When I hear a director speaking glibly of serving the author, of letting a play speak for itself, my suspicions are aroused. . . . If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sound from it.—Peter Brook1
In respectful disagreement with Samuel Crowl's description of the post World War II period as "the great international phase in Shakespeare's absorption into film,"2 and in response to recent studies of current Shakespeare cinema's globalist dimensions,3 I think it worth noting that Shakespeare film has been a thoroughly international phenomenon since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, recent debates regarding the ethical and political complexity of global Shakespeare cinema are similar to those engaged by early twentieth-century theorists focused on film as a new artistic medium, who openly questioned what they saw as film's vying fascistic and revolutionary potentialities. Especially in the 1920s and 30s, film commentators as varied as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Charles Chaplin, and Sergei Eisenstein sought to understand the ideological effects of film, whether we mean by "film" a movie's content, montage style, imagery, production, or the psychological [End Page 320] dimensions of the cinematic apparatus itself. Further, just as many of today's postcolonial and global studies scholars "generate," in Sonia Massai's terms, "either rash and under-theorized eulogies of—or skeptical responses to—interculturalism," early twentieth-century thinkers tended to fall into two camps as they struggled to negotiate film's complex hybridity (Massai 2005: 5): its uneasy and seemingly contradictory role as both a radical new art form and, in Frederic Jameson's words, the "product of the most sophisticated forms of industrial production" (Jameson 1992: xiii).
How might a comparative awareness of this earlier period's fascination with Shakespeare cast light on the phenomenon of twenty-first-century global Shakespeare cinema? In this essay I contemplate ways in which our current conversation might be usefully informed by the "globalism" of silent Shakespeare cinema and the historical cinematic movement from intertitles to subtitles to spoken dialogue in multiple languages.
In referencing the "globalism" of modern Shakespeare cinema, one might draw on the fact that Shakespeare films have recently been produced or shot in such vastly distant non-Anglophone locales as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Ghana, Greece, Holland, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Yugoslavia, just to mention a few. A growing body of scholarly work focuses on such films—particularly the ideological and political implications of their Shakespearean engagements.4 In the era of silent and early sound cinema, the term "global" has a less truly international reach, though I would wager that most readers will be surprised by how global silent cinema actually was. Nonetheless, because I am using "globalism" somewhat loosely, I should begin by briefly outlining my own understanding and employment of this notoriously vague term, which immediately and inevitably evokes a rather black and white divide described well by Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake: "the space of cultural production and national representation . . . is simultaneously becoming more globalized (unified around dynamics of capitalogic moving across borders) and more localized (fragmented into contestatory enclaves of difference, coalition and resistance) in everyday texture and composition" (Wilson and Dissanayake 1996: 1). Shakespeare and film scholar Mark Thornton Burnett has usefully streamlined the two opposed lines of thought captured here: "On the one hand," he argues, "globalization allows for bonding and interconnectivity; and, on the other, [End Page 321] policies of integration dislodge, divide and even eradicate the indigenous" (Burnett 2007: 2).
This binary maps rather neatly onto countless other cultural studies debates: Benjamin's hope for art in the age of mechanical reproduction or Adorno's despair over the commodification of the art form; Foucault's deterministic power system or Bordieu's moldable habitus; colonialist erasures or the solidarity of Bhabha's "join"; containment or subversion? In Shakespeare studies specifically, historicist debates about Shakespeare's own radicalism or conservativism have gradually been overtaken by more reception-oriented studies...