This week my book of the week is not focusing on a book; it’s a celebration of one very important writer and how his work has been interpreted over the centuries. Last month the world paid homage to a man whose writing is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago indicating that life has not changed greatly over the centuries. Most would consider that Shakespeare’s greatest gift has been his influence on culture, education and society.
William Shakespeare died 400 years ago on his 52nd birthday on the 23rd April, probably of typhus, and this year the entire world seems to be celebrating his life and his work. The BFI (British Film Institute) is no exception. See their extensive programme of events and dates of future DVD releases online. With no other writer impacting so greatly on cinema, their programme explores on an epic scale how film makers have adapted, been inspired by and interpreted Shakespeare’s work for the big screen. If you are interested in studying and watching Shakespeare on film we have plenty of books and DVDs in the library catalogue. Closer to home our own ‘Much Ado About Portsmouth‘ was a festival organised by the University of Portsmouth. As part of the programme of events there was a screening in Eldon Building of one of the earliest film adaptations of Hamlet. When you think of Hamlet you usually think of a man – that’s how Shakespeare wrote it. However the version I saw portrayed Hamlet as a woman – dressed as a man.
Some background information – if you don’t mind a temporary diversion. Cross-dressing was nothing new in Shakespearian theatre. It was a popular theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Unfortunately there were no acting opportunities for women in Shakespeare’s time. Women were officially forbidden to act on the Elizabethan stage and female roles were always taken by boys. The only exception was the court masque. See some interesting facts about the Elizabethan theatre. However (perhaps to bamboozle the authorities…?) there were many roles where ‘women’ disguised themselves as young men and then revealed themselves (as it were) at the end of the story. Take Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. There has been a long history of boys playing women and ‘women’ playing boys or young men. If indeed they were all they seemed to be. There is a very interesting article on Shakespeare’s cross-dressers. In 1662 Charles II issued a royal warrant declaring that all female roles should be played by female actresses. Margaret Hughes became the first English woman to ‘legally’ appear on the stage in England, playing ‘Desdemona’ in ‘The Moor of Venice’ which was a reworking of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. After that, there was no stopping them! As far back as the eighteenth century there have been women who have made the role of Hamlet their own, including Sarah Bernhardt and more recently, Frances de la Tour and Maxine Peake.
The film I saw, as part of the Much Ado About Portsmouth festival, starred an early screen actress from Denmark called Asta Nielsen who formed her own film production company especially so she could play Hamlet. The film portrayed her disguised as a young man so she could rule Denmark after the death of her father. Unfortunately, as we know, things didn’t quite go to plan and we are left with the indelible image of corpses littering the final scene. Oops! How did that happen?! The idea of Hamlet being a woman was actually based on the thoughts of a late nineteenth century critic called Edward P. Vining. The film was also interesting from a stylistic point of view being a silent film with a piano accompaniment played by Neil Brand, an Academic and ‘silent movie’ pianist. The film was much shorter than the original 4-hour play which was Shakespeare’s longest work. Watch a 10 minute YouTube clip of some of the film. If you want to read more about Asta Nielson and her world read this article from the Bright Lights film journal. If you are interested in reading more about other film adaptations of Hamlet here is a link to an e-book entitled Cinematic Hamlet. For more silent Shakespeare films borrow this DVD which is available in the University Library.
Since 1900 there have been over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet. And there have also been films based on the plot ideas of Hamlet. The most famous reworking of recent times is The Lion King which of course is a very successful musical as well as a film (albeit a cartoon).
Shakespeare’s plays continued to be performed in the costume of his age ie Elizabethan until the 18th century, the Georgian period, when costumes were the current fashionable dress. And then in the 19th century productions started looking back to an ‘authentic’ Shakespearean style. The Victorian era were fascinated with historical accuracy and this was adapted to the stage in order to appeal to the educated middle classes. This faux-Shakespearean style was fixed until the 20th century. As of the twenty-first century, there are very few productions of Shakespeare, both on stage and on film, which are still performed in ‘authentic’ period dress. The first film in English to break this pattern was the 1995 Richard III which updated the setting to the 20th century and has Richard and his followers costumed as Nazis, but changed none of Shakespeare’s dialogue.
One of the strangest, yet compelling, films I have ever seen is Prospero’s Books (1991) directed by Peter Greenaway. And I have yet to see Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Prospera in the 2010 film The Tempest.
There are also a raft of musicals that are based on Shakespeare’s plays. For example: Return to the Forbidden Planet is a rework of The Tempest; West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet; Kiss me Kate is The Taming of the Shrew. You can read more on how Shakespeare has inspired music and musicals over the years.
There have been so many interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays it is hard to keep up with all the productions, both on the stage and in the cinema, especially this year! If you want ‘authenticity’ there are three up and coming Globe Theatre screen productions you might want to investigate. For more modern costume productions see the RSC website. If you fancy a ballet, Romeo and Juliet is being performed at The New Theatre Royal on 26th & 27th May (music by Prokofiev rather than the lesser-known Tchaikovsky version). See here for a Guardian article on the history of Romeo and Juliet ballets. And if you fancy a play you can see The Two Gentlemen of Verona from the 13th – 16th July (also at The New Theatre Royal).
A reminder about our new database: Digital Theatre Plus where you can watch high quality films of leading theatre productions. Discover how plays are brought to the stage in interviews with the creative teams and learn about interpretive choice through detailed analysis of play texts.
There are also lots of television and radio programmes on Shakespeare on Box of Broadcasts (BoB).
Two Shakespeare titles are also in our Rare Books collection. One of which contains 22 illustrations by a Mr Bunbury based on scenes from some of Shakespeare’s plays.
See also the BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource. Shibboleth compliant only – so student/staff logins at the ready.
The British Library has created some fascinating pages on William Shakespeare. This is an accompaniment to a major new exhibition they are holding on Shakespeare which will run until 6th September 2016. The exhibition is called Shakespeare in Ten Acts and focuses on 400 years of history – from the first productions of Hamlet and The Tempest – in order to understand how Shakespeare’s plays have been transformed for new generations of theatre-goers. There is also a new book that has been published in conjunction with this exhibition. A title to order perhaps for our Film Studies, Musical Theatre and English Literature students.
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