Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks, eds. The Reel Shakespeare: Alternative Cinema and Theory. Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP, 2002. 298pp.  ISBN: 0 8386 3939 9.

Carolyn Jess
The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland

Jess, Carolyn. "Review of Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks, eds. The Reel Shakespeare: Alternative Cinema and Theory". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 11.1-4 <URL:>.

  1. In what proves to be a rigorous investigation of some of the most current upheavals in Shakespearean cinema, The Reel Shakespeare examines marginalized Shakespeare incarnations, setting these films into dialogue with cinema’s origins, production systems, and aesthetic values. Traversing once more the realm of searches for the ‘real’ Shakespeare, Lehmann and Starks aim to consider Shakespeare’s role in mediating cultural concerns at important junctures of cinema history, while surveying diverse critical viewpoints that illuminate Shakespearean cinema at the present moment. The book’s consideration of ‘unorthodox’ filmic approaches to the Bard posits ‘countercinema’ as more successfully identifying Shakespeare’s ideological diversity by juxtaposing evolving states of the ‘reel’ (cinema) with Baudrillardian, Jamesonian, Lacanian, and Žižekian conceptualisations of the ‘real’. The book’s primary aim is to discover the remnants of ‘real’ Shakespeare amongst a throng of avant-garde approaches. Essays are included on new wave appropriations of Shakespeare (including Godard’s King Lear), several more recent avant-garde productions, alternative approaches to teaching Shakespeare on film. Jose Ramón Díaz-Fernández’s selected bibliography provides a useful source of critical enquiry on ‘reel Shakespeare’.

  2. Departing from a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s filmic ascription across the twentieth-century from a post-millennial perspective, the volume anticipates the effects of digitalization (as considered in Richard Burt and Lynda E. Boose’s Shakespeare, The Movie, II), independent filmmaking, and emergent filmic methodologies upon Shakespearean cinema. By juxtaposing the ‘reel’ with the ‘real’, then, the book pivots on the theoretical exigencies of Shakespearean cinema in terms of film’s shifting ontological status, and the cultural and theoretical engagements that underpin the Bard’s filmic reception. In Lehmann and Starks’ introduction, Shakespeare is described as a ‘roughhousing lover, misogynist, protofeminist, pervert, masochist, snob, pedant, rogue, and dreamer’, and not the ‘“sweet swan of Avon”’ revered by Hollywood (20). Representing Shakespeare, the book argues, is an act that is entrenched not only in assumptions of high and low culture, but also in a critical awareness of the problems inherent in representation, such as the exclusions that overwhelm even the most progressive of mainstream appropriations, and the oppressive ideological effects of Hollywood production systems upon a radical textual entity. Avant-garde cinema is championed as emphatically concerned with attempting to address and solve these anxieties, in the same moment as Hollywood is figured as washing over the challenges posed by representation, for instance, by totalising and eschewing definitions of ‘cinematic’ under the banner of ‘Hollywood.

  3. The first section of the book is occupied solely by Kenneth S. Rothwell’s essay, ‘Hamlet in Silence: Reinventing the Prince on Celluloid’, which demonstrates the challenges poised by this play to cinematic reinvention from cinema’s early stages to the beginnings of the Hollywood studio system. Looking at seven incarnations of Hamlet produced in America, France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, Rothwell demarcates the extensive spectrum of approaches to portraying the Prince as demonstrated by this small body of films, enforcing the play’s resistance to singular representation. Charged with ‘high art’ value and as a measure of class distinction, Shakespeare’s ‘sacerdotal’ play is revealed here to have played a vital part in early cinema’s configuration as a ‘legitimate’ representative vehicle (29). Part Two explores the new wave reverberations of Shakespeare’s early cinematic manifestations, as evidenced by productions by Peter Hall, Jean-Luc Godard, and Peter Greenaway. As Peter S. Donaldson’s essay, ‘“Two of Both Kinds’: Modernism and Patriarchy in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes manifest, avant-garde ‘“reveals the cinematic apparatus”’ (43). Thus the process of filmmaking is demystified, in the same moment as the ‘real’ Shakespeare becomes separated from the swathes of conservative renditions of his texts. This notion is reconsidered in Alan Walworth and Lia M. Hotchkiss’s (primarily psychoanalytic) examinations of Godard’s King Lear and Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books to consider points of origin, absence, and recuperation in Shakespeare’s texts that apply similar ideological contexts to cinema’s evolving ontology.

  4. The essays by Starks, Bryan Reynolds, and Kathy M. Howlett in Part Three contend with portraits of violence, horror, and ‘utopian revisioning’ (as opposed to dystopic discourse) in postmodern Shakespearean ‘countercinemas’ to examine how Shakespeare functions as an agent of cultural catharsis, while the essays by Douglas E. Green and John Brett Mischio in Part Four review and posit radical pedagogical schemas in the contexts of queer theory and authorship. The book’s strengths lie in its challenge to a homogenized cinematic Shakespeare, and indeed an approach to the texts via explicitly cinematic and cultural critical perspectives enforces Shakespeare’s contribution to theoretical reifications of the seventh art. Díaz-Fernández’s extensive bibliography encompasses filmic adaptations and ‘derivatives’ of Shakespeare’s plays, which might have prompted theoretical engagements throughout the volume as to the definitions surrounding these highly significant terms. Nonetheless, the book successfully convinces the reader of Shakespeare’s involvement in testing ‘the limits of representation’, at the same time as his ‘reel’ and ‘real’ status is persuasively disengaged from stale ideological frameworks (14).

Work Cited

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