“A Rose by Any Other Name”: Shakespeare and Film

Intro for the Week

Shakespeare remains an inescapable literary force, one which haunts not just our theatrical world, but our cinematic. His plays continue to influence the very way in which we understand character and drama, not to mention comedy and satire. Film adaptations generally range from direct to modernized, and then a few which indirectly reframe the ideas and plots of the plays. For instance, The Lion King is a happier version of Hamlet, minus the famous soliloquy and bloody ending. Here we see the same story played out in two very different ways, but the connection between the two remains. Examples like The Lion King introduces Shakespeare to younger audiences, and acts as a sort of reference guide for those studying Hamlet later in life. This suggests that Shakespeare extends beyond the stage and page, and into the creative consciousness from which all ideas stem.

I am 100% biased when it comes to Shakespeare, as I adore his work and most of film adaptations. I think these films present a livelier version than what is on the page, which has a reputation of being droll and outdated. Shakespeare does not really belong on the page, in fact – and don’t quote me on this – Shakespeare never wrote down any of his plays. What we call Shakespeare largely comes from people who were attending plays and trying to steal his material. As it is impossible to tell how much those recording added onto the plays, I have always felt that Shakespeare was more of a collective than an individual. It is also why I think his work translates so well into film, as we are just continuing to record his material for our own needs.

What I mean to say is that Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not just read. It is rather strange that so many people read Shakespeare plays, especially as plays are not something we generally read for fun. Unless you are in a production, the public simply watches a performance rather than reading it. There are exceptions, of course, but I would argue that Shakespeare occupies a unique space when compared with other playwrights. I think the same goes with Shakespeare adaptations, as we can read along with our copies, or even see the same production in totally different ways and mediums.

As a small example, there is a moment in the 1999 adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which transforms a traditionally read comedic moment into something sincere. It happens during the Pyramus and Thisbe performance, which is honestly a very strange moment in the play. It is as though Shakespeare’s work is divided into multiple plays for different audiences. Oberon and Titania watch the humans in the forest, the humans in turn watch the players, and we watch each of these figures. These layers suggest that every action and storyline is meant for someone else, or performed and manipulated by some unseen audience. Francis Flute (Sam Rockwell), who plays Thisbe, changes this by paying attention to the audience, and incorporating that reaction into his performance. This moment changes the way Pyramus and Thisbe section is traditionally performed, as most productions treat it as a silly conclusion. Here, the ridiculous is transformed, just as Flute changes his shrill voice to a normal and sincere kind. The same goes for the Shakespeare adaptation trend, as just like Flute, these adaptations find meaning and poignant performances from a very old and often bizarre story.

Examples like this demonstrate that even if you read the play, see three different versions of it performed, watch three different adaptations, and then read the graphic novel version, you will still find something new about the same story. Any production of Shakespeare knows this, and so their job is to make their version of Shakespeare into something new. To transform the recognizable and old into something poignant, fresh, and entertaining. That is what I am interested in for this week.

Tune in as I examine what it means to adapt Shakespeare for the screen, and what challenges and advantages it presents.