The Performance Of Shakespeare'S Plays At The Cinema

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Cinema has produced a variety of Shakespeare adaptations since 1899. Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies, Roman and historical plays have been brought to the big screen by worldwide film-makers in ingenious ways. Around 500 productions have come to light in two extended categories: the original-text film where Shakespeare’s language was used, for instance Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Hamlet and the genre adaptations where the plays’ plots and characters are used as a template, whereas Shakespeare’s language is replaced by a contemporary dialogue in order to give audience, such as Ten Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man.

This paper will be discussing the idea of cultural materialism and its effects on modern day Shakespeare. Cultural materialism draws upon the investigative sense of ‘culture’ and it incorporates work on the cultures of subordinate and marginalised groups like schoolchildren and working class citizens, and on forms like TV and mainstream music and fiction. However, ‘high culture’ is taken as one set of signifying practices among others. Culture is not just reflected in the economic and political system, but it is everywhere in our lives. Therefore, cultural materialism studies the implication of literary texts in history. A play by Shakespeare, in this case, has a relation to the contexts of its production (the court, theatre, education, the church). Moreover, the so believed to be the ‘important’ or ‘relevant’ history was not solely the one made four hundred years ago, because culture is constantly developing and changing, therefore, Shakespeare’s text is reconstructed and adapted all the time through diverse institutions in specific contexts.

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This is why the article we are referencing, Radical potentiality and institutional closure: Shakespeare in film and television discusses all the institutions in which Shakespeare is reproduced. Cultural materialism enlists its responsibility to the change of a social order which takes advantage of people on grounds of race, gender and class. IIThe adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays into film created tension between literary and film communities because often the visual impact and stage production of the films take away from Shakespeare’s plays and his words and works themselves.

Over the years, many of Shakespeare’s works have been made into films such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc and critics argue that the film takes away from the overall experience of reading the raw text. Peter Hall and his 1969 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, argues against the adaptation of literature into film. When any type of literary work is adapted into film, or translated from one language to another, words and meanings are lost in the translation and therefore do not make the adaptation as effective. “Hall insists that the film should be a visual embodiment of the text, fleshing the verbal structure with the concrete reality it signifies, but subordinated absolutely to the authoritative structure and rhythm of the text” (Holderness). The difficulty of translating Shakespeare into film over 400 years later is that Shakespeare is not around to direct the film to make sure the intended messages are going to be noticed by the viewer.

Film today makes assumptions about costumes, colors, and what the characters would look like considering when the plays were acted out 300 years ago, the female characters were played by male actors. “‘Film’, in the words of another writer ‘overwhelms the mind with a relentless progression of visual and auditory impulse all other arts liberate the imagination, film entraps it’” (Holderness). Hall, also looks to argue for the adaptation of Shakespeare into film. The greatest influence on Hall with Leavis who when reading any text was always looking for meaning and metaphor which directly translated into his productions. “Hall insists that the film should be a visual embodiment of the text, fleshing the verbal structure with the concrete reality it signifies, but subordinated absolutely to the authoritative structure and rhythm of the text” (Holderness).

Although the text can become diluted in film, the medium can also be used to communicate the text more effectively and for old and confusing pieces of literature like Macbeth, seeing the words being acted out is often easier to understand.Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is the most complete translation of Shakespeare into film. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a representation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this adaptation the text is abandoned and it follows a whole new plot of feudal Japan. “Play and cinema occupy entirely different spaces and cannot even be compared, much less evaluated, against one another” (Holderness).

The biggest criticism of the film is that it srtips Shakespeare’s play of its tragic form and style, yet it offers a new way to look at the adaptation of Shakespeare, whilst being creative and not assuming certain elements of the original script. “But it is evident that both Kurosawa’s film and Shakespeare’s play can be seen primarily as social tragedies, set within a distanced historical context in which social problems and contradictions can be rendered visible and fully intelligible to the audience’s curiosity” (Holderness). Although the two works follow the same plot as Macbeth as Throne of Blood locates the problem of regicide (killing a king) into historical context, parallel with Duncan’s Scotland versus England, they are at the same time very dissimilar and cannot be compared. However, the biggest criticism of the film is that it strips Shakespeare’s play of its tragic form and style. Holderness, at the end of his argument about film states that the authenticity and overall meaning of the film is dependent on the mobilisation of the work as educational rather than cultural, because it has a deeper meaning, and follows the text closer.

The majority of theatres today where Shakespeare’s works are performed are located in the United Kingdom, which restricts others from around the world to watch Shakespeare come to life. Television is the only “national” theatre offered to society. Television more accurately represents Shakespeare like it would be performed in the theatres rather than in film. There is more space and room in television to spread out the story and include small details and is prohibited in film due to its time limit.

Television offers the closest comparison to the Elizabethan theatre. It encompasses a sense of social life, a direct mode of communication and has space for characters and plot lines to develop. “A different kind of populism emerges from within the BBC itself: where academics envisage television as a means of reconstituting the Elizabethan theatre, producers think more in terms of translating theatre into the familiar discourse of television itself” (Holderness). Where film traps and prohibits too much creativity, television offers a solution with the opportunity to extend series to really convey the intended message.

Cedric Messina, a South-African born British television producer and director who worked for the BBC is best remembered for his involvement in television productions of classic drama. He accepted the idea of the development of Shakespeare’s works into video productions. This would provide both commercial and cultural advantages, in which the plays would essentially pay for themselves. The scale of investment should be economically viable; it should give an economic as well as a cultural return on capital investment. The planners aim for a high quality productions that will offer a wonderful opportunity to showcase the plays. This excellence is similar to the Arnoldian practice of literary criticism. (The concept of high quality) The second tetralogy plays are produced in a “classical drama” style with naturalistic performing and filming which is a perfect example of conventional “high quality” Shakespearean production.

Film, although commonplace in today’s society, still restricts certain classes of people to be able to learn more and experience the Shakespearean material come to life. With expensive tickets, film singles out a certain class of people who leisurely attend the movies to see a new release. Television offers a cheaper solution to those unable to spend the money or do not wish to leave the comfort of their own home. Overall, those involved in the argument seemed to prefer the adaptation of Shakespeare into television rather than film.


The article by Holderness, argues for two sides of an argument about the modern adaptation of Shakespeare and which medium it is best represented through. By the evidences mentioned before we can conclude that the reproduction of Shakespeare in film and television is not different from the rest reproductions in theatre or education, in fact, they have ‘’specific commercial and cultural functions within the economic and ideological apparatus of a bourgeois-democratic society’’ (Holderness). Despite different changes or improvements of the reproductions, cultural education is the undeniable intention. In this case, film and television productions can be incorporated into educational systems, in literature courses, regarding cultural concerns, liberating radical options of meaning, and contributing to the politicisation of the ‘Shakespeare’ institution, as proposed in the article.

In schools around the world today, Shakespeare is taught, and young students are expected to read the Shakespearean tongue and take away the important themes and characters of his plays. The original text is difficult to comprehend and often turns people away for disinterest in reading something they cannot understand. However, Shakespeare in film and television offers a solution. People around the world can appreciate Shakespeare and his life’s work on a screen with images, music, a physical environment, and actions. Without the opportunity to do so, Shakespeare may not be as common in schools and homes as it is today. For works of art as precious and valuable as Shakespeare’s, his exposure to as many social classes, schools, countries, and individuals, only contributes to the literary community and strengthens its core values of sharing these monumental pieces of literature.


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