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Criticism and the Films of Shakespeare’s Plays Marvin Felheim I Among the other technical and artistic developments of the twentieth century, the motion picture camera, with its inherent capabilities for sound and color, was an inevitable step; equally unavoidable was the filming of the plays of Shakespeare. The greatest literary works in English, they have dominated the stages of the western world for the past 300 plus years. The union of film and Shakespeare was as natural and ordained a combination as bread and butter or life and breath. No other oeuvre has so consistently lent itself to experimentation and to translation, in every sense of those terms. Finally, and of neces­ sity, in the wake of the films there came the criticism, both aca­ demic and journalistic. The major problem with the criticism of Shakespearean films is that the critics are, in the main, Shakespeareans rather than film critics, and their chief concern is for the texts of the plays. Here we encounter the first real issue: language vs. visual imagery as a device for conveying Shakespeare’s ideas and values. For purists, there can be no compromise: Shakespeare was a poet and his language is pre-eminent. But there have always been dissenters from this point of view. Indeed, a recent conference at Brooklyn College (January, 1974) raised one perennial confrontation: between those who see Shakespeare primarily as a dramatist, a practical playwright writing for a living theatre, and those who study the works primarily as dramatic poetry. Cinematic versions seem only to exacerbate the issue, especially in the case of such a stunning film as Kuro­ sawa’s Throne of Blood. So, the first and chief and most traditional problem of film criticism vis-à-vis Shakespeare in the cinema is one of the oldest issues: what to do about the poetry in production. As Charles 147 148 Comparative Drama Eckert has framed the conflict (in the Introduction to his col­ lection Focus on Shakespearean Films) it is “between those who feel that fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is of prime importance and those who are willing to allow the director and adaptor creative authority both in cutting the original and in imposing simplistic or even eccentric interpretations upon it” (the very words he uses are, of course, loaded). The former are, gener­ ally, academicians; the latter, with exceptions naturally, film buffs and enthusiasts who feel that the plays must be rendered in cinematic terms, people who want neither to delete Shake­ speare from the contemporary repertoire nor to clutter the films with excessive, frequently unnecessary, verbiage. This issue has been addressed by eminent authorities; I refer here only to two, the first of whom is Allardyce Nicoll, distin­ guished historian of the theater, who was, however, among the first (see his Film and Theatre, 1936) academicians to attempt to understand the nature of cinema. Defending Reinhart’s A Midsummer Nighfs Dream, he pointed to its demonstration of “what may be done with imaginative forms on the screen”; he then isolated two notable aspects of the film: 1) “certain passages which, spoken in our vast modem theatres with their sharp separation of audience and actors, become mere pieces of rhetoric . . . were invested with an intimacy and directness they lacked on the stage”; 2) “the ease with which the cinema can present visual symbols to accompany language”; what Shake­ speare’s audience possessed, a capacity to “hear,” we have lost (“owing to the universal development of reading”); the cinema can restore, visually, that loss, making us see what the Eliza­ bethans literally visualized (the candle, the shadow and the player of Macbeth’s speech, for example). This argument has been extended by Henri Lemaitre (in his Etudes Cinématographiques) who finds no disharmony be­ tween the art of languages (“which triumphs in conferring all the puissant magic of the image upon the word”), and the cine­ matic art of the image (“which triumphs in conferring all the allusiveness of the word upon the image”), for they “are joined in a communion within tile same dramatic aesthetic.” Shake­ speare and the cinema, he maintains, have transcended these two opposing concepts, thereby increasing the intensity of the drama. In other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 147-155
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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