A confession up front: this post comes close to violating The Idler’s mandate to focus on things we enjoy. In another part of my life, I am a Shakespeare scholar. I write about his plays in performance, I edit volumes about the topic, I used to teach the subject regularly. In other words, Shakespeare is part of my working life, not part of my idle pleasure. Not only that, there’s a lot of Shakespeare that I find tedious. Given my research, I ought to find Shakespeare on film and video interesting, perhaps even enjoyable. But you know what? A lot of it is no fun at all. It’s just boring. It plods along, probably prettily, and much too respectfully.
On the other hand, I gather that there are people who like to watch Shakespeare films, who might even make a point of seeking them out. I’m not sure why they do that. Is it a love of the plays? A sense of highbrow improvement? General curiosity about how a 400-year-old play turns into a movie? Back when Kenneth Branagh was successful, that must have been at the root of it. But I’m here to introduce those people into a different world of Shakespeare. Yes, there’s a bunch of the standard stuff on Netflix. But there’s some great stuff there too, stuff that isn’t boring, isn’t what you expect, that uses Shakespeare to make a movie instead of using a movie to make Shakespeare.
I like Branagh’s Henry V okay; I like it better when I think about it in terms of the genre of Vietnam movies and what it might tell us about late 1980s attitudes towards leadership and war. That nice meta-moment when the film switches from the sound stage opening to the film itself? That’s nice. And it’s lifted straight from Laurence Olivier’s opening to his Henry V, with its shift from horribly inadequate Renaissance stage to open fields and movie technology. Both, of course, get this from the opening Chorus in Shakespeare’s play, who doubts the ability of the stage to represent the history at hand and so asks the audience to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” In any case, both movies will give you a good sense of the traditional history of Shakespeare on film. And watching them together, if you haven’t done it before, will do much to dispel the myth that filmed Shakespeare needs to somehow be “faithful” to the play. These two versions play off of each other in their differences and you can’t ask for a better demonstration of how every performance of Shakespeare is shaped by the cultural moment that creates it.I like the movies that are unexpected, however. (Never assume that a Shakespeare professor will be more rigid in her adherence to the play than the general public; we are much less bardolatrous than you think.) Try Derek Jarman’s 1979 Tempest for a taste of this. The film isn’t unexpected for what it does to the plot, but how it goes about moving through it. With the punk singer Toyah Willcox as Miranda, radical playwright and poet Heathcote Williams as Prospero, blind dancer Jack Birkett as Caliban, and the island setting replaced with a decaying mansion, Jarman’s movie embodies a disjointed aesthetic that makes the play into something that explores power and the dispossessed in terms both of bondage and creation. I’d never had a chance to see it before I found it on Netflix, and though I meant just to watch the opening scenes to get a taste of it, I watched the whole thing through, never quite sure what was going to happen next. (If you’re still doing the DVD thing, consider watching Jarman’s film of Marlowe’s Edward II. It’s amazing, both for how it uses the play as a jumping off point for an argument for queer politics and for its bare yet glamorous aesthetic.)
Peter Brook’s 1971 King Lear is a different sort of film. It’s professional in a way that Jarman was not interested in, with some truly great actors in the lead roles: primarily Paul Scofield as Lear, but also Irene Worth as Goneril and Cyril Cusack as Albany. Brook himself is one of the most important theatre directors of our age, and an even more outsize influence in Shakespeare productions. So its pedigree puts it in company of all those other pretty and respectful films I find dull. But this is separated from others in its genre by its relentless cruelty. King Lear is a hard play, so much so that it can be difficult to stomach. Everyone’s treatment of everyone else is painful to watch, and their deaths are worse and worse. It’s tempting for productions to play on our sympathy—poor old Lear, such cruel thankless children. And poor pitiful Cordelia, so innocent and poorly used. But this film doesn’t wallow in that sadness, nor shy away from the cruelty of the story. It is as brutal as anything I’ve seen. Right before Lear storms with his 100 men out of Goneril’s home, he turns back to stare at her and she blanches in fear. She’s right to do so: he leads his men in a riot destroying her hall and spits a deeply cruel insult into her face. He doesn’t sustain his range. He knows he will be mad, and the madness comes. There’s no histrionics, no music to compound or assuage our pain. It’s just relentlessly pitiless. The movie is worth watching for Scofield’s performance alone; in combination with Brook’s power, you won’t know what hit you. Alas, it’s only on Netfilx streaming until October 15th, so catch it quick.
There are other notable Shakespeare films streaming right now, but I won’t discuss them in depth. I’m assuming most of you have already seen the Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet (the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), but it holds up well and is worth seeing again; play it against the Zeffirelli version to see how times have changed. If you haven’t seen Olivier’s Hamlet, treat yourself to it; there’s a reason it was so influential and why we think of Olivier as such as great actor. Some of my favorites aren’t streaming (Orson Welles’s Othello is astonishing, and Alex Cox’s film of Middleton’s Revengers Tragedy is anarchic and wrenching) but the ones that are available will go a long way to washing that Anonymous drek out of your mouth. Maybe next time I’ll share some of my favorite adaptations, but if you can’t wait that long, I’ll leave you with this: Strange Brew is back!
Shakespeare on Instant Netflix:
As You Like It (1936; dir. Czinner, starring Laurence Olivier)
As You Like It (1992; dir. Christine Edzard)
Hamlet (1948; dir. Olivier)
Hamlet (1990; dir Kevin Kline; Great Performances adaptation of NYSF production)
Henry V (1944; dir. Olivier)
Henry V (1989; dir. Branagh)
King Lear (1971; dir. Peter Brook, with Paul Scofield)—–only until 10/15!!!!
King Lear (1974; dir. Sherrin; live recording of the NYSF production; with James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Paul Sorvino and Rene Auberjonois.)
King Lear (2008; dir Nunn, with Ian McKellen; based on RSC production)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968; dir. Hall; based on RSC production)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996; based RSC production)–note that the film described on the page is NOT the film that actually streams
Richard III (1995; dir. Loncraine, with Ian McKellen)
Romeo & Juliet (1968; dir. Zeffirelli)
Romeo + Juliet (1996; dir. Luhrmann)
Tempest (1979; dir Jarman)
Sarah Werner has two sons, at least one job, and too many books to
read. As a result, Netflix Instant is her constant companion. She blogs about books and reading and is
known to a corner of the twitterverse as @wynkenhimself.