Continuing our celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday–Check out our Shakespeare posts on the home page and come back tomorrow for a list of book recommendations!
If you have a chance to catch a Shakespeare play performed on a real stage with live actors, DO IT! That’s what he wrote the plays for: performance. Unfortunately professional theater tickets are expensive and amateur performances (like you might see at a local college) are sometimes . . . well . . . amateur. But Shakespeare well done is a thrill, even if you don’t catch what’s going on every minute. While waiting for the next Shakespeare touring company to present Romeo and Juliet in your town, the local library or video store may have some of the filmed versions of popular plays. And if you do Netflix, you can get them all. Here’s a family-friendly guide to some of the better-known productions:
As You Like It (2006), directed by Kenneth Branaugh. So far as I know, this is the last of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, a trend that started with a bang (Henry V), reached its peak with Much Ado about Nothing, and almost crashed and burned with Love’s Labours Lost. (all reviewed below) He sets this light-hearted tale of Rosalind and Orlando in 19th-century Japan, in an isolated English colony. The “Forest of Arden” becomes the Japanese countryside, and there’s nothing wrong with this version, which is worth seeing for the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech. It just lacks the sparkle and verve of Branaugh’s earlier efforts.
Hamlet (1990). They laughed when director Franco Zeffirelli announced that Mel Gibson would play the title role in this film, but it didn’t turn out too bad. Though Lethal Weapon fans will see shades of Martin Riggs in his performance, and Zeffirelli leans heavily toward the “Oedipal” interpretation that sees Hamlet as obsessed with his mother, I think this is a good “all purpose” version of the play. Mel’s Hamlet strikes you as somebody who might have turned out okay if his mother hadn’t remarried so soon after his dad died–he’s already upset about that, but then the ghost appears and everything gets rotten in Denmark really fast. Paul Scofield makes a great ghost, Glenn Close is a sensuous and oddly girlish queen and Alan Bates is a hearty king eventually hoist on his own petard. Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia seems a bit too spunky for the type of girl who goes mad when things get rough, but her madness is touching.
Hamlet (1997) Kenneth Branaugh directed and starred in this version that breaks with tradition in several ways. For one thing, it’s uncut, and therefore runs to almost four hours! Before settling in with a really big bowl of popcorn to watch it, I’d recommend reading a good synopsis first, so you’ll understand who is this Fortinbras character who keeps popping up. Some scenes (like the “To be or not to be” soliloquy) are outstanding, some are over the top (like the ghost’s appearance amid hellfire and brimstone), and some go on a little too long (like the duel, which has Hamlet and Laertes chasing each other all over the palace). So, ultimately, does the movie, but it makes an interesting contrast with the 1990 version–notice especially the use of light. Viewers who get bored will enjoy the quirky casting, as the likes of Robin Williams and Charlton Heston appear in small parts. This version also includes a few bedroom scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia that I don’t think Shakespeare had in mind.
Hamlet (1999), directed by Michael Alymeyda. Ethan Hawke plays the title role in a modern-day setting that pictures Hamlet brooding over his uncle’s takeover of Denmark Corporation. Image trumps word in this version: photos, video clips, televised interviews, closed circuit TV, news broadcasts, stock price crawlers, mirrors, computer monitors, fax machines. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are amateur photographers, and he’s an obsessive film editor. Both are alienated from their parents, their society, and eventually each other. No wonder: all the characters are so surrounded by multi-media that reacting to each other as human beings seems impossible. Which may be the point: Hamlet’s inability to act is due to a society that blurs the distinction between image and reality. Or something like that. This is more Alymeyda than Shakespeare, but it’s still interesting.
