet (1996) with Richard Attenborough and Judi Dench and himself starring, Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, and Love’s Labours Lost in 2000. Trevor Nunn came back in 1996 with Twelfth Night, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, Imogen Stubbs, Ben Kingsley and Mel Smith.

Romeo and Juliet was a hit in 1990, with Annis, Kingsley and Vanessa Redgrave, and in 1998, was given a fictional makeover suggesting how Shakespeare wrote it, in Shakespeare in Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Baz Lurhman had the novel idea of setting it in modern, gang-culture America, but keeping original Shakespearean dialogue in his 1996 hit film.

This was the same gimmick employed by Michael Almereyda in his Hamlet 2000, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Murray, Julia Stiles and Ethan Hawke. Set in contemporary New York, it deployed modern technology/surveillance equipment, but retained Shakespeare’s language.

Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) based on The Tempest, broke new ground with off-screen narration and animation with mime, dance and opera. Michael Hoffman put Michelle Pfiffer and Calista Flockhart in his version of A MIdsummer’s Night’s Dream of 1999.

Shakespeare as Marketing Strategy

BBC TV produced Hamlet in 1980, The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982), besides complete sets of the 37 plays over the years reflecting changing contemporary tastes, and now has a website with games, quizzes, competitions and 60-second bite sized chunks of the Bard.

Looking for Richard (1996) was Al Pacino’s directorial debut. It was a performance of selected scenes from Richard III, and a documentary looking at Shakespeare’s continuing relevance in popular culture.

People have been asking questions about the man ever since he died, 23 April 1616, his believed birthday (St. George’s Day in England). Questions include: who really wrote the plays? did he collaborate with others? did he work on King James’ version of the Bible (1611)?

Almost all are unanswerable, but they pale into insignificance in the face of the huge body of drama, eternal truths, characters and stories that make up his legacy.

First published on Suite 101, 22 September 2010.

Photo: Forbidden Love: West Side Story/Romeo & Juliet – Smatprt

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