“On this unworthy scaffold”: Experiencing Shakespeare on Film

Yours Truly at the Tower of London, Summer 2008

Yours Truly at the Tower of London, Summer 2008

In the autumn of 2008 I travelled with a group of students and two professors from my college to England for a Shakespeare abroad. After about a week in Oxford, we went to London to take acting classes at the Globe theatre and to pursue our individual research topics at the British Library. I got a taste for the thrills of academic research the first time I held a copy of Elizabethan sheet music in my own two hands! My thesis was on the subject of Shakespeare’s use of the social hierarchy of musical instruments in Much Ado About Nothing.

We then went on to Stratford-upon-Avon for a couple weeks of lecture/workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company. While at both the Globe and the RSC we saw a number of stellar Shakespeare productions, including David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Gregory Doran‘s Hamlet (unlike many of my peers, I discovered sci-fi through Shakespeare instead of the other way around!). We returned to campus at the end of the semester to write our research papers and put on our own production of Much Ado About Nothing. I played a watchman and a musician. I had to switch genders a couple times, but I got to wear a lot of fun costumes!

Suffice it to say that the abroad experience made me into a lifelong Shakespeare devotee. Since this month’s star of the month on TCM is none other than one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, and one of the first to bring Shakes’s works to the silver screen, Sir Laurence Olivier, I thought it only appropriate to write a piece about how a movie-lover can also be an ardent Shakespeare-lover.

An acquaintance of mine, who has been a fan of Shakespeare’s plays for many many many years, recently commented that the playwright’s genius lay in the fact that he was able to produce plays that are ideally suited for film, a medium that the limited technology of his own age was unable to provide. Somehow, Shakespeare’s intuitive genius was able to perceive the potentials of a multidimensional form of artistic expression, and his texts reflect those capabilities in the current era of movie magic.

There are many reasons that the bard’s plays make such good movies. Various scholars have presented their own theses about the depth and breadth of Shakespeare’s genius. As a English literature major and film-lover, this is the evidence I have found to support the claim that Shakespeare’s plays are practically tailor-made for the film medium:

  • Interpretation and Adaptation
    • We have no records of Shakespeare writing detailed stage directions in his scripts. The limited amount of directorial advice also allows an almost limitless number of interpretations of each play.
  • Universality and Timelessness
    • The universality of the plays’ themes, plots, and characters makes the stories just as relevant to modern audiences as they were to the Elizabethan crowds of London.
    • There is a distinctly timeless quality to the critiques of human nature and society that can be found in the bard’s texts.
  • Relationship with the Audience/Viewer
    • Shakespeare’s habit of addressing the audience directly translates well to the intimate relationship between the camera’s lens and the movie theatre and/or home audience.

Most actors, whether they specialize in television, Hollywood films, indie films, Broadway musicals, or TV commercials, will have studied some Shakespeare at some point in their careers. English actors especially know their Shakespeare inside out and backwards. Katharine Hepburn returned to the stage after her mega-successful Hollywood career because she knew that she needed to perform the classics in order to progress as an artist. Throughout the 1950s, she performed in a number of Shakespeare plays in the US and Australia. 

Katharine Hepburn as Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" (1957)

Katharine Hepburn as Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” (1957)

Wikipedia boasts an impressive list of “Shakespearean actors,” though a few of the names on their are simply famous-actors-who-have-done-Shakespeare. John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud were the great Shakespeareans of the classic film era, and the scepter of the reigning King of Shakespeare is now shared between Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen. The famous Redgrave/Richardson and Barrymore clans have usually had at least one bum-cheek on the throne throughout history. The indisputable living Queen of Shakes is Dame Judi Dench, though her BFF Maggie Smith could also be considered a contender. Helen Mirren and Harriet Walter also deserve a mention (as do many others, but I simply haven’t the time).

If your first experience of Shakespeare was reading one of his plays out of a dusty old book your high school English teacher forced upon you – or worse yet, the Sparknotes to the dusty old book – I do apologise. It should be a crime to ever read a play without seeing it come alive. Shakespeare did not write novels; he wrote living breathing characters who must dance and fight and make love in front of an audience. I beg you, please, to consider revisiting the bard in a new way – through a medium we all know and love: film.