Henry V (1989), directed by Kenneth Branaugh. This is the movie that brought Branaugh to worldwide attention (he also stars as King Henry) and touched off a miniature Shakespeare boom. It’s helpful to have a little background in the historical setting, or the first few scenes may be puzzling. But stick with it–once it gets going, the movie gallops like a charging steed, and you almost have to clamp your jaw to keep from cheering at the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Shakespeare probably wrote the play in a spirit of gung-ho patriotism, and an earlier movie (1945) by Laurence Olivier captures that spirit. But Branaugh’s version draws out the darker elements. He grandstands a bit over a pile of corpses on the battlefield (Please! Cut away from the heroic pose!), but redeems himself in the courtship scene with Princess Katharine that follows directly after. The Laurence Olivier version is well worth seeing as well, and he does something interesting for Act One: he shows it as though it were the original production at the Globe Theater, “this wooden O.” We see actors hurrying around backstage, boys dressed as ladies stuffing orange halves in their bodices, a rowdy audience settling down as the Chorus strides onstage with his “O for a muse of fire!” speech. A rainstorm breaks overhead while the scene changes from Henry’s court to the Boar’s Head tavern, and from then on we’re in the historical time. Fascinating!
Julius Caesar (1971), directed by Stuart Burge. This is the most recent movie version of JC that I know of. The cast is made up mostly of Americans who were better known at that time than now, such as Robert Vaughan, Richard Chamberlain, Diana Riggs. Jason Robards as Brutus seems to be sleepwalking through his performance, and since Brutus is the hero of the play, this is a large problem. Charlton Heston is a convincing Antony and John Gielgud, grand old man of the British stage even then, appears as Caesar. There’s an older version (1953) with Marlon Brando as Antony and Gielgud as Brutus, which has some fine moments as well. You should be able to find these on Netflix.
Love’s Labor’s Lost (2000), Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who stars as Berone. Branaugh’s inspiration was to stage this play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, as a 1930s musical–complete with classic love songs by Gershwin and Porter, fluffy costumes, lovestruck young men dancing on air, slapstick comedy, even a water ballet. All I can say is, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In spite of Branaugh’s casting—actors in a movie musical should be able to, like, sing and dance–there are some fun moments in the movie. But also odd juxtapositions, like the closing montage showing all the young men facing mutilation and death in World War II. Also a set piece featuring the four couples in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”—a disturbing, overtly sexual number that doesn’t jive with the overall mood. At the end, I suspect more viewers than not were wondering, “And what was that all about?”
Macbeth (1971), directed by Roman Polanski. Jon Finch is Macbeth. I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposed to be extremely violent (define “extremely”). Given director, I’ll probably give this one a pass. Orson Welles directed and starred in an earlier, stagey and (to our modern-day sensibilities) pretentious Macbeth (1948), featuring dark shadows, crows, and isolated drums banging. Throne of Blood is the Japanese version from legendary director Akira Murosawa, and I haven’t seen it either. The world awaits an accessible movie version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
The Merchant of Venice (2005). Directed by Michael Radford, with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes. The story of a beautiful heiress, the man who loves her, a miserly Jew, and the man who owes him, never looked so lush. Or so watery, but that’s Venice for you. In a collection of good performances Jeremy Irons stands out as the Merchant, Antonio, who is willing to “risk and hazard all he hath” for the sake of friendship. The movie is worth watching just for the trial scene, which is as dramatic a presentation of grace vs. law as I’ve ever seen. But contemporary directors seem more interested in showing how Shylock is debased and brought down by mean Christians, and Mr. Radford is no exception. Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who converts for love, is depicted as regretting her choice at the end, though the play itself indicates no such thing. The movie would be good family viewing except for several scenes of Venetian ladies (of the night) strolling the streets with bosoms uncovered. This kind of thing was not unknown for the time, or so I’ve read, but I doubt that a passion for historical accuracy is what drove the filmmakers.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2000). Kevin Klein (Bottom), Rupert Everett (Oberon), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Christian Bale (Demetrius) and on and on–a starry cast that doesn’t quite mesh. MND is a light and bubbly play, but moments that should be magical come down a little flat-footed in this version. There are touching moments, though–my favorite in a scene that’s usually anything but touching. It comes when Flute the bellows-mender, playing “Thisbe” in that terrible play before the Duke, pulls off his ridiculous wig and speaks the lines with so much conviction that everyone has stop laughing. He saves the play and, for me, the movie. Parents should be aware of the scene immediately following the four lovers’ night in the woods, when they all wake up naked. Not that they’ve done anything, and they’re all about to get married anyway, but there’s no reason for it. (Classic movie fans may want to check out the 1935 black and white version, for historical interest only. The best thing about it is James Cagney as Bottom; the worst thing is the late Mickey Rooney, whose Puck appears to have escaped from a mental institution–but then, he was only 13 at the time.)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Kenneth Branaugh again, both directing and starring as Benedick. The story is exuberantly told in an Italian setting bathed in Mediterranean light. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great romantic comedies, and it’s played as a comedy, with broad touches. You may wonder why everyone strips off their clothes to take a bath during the opening credits (why do modern directors have to do this?? See MND, above), and what IS all that with Dogberry (Michael Keaton) and his imaginary horses? The play itself has its problems–I always thought Claudio was a hyper-jealous jerk and saw no reason for Hero to take him back. But the movie almost makes it work, and makes some nice, old-fashioned statements about love and marriage too. The scene everyone loves, including me, is the long sequence when Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into realizing they love each other. Benedick’s soliloquy—“Loves me?! Why?”—can be seen as a beautiful illustration of the believer recognizing God’s grace for the first time.
