Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt, eds. Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. x + 277 pp. ISBN: 0 415 16584 9 Cloth; 0 415 16585 7 Paper.
Mark Thornton Burnett
The Queen's University of Belfast

Burnett, Mark Thornton. "Review of Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 17.1-6 <URL:

  1. This authoritative collection constitutes a "generic potlatch" (1) of perspectives, since it ranges widely over television interpretations and screen adaptations. A number of essays recover key moments in the evolution of the screen Shakespeare phenomenon. Thus Ann Thompson, in a nuanced analysis, pieces together the influences which lie behind Asta Neilsen's silent film version of Hamlet, noted for the performance of Neilsen herself in the central part. Thompson is joined by Kenneth Rothwell, who admirably surveys the role of the map in early cinematic renderings of King Lear, and by Tony Howard, who investigates Orson Welles' reading of the monarch in Peter Brook's CBS TV production of 1953. Howard is particularly adept at illuminating the post-war myth of a second Elizabethan age that informed Brook's undertaking.

  2. To these appraisals of earlier cinematic Shakespeares can be added the chapters on more contemporary filmic assessments. Clearly, Franco Zeffirelli must feature in such approaches, and, in this regard, Robert Hapgood and Diana Henderson do not disappoint. They provide insightful accounts of the personal traumas that structure Zeffirelli's films and the sense of felt isolation that colours his The Taming of the Shrew. Arguably the most interesting of the essays here is "Grossly Gaping Viwers and Jonathan Miller's Othello" by Lynda Boose, in which the director's striking use of black and white and suggestive camera work are explored with a gratifying critical felicity.

  3. In recent years, the colonialist inflections of the Shakespearean text have received increased attention. Not surprisingly, therefore, several essays are attuned to the fortunes of Shakespearean films in the post-colonial environment. Valerie Wayne offers a provocative discussion of Geoffrey Kendal's Indian Shakespearean playing company in her Shakespeare Wallah and "Colonial Specularity": the differences between the diary and filmic articulations of his experiences, she argues, point to the turbulence created in the transition from one political system to another. Similarly, by juxtaposing the Othello films of Janet Suzman and Trevor Nunn, Barbara Hodgdon discovers an underlying racism, which acquires sharper meanings in the context of a comparison with the O. J. Simpson trial.

  4. Indeed, it is the means whereby a Shakespearean film intersects with related discourses that seems to occupy the contributors most urgently. Many of the essays are interested less in the traffic on screen than in the connections between a host of cinematic conventions. For Donald K. Hendrick, Branagh's Henry V is best understood as a reworking of the Dirty Harry movies, while James N. Loehlin finds in Richard Loncraine's film version of Richard III a parody of the heritage costume drama. These two essays are eloquent meditations on the inseparability of the bard from other narratives on celluloid. But the relationship is not always one-way. In a neat inversion of the schema, Katherine Eggert argues in her chapter that Antony and Cleopatra is the submerged source for a number of Hollywood films (including Bugsy), the play itself being unfilmable.

  5. Such is the versatility of these productions that Shakespeare's cultural presence alone operates as a grammar through which investigations into peculiarly modern concerns can be conducted. In this connection, the essays of Sue Wiseman (on My Own Private Idaho) and Richard Burt (on queer Shakespearean appropriations) are crucial interventions, for they trace with a telling persuasiveness the ease with which Shakespeare can form part of a critique of press censorship and family abuse. Finally, it seems, the modern Shakespearean film represents most frequently an opportunity to comment upon and revel in the power of technology. In her sensitive discussion of The Animated Tales, for instance, Laurie Osborne evokes the multiple ways in which the twentieth century recreates Shakespeare's texts. Pride of place in these technology-centred readings, and in the collection itself, however, must go to Peter Donaldson: his essay on Prospero's Books is an inspiring reflection upon the film's interactive character, concern with the processes of reproduction, and indebtedness to metacomputational and metadigital elements.

  6. Some films, unfortunately, are rather under-represented. Recent productions such as As You Like It (1992), Ill Met by Moonlight (1994), Tempest (1982) and Twelfth Night (1996) receive only brief mentions, occasionally none at all, and the very latest crop of movies (Hamlet [1997] and Romeo and Juliet [1997]), entirely understandably, are not considered in great detail. In itself, however, this is a mark of the vitality of the field and an indicator that there is more work still to be done. Shakespeare, the Movie will intrigue and surprise: it forms an important and original contribution to a rapidly growing area of enquiry.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(JD, LH, RGS, 29 January 1998)