Shakespeare and the screen

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There is a fallacy of elitism which unduly and unfairly shrouds William Shakespeare’s works from the general populace. Shakespeare is perceived as mostly enjoyable to a small bubble of people who are well-off, highly (and probably privately) educated and who enjoy the smug satisfaction of laughing at Shakespeare’s, at times, convoluted humour more than the actual humour itself. The prevailing belief is that Shakespeare does not belong to the masses, that his corpus forms the punchline of an inside-joke, places a distance between most people and the Bard. This misconception probably reveals a lot about the classist rigging of our society, but it is an understandable belief for people to have. 

The problem at the heart of this conception of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare himself was on the receiving end of the bitter lash of classism, and, arguably, still is today. Dismissed as an ‘upstart crow’ by his contemporary, and ultimately far less successful fellow playwright, Robert Greene, he has also faced retrospective classism by academics since who question his identity. These alternative possibilities behind Shakespeare’s genius and literary flare are almost exclusively upper-class Cambridge alumni, such as fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe or Richard De Vere, the eleventh Earl of Oxford. The belief that a middle-class man from the Midlands who did not attend Cambridge and who moved to London to pursue an acting career was incapable of being the most successful and acclaimed writer of all-time is undoubtedly a classist and elitist belief.

In his day, Shakespeare’s theatrical appeal was perhaps most profoundly felt by the groundlings who flocked to the Globe for his tales of human endeavour, tragedy, misfortune, as well as for his tales of mistaken identity, gender-play and bawdy humour. The Globe today maintains that Shakespeare is for everyone, selling standing tickets at just five pounds. 

In the face of the perceived elitism of Shakespearean plays, many filmmakers have attempted to open up Shakespeare to the masses

Film and television are today’s great levellers. In the face of the perceived elitism of Shakespearean plays, many filmmakers have attempted to open up Shakespeare to the masses. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet provided a refreshing revival of Shakespeare’s great romance, a tale of star-crossed lovers which ends famously in double-suicide and is traceable to the classical story of Thisbe and Pyramus. The aesthetic of this film, with its honeyed images of young love and beauty, appears to be the secret of its prevailing charm. It brings the words to life, appealing to a modern appetite yet also paying homage to the original play. 

The latest film to join the collection of Shakespearean screen adaptations is Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which hit the big screen on Boxing Day and is now available to stream on Apple TV. This incredibly well-received production stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The pair give stunning performances, as does Kathryn Hunter as the witches and Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram as Macduff and Lady Macduff. 

The eeriness created by the carefully designed set and choreography bolster the words of the Bard

The film is a directorial triumph for Coen. The eeriness created by the carefully designed set and choreography bolster the words of the Bard and bring them to life in a way that undoubtedly appeals to modern audiences. However, I would say that there is a thin yet undeniable wall between the play and the audience. Most of the speeches, as film critic Mark Kermode points out, often play as soliloquies where they are not. 

Kermode called the film a relatively “bloodless” production and while I would not agree completely, I can understand this statement. The ongoing challenges facing filmmakers who tackle Shakespearean tragedies are ever-present in an industry dominated by the action-saturated Marvel universe.  So, while the web of tension and emotional atmosphere is expertly woven by Coen, there is still a blockade between the intricacies of guilt, ambition, agency and fate, and turmoil which make Macbeth. This film will, however, join the rest of the Shakespearean screen adaptation worthy of high praise. 

Image: Matt Riches via Unsplash

One thought on “Shakespeare and the screen

  • Christopher Marlowe was not “upper class”. He was a shoemaker’s son, the same class as Shakespeare. Both their fathers were leatherworkers. Marlowe got into Cambridge on a scholarship for poor boys, after having had only a couple of years’ school at the King’s School in Canterbury, also on a scholarship.

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