As Ben Crystal highlights in his book “Shakespeare on Toast,” there is no reason to let the language of Shakespeare trip you up. A very small percentage of the words used in the plays are no longer in use today. Most of them are just phrased differently. However, the language barrier crumbles when the words are paired with the faces and gestures of human beings on the screen. All of a sudden the imagery makes sense and the jokes are actually funny (and in many cases sexual ;)).

The wide variety of film interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays ensures that each viewer can find an adaptation to their liking. You can start by checking out the filmographies of your favorite actors to see if they performed in a Shakespeare production at any time in their career. If you remember reading a Shakespeare play in school, try to find the film version so you can see how much more you can understand when you watch it in real time.

Below is a list of my personal favorite Shakespeare films. I like them for different reasons – they each have a value within the Shakespeare film canon. 

  1. MACBETH (1979): Judi Dench and Ian McKellen
    • Trevor Nunn‘s adaptations of the Scottish play is in the minimalist style, with few sets and props. The actors wear very simple costumes. Judi Dench’s monologues as Lady Macbeth are super-charged. Her sleepwalking scene is a must-see.Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench
  2. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993): Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
    • This light-hearted comedy is a joyous and colorful adaptations of my personal favorite play. Although not without its dramatic tensions, MAAD is full of music and laughter. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, who were married at the time this film was made, are absolutely hilarious as the feuding lovers Beatrice and Benedick. The supporting cast includes Thompson’s mother (Phyllida Law), the late Richard Briers, Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter), Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reaves. Patrick Doyle‘s brilliant score makes the soundtrack worth a listen as well.maad 93
  3. RICHARD III (1995): Ian McKellen
    • It was while on tour with the play that McKellen devoloped his vision for the screen adaptation. This version sets Shakespeare’s villainous history in Nazi-era London. This is one of the cleverest, most inventive, interpretations that I have ever seen of a Shakespeare play. The style is sleek and sexy with plenty of backstabbing and conspiracy, not to mention murder and war and explosions and stuff. Delicious! The cast includes Nigel Hawthorn, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, and Annette Benning.richard iii
  4. HENRY V (1989): Kenneth Branagh
    • The history plays have never struck the right note with me. They tend to be texty and political, with less action than the comedies and tragedies. However, I really enjoyed the Agincourt scenes of HENRY V. Again, the soundtrack by Patrick Doyle is superbe, particularly the song “Non Nobis Domine.” Great cast of the usual suspects: Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, etc.henry v
  5. HAMLET (2009): David Tennant and Patrick Stewart
    • Being in the audience for this RSC production is undoubtedly one of the high points of my life. Directory Gregory Doran makes the story jump off the page with his modern take on the classic tale of the Prince of Denmark. Mirrors were used in the stage production to highlight the manipulative, claustrophobic world of Shakespeare’s Danish royal family. The film includes the additional element of security cameras in almost every scene. Tennant and Stewart give excellent performances, but they are almost overshadowed by the brilliant Oliver Ford Davies (you’ll recognise the face) as Polonius.hamlet tennent
  6. A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM (1999): Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline
    • I am in stitches every time I see Dream, whether it be on stage, TV, or film. Michael Hoffman’s adaptation is funny, aesthetically pleasing, and very sexy. The modernity of the actors’ performances makes it easy to swallow for younger audiences.dream 99
  7. THE TEMPEST (2010): Helen Mirren
    • Casting a woman as Prospero was absolute genius! In the past the Globe Theatre has experimented with gender role reversals. Shakespeare’s cast of actors would have been excluivley male, including the female characters. Somehow, casting Helen Mirren as Prospera works brilliantly. She is strong, intelligent, powerful, and, yes, manipulative. But the story, transformed from a father-daughter relationship to a mother-daughter relationship, takes on a new depth of complexity.tempest
  8. OTHELLO (1965): Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith
    • One cannot create a list of Shakespeare film adaptations without including a Sir Larry film. His black-face performance of Othello has become understandably controversial, but there is no doubt that this guy was the man when it came to Shakespeare. While many of his other film versions of the bard’s plays seem outdated now (especially his girly-Hamlet-in-tights), OTHELLO stands the test of time. Maggie Smith as Desdemona is an absolute cutie-patootie (until she is murdered in a jealous rage). This is a great film for a film club to watch and discuss as a group.


Have you seen any of these movies? Which ones do you like and which did you not like? I would be interested to hear what you think about Shakespeare on film. Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add to this list? Happy Shakespearing, everybody!

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