- Devouring Time: Nostalgia in Contemporary Shakespearean Screen Adaptations by Philippa Sheppard
Philippa Sheppard's ambitious book about the recurrence of nostalgia in contemporary (1989 to the present) Shakespearean screen adaptations focuses on "the way in which the translation from Renaissance play to contemporary film highlights and comments on aspects of contemporary culture, particularly revealing our attitudes to art, identity, and the past." Devouring Time's ambit includes an ongoing analysis of the charged term "nostalgia," with its inherently politicized sense of an ideal better world that has preceded the present one and to which we aspire through adaptive acts centred on the canonical greatness of Shakespeare's retrospective importance recycled through the here and now. Its fifteen chapters (including an introduction and conclusion) cover an enormous amount of ground in these general terms, with abundant referential content that moves from generalized chapters addressing why Shakespearean film adaptations have the enormous cultural currency they do, through to the "drive to realism" in film adaptation, Shakespearean prologues on page and screen, nostalgia for the stage, and death rituals. These topics frame the first two sections of the book, which then shifts to more forensic analyses of specific films, including the gothic in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, the grotesque in Julie Taymor's Titus and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, cross-dressing in film adaptations by English directors, propaganda in Branagh's Henry V and Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, and a last section focusing on music and memory with chapters on gender and fidelity, intercutting, nostalgia, and Ariel's singing body.
Throughout, Sheppard proves to be an astute observer and unafraid of taking on issues that get at the underlying ideologies behind a mode of cultural production that not only requires enormous resources to produce but also leverages Shakespeare's iconic cultural presence into cultural capital that has currency because it can access these resources. Mutually reinforcing interests that play on cultural presence, name recognition, and how one achieves aesthetic significance via recycling the theatre through film is one of the dilemmas the book examines, as it plays with why this kind of "nostalgia" matters, with Sheppard early on acknowledging that nostalgia studies "assert that the urbanization and globalization of our current western society accounts in part for [End Page 140] the wistful looking to the past, a time when tight-knit rural communities were more the norm." These sorts of demographic generalizations beg the question that is at the core of the book's thesis around nostalgia – namely, the extent to which film adaptations signal a break from the past in the very attempt to recuperate it or whether film adaptations are part of a continuum of (early) modernist forms of story making that, in themselves, were always already nostalgic for a past that had already presented itself as, if not ideal, at the very least an exemplary model for the future to come. Here, I am thinking especially of classical Greek and Roman cultures that were a critical part of the neoclassical frame of early modern pedagogies, learning, self-fashioning, and textuality.
Sheppard acknowledges that "part of the allure of Shakespeare is his prestige-lending property. However, we should not be wholly seduced by this notion of Shakespeare as a successful product. Most Shakespeare films do not break even." The argument here is a tad specious in that Shakespearean "success" is not a ledger calculation around a specific product's profitability so much as a cumulative calculus around the aggregate cultural energies and attention paid to a particular creator's aesthetic influence. In the case of Shakespeare, the top-ten English film adaptations have generated over a billion dollars in numbers not adjusted for inflation, and this amount barely accounts for the spin-off economies associated with pre- and post-production realities of these outputs. If anything, Sheppard's work sets the stage for a radical interrogation of the value of cultural recycling (if not upcycling) in an age where the decision to adapt Shakespeare to film is cast as "nostalgia for the view that human...