Much Ado About Nothing (2013), directed by Joss Wheden. The director is best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, so this seems like an odd fit. But the action, filmed in black and white at a swanky home in the Hamptons, mostly works. It’s a cooler version of the Beatrice-Benedick story, less flashy than Branaugh’s, and it’s clear that the central couple have had a previous relationship (bedroom-scene warning). But overall the story is played with good heart and interesting connections. See especially Nathan Fillion as a much more empathetic Dogberry than Michael Keaton.
Othello (1995), directed by Oliver Parker. Laurence Fishburne is Othello, with Kenneth Branaugh as a mesmerizing Iago. Moody, dark and intense–but this is tragedy, after all. Othello is usually portrayed as an honorable man with a fatal flaw, and Fishburne adds a touch of borderline epilepsy that helps explain his jealous rages. In this version, Iago feels a homoerotic attraction for the Moor, which helps explain . . . well, you decide. For the most part, this is a gripping production.
Richard III (1995), directed by Richard Loncraine. Ian McKellan (otherwise known as Gandalf the Grey) plays the king with the worst reputation in British history. Warning I: Shakespeare may have done a hatchet job on Richard–it’s never been established beyond doubt that he murdered the little princes in the tower. Warning II: this is a shocking and violent film, but it’s a shocking and violent play, too. The main problem with Richard III these days is that it’s hard to keep all the characters and politics straight. It takes place at the end of the Wars of the Roses, which I still haven’t figured out. The bottom line: Richard wants to be king, and will play any part and back-stab any relative to get there. This production updates the setting to a fictional Fascist takeover of England in the 1930s.
Romeo and Juliet (1968), directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli was directing successful Shakespeare movies before Branaugh had even heard of the Bard. This is a lush, Renaissance-era production notable for its use of teenage actors to play the leads. (Before that, it was more common to have the star-crossed lovers portrayed by adults in their twenties or even thirties). In spite of the overt romanticism, it holds up very well: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the title roles are touchingly naive, Michael York is a brash Tybalt and John McEnery a border-line psychotic Mercutio. Teens went nuts for this movie in the late-60s, and it might be on the gushy side, but the point comes across that R&J are in love with love and their youthful passion clashes tragically with the other passionate hotheads in Verona. (Parents beware of the bedroom scene after their marriage.) Still, it’s a beautiful production and well-acted. You will need it to balance
Romeo + Juliet (1997), directed by Baz Luhrman. Leo diCaprio and Claire Danes are the star-crossed lovers in a story updated to the present time and set in Verona Beach, California. The Montague and Capulet gangs blaze away at each other with oversize sidearms (favorite line: “Put down your swords!”) to a heavy metal soundtrack, while Mercutio poses in drag and Romeo and Juliet play their balcony scene in a swimming pool. Some scenes are nice; others strike me as way overdone. Like Alymeyda’s Hamlet, it seems more like upstaging Shakespeare than working with him.
