Bard is a silent and talkie type

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film
March 22, 2002

Bernhardt to Branagh, cinema loves Shakespeare, insists Kiernan Ryan.

Reviewing Max Reinhardt's movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935, The Daily Express decided it was time to put Hollywood straight about the Bard: "Shakespeare is not, and never will be, film material. You will never make screen entertainment out of blank verse. It has nothing to do with cinema, which is primarily a visual form." Fortunately for Shakespeare and the cinema, movie-makers turned a deaf ear to such myopic admonitions, and the dawn of the second century of le septième art confronts us with a body of work so rich that it now constitutes a distinct field of study. It is to the needs of those setting out to till this field for the first time that The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film is addressed.

What they may be surprised to learn from this volume is how far back the history of Shakespeare on film reaches, and how seminal a role Shakespeare has played in cinema. More than 400 silent films on Shakespearean subjects were made before the advent of sound pictures in the late 1920s. In 1900, a five-minute film of Hamlet starring Sarah Bernhardt ushered in the first century of Shakespeare in the movies. The dramatist himself made his screen debut in the silent short Shakespeare Writing "Julius Caesar" (1907), while a recently discovered silent version of Richard III (1912) was the earliest American full feature. The first talkie in English is believed to have been a 19 film of the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice . In 1936 a scene from As You Like It , starring Laurence Olivier as Orlando, supplied the first slice of drama and the first film clip of Shakespeare seen on BBC television. And 19 years later, Olivier's Richard III became the first feature film to premiere on American television.

Of all the giants who bestride the world of Shakespearean cinema, Olivier casts the longest shadow. His Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948) blazed a trail for Welles, Kurosawa, Zeffirelli, Kozintsev and Polanski, that awesome international pantheon of auteurs who created between them over the next two decades what is widely regarded as the great tradition of Shakespeare on film. And it was Olivier who inspired Kenneth Branagh, the young pretender to his throne, to shoot his own version of Henry V (1989), the film that sparked, as Samuel Crowl observes in his essay, "the most intense explosion of English-language Shakespeare films in the century". One need only recall Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) or Julie Taymor's Titus (2000) to realise how remarkable this latest wave of Shakespearean movies has been - and it shows no sign of breaking.

Given their canonical status in the curriculum (a status secured by their availability on video), it is perhaps inevitable that more than half of the 17 essays in Companion are wholly or partly devoted to Branagh and his mighty precursors. Olivier, Welles, Kozintsev and Zeffirelli get chapters to themselves in a section reserved for directors, and their films crop up again throughout the book, in essays that compare different treatments of the same play, or that tackle the movies in terms of their genre or a specific theme. Training the reader's attention on a single constellation of classics obviously runs the risk of redundancy: after the third account of Olivier's debt to film noir in Hamlet , the appeal of the topic does tend to pall. But overall there is remarkably little overlap of this kind, and the drawbacks of duplication are outweighed by the benefits of probing the same group of films from a variety of viewpoints.

All the chapters on these touchstone films are as accomplished as one would expect from scholars as distinguished as H. R. Coursen, Anthony Davies, Pamela Mason and Deborah Cartmell. But it is in the essays that engage with the material conditions of Shakespearean movies and the critical issues raised by Shakespeare on film that many of the book's most rewarding insights are to be found. The editor's contribution, "From play-script to screenplay", is an expert appraisal of the pros and cons of converting the verbal universe of Shakespeare's drama into the visual grammar of the cinema. In "Shakespeare the illusionist: filming the supernatural", Neil Forsyth deftly traces the "double language" of Shakespeare films - the pull towards magic and the pull towards realism - back to its rival roots in Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers, the fathers of cinema itself. And Carol Chillington Rutter turns in a virtuoso critique of the depiction of Shakespeare's women in film, displaying a range, subtlety and eloquence that put most close readings of literary texts to shame.

Any lingering doubts that Shakespearean film criticism has come of age should be dispelled by this splendid compendium, not least because it knows that the nature of its subject is mutating and its future far from easy to discern. For one thing, as Mich le Willems points out in "Video and its paradoxes", "the convenience of studying Shakespeare on videotape is gradually displacing performance analysis from the auditorium to the small screen", and we have barely begun to absorb the implications of this shift for the way we view Shakespeare on stage and in film. For another, as Barbara Freedman makes plain in "Critical junctures in Shakespeare screen history", we are nowhere near ready to grasp, let alone digest, the revolution in the representation of reality that is being brought about by the digitisation of cinema and its seamless confusion of the real and the virtual. By the time that revolution is complete, the experience of watching Shakespeare on screen may have changed irrevocably, transforming the conceptual vocabulary required of its students. Until then, this Companion looks certain to remain the best all-round guide to the subject.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film

Editor - Russell Jackson
ISBN - 0 521 63023 1 and 63975 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 342

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