Shakespeare and the Movies
What is it about the works of William Shakespeare that appeal to us today? Is it the poetry, the violence, the humor, or the romance? Is it because all of these things relate to our times? No. These aspects of Shakespeares plays have always appealed to audiences. Shakespeares plays are timeless, and due to this enduring significance, the Bards works have easily translated to film. Scarcely a Shakespearean play has not been made and remade numerous times into to a movie, and more often than not the film is either a hit at the box office or critically acclaimed. There is something about Shakespeare that has continued to capture the attention of audiences for the past four hundred years. In our present age of short-attention spans and exploding graphics, it is difficult to imagine that literature and poetry could attract people to the movies, but it seems that film has become the best medium for Shakespeare. All that the stage once limited can now be seen at the movies in its full glory; what the Bard wrote for everybody may now be known visually and in total splendor.
In Taming of the Shrew, we are presented with the story of a very independent woman and a very controlling man in an Elizabethan Battle of the Sexes. Appropriately, the female submits to the male and all is happy and well. For many, this is certainly not the best story to update to the present era of liberated women. On the contrary, Taming of the Shrew is an ideal film to update to our time.In 1967, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in Franco Zeffirellis version of Taming. For those familiar with the history of the 20th century, you may recall that the 1960s are somewhat notable for the womens liberation movement. Zeffirelli directed a film that, on the surface, advocates female obedience to males. Upon careful inspection, however, it can be seen that submission was not the message at all. When Shakespeare wrote Taming, Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne of England. Elizabeth was a famous shrew who ruled alone without the aid of a man. Such autonomy by females was not commonplace and certainly not appreciated. So when this playwright named William Shakespeare came out with this story of a strong-willed woman being tamed by a brutish man, many felt it was a commentary on Elizabeth and an appropriate way for a woman to behave. Shakespeare may have had another message to send. The shrew Katrina is starved and sleep deprived before she submits to her husband Petruchio. Was Shakespeare saying that a woman must be beaten down before she gives in? Or perhaps that the only thing that defeats a strong female spirit is madness?Either way, it is obvious that Shakespeare was making a statement about appropriate behavior for men and women of his world. Zeffirelli took this statement, and using the Bards own words, made a statement for his own time. Was Zeffirelli saying that women should obey men? This was probably not his message. In the final scene where Katrina gives her speech on the duty of the obedient wife, Shakespeare had written that both Petruchio and Katrina exit together. Zeffirelli gave his ending a slight but poignant twist, this being that Katrina leaves on her own while Petruchio, oblivious, delivers his triumphal speech of having subdued his wife. The director seems to indicate that Petruchio has not tamed Katrina at all, but rather has gotten what she wanted (food, sleep, etc.) by giving her husband a false sense of dominance. When considering the context in which this film was made, the message appears entirely fitting.
Other aspects of Zeffirellis Taming were designed to appeal to his audience. Aside from the technical differences from Shakespeares original staging, like the use of real women and the ability to film in an analogous setting, the 1960s Taming offered more physical comedy, more sexiness (i.e., the almost sex-scene between Petruchio and Katrina), and more of the story relied on action versus Shakespeares poetry. The words of the play seemed a bit downplayed to allow for what audiences love sex and comedy. Not to say that the Elizabethan audience didnt want sex and comedy, but they certainly did not have a Three Stooges mindset for what was funny. The modern viewers often require an emphasis of the visual comedy to be entertained and Zeffirelli satisfied that requirement in his translation of the play.
In our present cultural context, there are a few problems of Taming of the Shrew. Obviously, a wifes submission to her husband is not presently considered acceptable. Also, a man like Petruchio would not be admired based on his taming skills but would rather be more likely to be featured on an episode of Cops. One critic has claimed that the play enacts the defeat of the threat of a womans revolt (Petruchios Horse, website). What was considered appropriate male and female behavior in Shakespeares time has not survived into the 20th century.
There are some core values and assumptions that still exist today that were present in Tamings original setting. Today, though certainly not as extreme, there are desirable social behaviors specific to ones gender. More importantly, however, is the treatment of individuals specific to their gender. That is why a woman with the same training and the same experience as a man tends to make lower wages and be passed over for more promotions in the workplace. Another cultural message from Taming that we still respond to is that one can get what he wants if he is willing to play the game. Katrina gave in to Petruchio to gain peace of mind, not necessarily because she honestly believed that submitting to him was the right thing to do, but the easy thing to do. Ever present in our own society we suck up, shmooze, etc. to get what we want even though we may not be doing what we believe in.
One of the Bards most famous characters got into a lot of trouble doing what he may not have necessarily believed in, and his name is Hamlet. Hamlet is a play that is not be entirely cross-cultural (Bohannan, Shakespeare in the Bush) but is, at least for the Western world, considered timeless. The play has been translated in most every way imaginable, from modern updates, to female leads, to even a Disney cartoon.
For the new millennium director Michael Almereyda gave us Hamlet 2000, a modern update of the classic using Shakespeares own words. The story of the pensive Danish prince was translated to that of a wealthy New York slacker in the year 2000. Almereyda appeals to his audience by including lots of high-tech gadgets, violence, and plenty of visual symbolism to stimulate the post-theater discussions. The modern Hamlet delivers soliloquies into a camera lens or while wandering the action section of a Blockbuster video store. Ophelia, always never much for words, is given a visual voice as she fantasies suicide by drowning. All the characters Shakespeare wanted us to dislike, like Claudius, Polonius, and even to some extent Gertrude, are hedonistic, slimy urbanites with too much money and no consciousness. It has been said that the extreme use of modern technological wonders was intended to overwhelm the contemporary lives of the characters (Mr. Brown, website).