Romeo and Juliet (2013), adapted by Julian Fellowes. Note the “adapted by”—some of the lines are not original, but riding high on the Downton Abbey wave, Fellowes can get away with it. The Renaissance setting is similar to Zeffirelli’s version, but a little darker, both in lighting and in mood. Most of the performances seem bland in comparison, though, with the possible exception of Paul Giamatti as Friar Lawrence.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967), directed by Franco Zefferelli. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor chew up the scenery as the feuding lovers Petruchio and Kate. There’s too much time given over to Kate’s yelling and Pete’s chortling in his beard–I would have liked more dialogue. But it’s fun, and the concluding scene is played straightforwardly. Sort of. Kate sounds sincere when she pledges loyalty and obedience to her lord, but you have the idea she’ll know how to get what she wants from him.
The Taming of the Shrew (1980), BBC version directed by Jonathan Miller. From 1979-1985, British Broadcasting Company produced the entire Shakespeare canon in cooperation with the Royal Shakespeare Company. These are staged versions, some of them with well-known performers, and all of fine quality. But a few stand out; my favorites are Hamlet (with Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart), Henry II (also Jacobi), and this, probably my favorite Shakespeare production ever. John Cleese plays Petrucio, the bold suitor who takes on Baptista’s oldest daughter Kate. Shrew is a problem play for modern sensibilities and is often presented as a cynical putdown of male chauvinism. What’s often overlooked is that Kate needs to be tamed—in scene two, her rage gets so out of control her father must restrain her and both collapse in helpless sobs. But Petrucio has his rough edges as well, as we see when he takes his new bride home to his unruly, disorderly bachelor pad. They’ll be good for each other, especially when they come to realize that the battle of the sexes can be more of a game. It’s also hysterically funny, especially when Petrucio shows up for his wedding. Best of all is the closing scene, when the ensemble gathers around the table to sing a madrigal setting of Psalm 128: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord . . . his wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of his house . . .” I love it, love it, love it.
Twelfth Night (1996), directed by Trevor Nunn. This feature movie didn’t receive a lot of attention, in spite of stellar performances by Ben Kingsley and Nigel Hawthorne, but I think it’s enchanting—actually my favorite, next to the BBC Taming of the Shrew. Newcomers to Shakespeare may have a hard time suspending their disbelief at first. But deal with it: just accept that Viola can be easily confused with her twin brother Sebastian, Olivia can fall in love with a girl thinking she’s a boy, and Orsino can switch his affections from Olivia to Viola at the drop of a soldier’s cap. Love is crazy, Shakespeare can be saying–who can figure it out? And who would want to? The production values are excellent and performances uniformly fine, especially Imogene Stubbs as Viola (who discovers dressing up as a boy isn’t quite the lark she thought it would be).
Those are the plays. And here a couple of films about Shakespeare that could probably be avoided:
Shakespeare in Love (1998). A true history of young Will–NOT. Parts of this story are factual, but most of it bears no relation to the facts. Though an interesting idea, and very funny in places, SinL can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it is. It begins as an offbeat comedy with shades of Money Python, veers into bedroom farce, then shuttles between steamy romance and serious drama. Watching the first-ever performance of Romeo and Juliet come together against the background of “real” events is the best part of Shakespeare in Love, but the climax of the movie slides into the pattern of every feel-good ending since Rocky. Everyone, even the Puritan nay-sayer, is on his feet and applauding wildly at the end of the performance, while confetti rains from the sky and the Queen herself makes a surprise appearance. According to the story line, Shakespeare writes the play in order to prove that he can successfully portray the nature of true love on stage. But Romeo and Juliet doesn’t portray the nature of TRUE love at all, and I doubt that the real Shakespeare intended it to. What the play shows is the power of sexual attraction, which might have grown into true love if it had the chance. It didn’t have the chance, and that’s why R&J is a tragedy. The main plot of Shakespeare in Love likewise confuses sex and love, and they’re not the same. (Trust me on this.)
Anonymous (2011), directed by Roland Emmerich. Described as a political thriller and historical drama, Anonymous takes the position that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, an English nobleman supposedly with the time and talent necessary to produce such genius works. Most Shakespeare scholars consider the many who-wrote-Shakespeare conspiracy theories to be totally bogus, and so do I, so the film had some black marks even before safely out of the gate. In lavish sets and confusing shifts in time, it tells the story of deVere’s supposed life, a saga of intrigue and illicit love (notably with the Queen herself), feverish play-scribbling and eventual blackmail by a scruffy, no-talent actor named Will Shakespeare. I’d skip it, if I were you.