As can be seen by the modern translation, Hamlet possesses many of the same core values we have today. Daily we struggle with choices between good and evil, right and wrong, or, in Hamlets case, the no-win situation. Usually these decisions are made on the basis of costs and benefits, but poor Hamlet had to deal with dreadful costs no matter what route he chose. If he ignored his mothers and uncles union, he would be allowing incest and overlooking his fathers murder. If he chose to avenge his fathers death, he would be killing his uncle and his widowing his mother once again.The message may be that sometimes there is no good solution, an idea that we grapple with still today.
Even though Hamlet is a tragedy, Hamlet 2000 is riddled with humor. A reference to Disneys Hamlet, The Lion King, is found when Hamlet retreats below the Broadway plays marquee. To gain chuckles from the modern audience, Almereyda names the Corporations, or kingdoms, Denmark and Sweden, the Kings are CEOs, and even the uptown home of the New York royalty is the Hotel Elsinore. While Hamlet delivers his To be or not to be speech, he passes under the Blockbuster video Go home happy slogan. The technology becomes integral to the story. Hamlet exchanges his death sentence via laptop computer for Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns untimely ends. The play within the play, The Mouse Trap, becomes a film within the film created by Hamlet. Numerous other references to technology seem to be pounded into the audiences brains at Almereydas discretion.
The ease with which Hamlet may be updated to a modern setting is almost unsettling. To think that we have so much culturally in common with individuals from centuries before is strange until you look at what are the major similarities. Hamlet captures nearly all of the evils capable of man in its one story. It is a reflection not only of what we are capable of doing and what we chose to do, but also of the sobering reality of what is sometimes chosen for us.
When discussing matters that are out of our hands, the fateful story of Romeo and Juliet comes to mind. Shakespeare made the leap from arranged marriage to the emphasis on romantic love in this tragedy. The lives of the most famous star crossd lovers have been immortalized in nearly every form and fashion imaginable. Their destiny is known the entire world over and has been translated into a variety of mediums; they have been sung of by the band Blue Oyster Cult (Dont Fear the Reaper), they have been portrayed as ethnic youths in New York (West Side Story), and have been modernized into the children of American crime families (Romeo + Juliet). In 1996, music-video director Baz Luhrmann made Romeo + Juliet, a renovated version of Shakespeares first tragedy. Keeping quite true to the original text (like in Hamlet 2000,some verbal parts were deleted and explained visually), Luhrmann created a teenager-oriented film set in the fictional city Verona Beach. At this Miami-like local Luhrmann gave his audience a magnified adaptation of the original. Perhaps to retain the interest of his attention-deficient viewers, all of the plays violence, blood, and debauchery were puffed up. There was also no absence of partial nudity and reference to drugs (Mercutios Queen Maub speech), two factors that are often necessary to make an interesting film in modern times. Something worthy of noting is that these things were just as interesting to Shakespeares original audience only Luhrmann has added some pizzazz to it all. Lots of guns, lots of glitter and glamour are found in the update. A curious element that was emphasized in Romeo + Juliet was religion. In todays world it is well known that religion is not as central to the lives of individuals as it once was in Shakespeares day. Luhrmann tossed religion into every scene of the film, contemporizing everything from neon crucifixes, Sacred Heart tattoos, and religious figurines on every corner. One would think that such aspects would be downplayed in a modern translation, but Luhrmann successfully pulled it off.
One reason why Romeo and Juliet can be successfully translated into our present day (Romeo + Juliet was one of the biggest hits of 1996) is because the core values are hardly unchanged. As stated earlier, Romeo and Juliet emphasizes romantic love versus the arranged marriages that were prevalent in Elizabethan times. Today, arranged marriages are no longer a feature in Western culture and romantic love is the norm. One of the more obscure messages of Romeo and Juliet is that maybe acting upon young and passionate emotions may not be such a good idea. Is this a statement about the pitfalls of romantic love? We do have a 50% divorce rate in the United States, a country with love-based marriages. Romeo + Juliet could serve as a sermon on the impetuousness of youth. Other values relatable to today include the belief that if you die believing in something good, then your life has not been spent in vain. Romeo and Juliet died for love; also, they died in a failed (and unintentional) attempt to unite their feuding families.We still hang on to those lofty ideas of honor and purpose in our daily lives. Romeo and Juliet has become a template for what love should be even though those lovers lives ended in woe.
Since Shakespeare first began recording the human record with his own brand of poetry, people have been captivated by his ability to capture the essence of being human. His words present a model for not only some of the best stories told in the Western world, but also for how we should live. In other words, Shakespeare has provided us with the insight on what makes humans so intriguing passion, deceit, individuality, and so on. We are still drawn to the Bard hundreds of years after his death because of the timelessness he gave to his language. We understand Shakespeare because the emotion he supplies has endured human history for as long as we have had a history. His stories are timeless because they capture the essence of our way of life.
? Bohannan, L. Shakespeare in the Bush. From Natural History, August/ September, 1966.
? Mr. Brown. All-Reviews.com
? Petruchios Horse: Equine and Household Mismangement in Taming of the Shrew. http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/heanshak.html
? Hamlet 2000. Directed by Michael Almereyda, 2000.
? Taming of the Shrew. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1967.
? William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, 1996.