Coursen, H. R. Shakespeare in Space: Recent Shakespeare Productions on Screen. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. iv+191pp. ISBN 0 8204 5714 0.

Sujata Iyengar
University of Georgia

Iyengar, Sujata. "Review of Shakespeare in Space: Recent Shakespeare Productions on Screen". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 9.1-8 <URL:>.

  1. The “space” of H.R. Coursen’s Shakespeare in Space is “not just physical area...but conceptual space as well” (6), a phrase that includes genre, the time period in which the work is set as well as that in which it is performed, and the Heisenbergian space of the observer, who herself becomes a participant in the “historical moment” of the script (7). It does not include, he continues, an art-historical or film-studies understanding of the space in and around bodies in shot or frame, nor the intimacy of live theatre.

  2. As the introduction states, this is a book aimed towards a general audience, its purpose frankly “descriptive and evaluative” (1). Eschewing “theory,” Coursen returns to a structuralist model, identifying a “script” in Shakespeare’s plays, a deep structure that engages powerfully with “archetypes” and “dynamics” such as “father and son; father and daughter; man and woman; man and power; woman and power; the fact of love...the fact of sexuality... and the fact of death” (12). The task of the film director of one of these Shakespearean scripts, he suggests, is “to translate this archetype into one of its images, and, in their films, into a sequence of images” (12). Shakespeare in Space evaluates each of the films that it considers according to this yardstick, while attempting to take account of historical and geographical specificity. Thus, particular archetypes might appear more prominently at certain time periods and in certain media than in others.

  3. The limits of this model are apparent early on. Lacking an interest in films for their own sake, rather than as indices to the Shakespearean “script” he seeks, Coursen briskly dismisses, for example, Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books as “among the silliest of recent films.” This curt debunking illustrates both the weaknesses and the strengths of Coursen’s approach, namely his aggrieved irritation with filmmakers who he believes lack the ability to use the resources of film properly, and, on the positive side, Coursen's own inventiveness: “Suppose [Greenaway] had pursued Caliban’s suggestion that Prospero’s books must be seized, that they are a source of power, and depicted a contest for control of the media. Seize his books--and then his television station!” I enjoyed the lush visuals of Prospero’s Books when it came out, but have to concede that Coursen’s imagined film would have more of a bite.

  4. Despite the limits of this model, the volume is encyclopedic (as, indeed, is its aim) and dense in its reference to Shakespeare and Shakespeare-themed film and television. The table of contents indicates the book’s emphasis upon the work of Kenneth Branagh, to whom the volume is dedicated. Its chapters include “Editing for Film: 1990-1996,” a short survey of recent films; “History and Television: Two Recent Productions,” discussing televised politics along with the Warner-Shaw Richard II and the John Caird Henry IV; “Shakespeare on Television: Four Recent Productions,” covering two productions originally presented on stage and later filmed for television, Richard Eyre’s King Lear, Nicholas Hytner’s Twelfth Night, and two made-for-television performances, David Thacker’s Measure for Measure and the NBC Tempest. The “Two Recent Films” in “The Use and Misuse of History” are Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love.

  5. Titus and the Genre of Revenge” offers a sustained reading of the Taymor film as a revenge play without the conventional map, “granting to [Shakespeare’s] spectator an indeterminate zone in which individual response must formulate itself” (133). “Two Recent Hamlets” contrasts “The Branagh Shorter Version and the Almereyda” (the latter’s hypermediation churlishly dismissed as merely “gimmicky” because “that great leaper-onto-trends, Stephen Greenblatt” has spoken in its favour [153]) and evaluates “Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost” as 1930s musical.

  6. Perhaps the two most helpful chapters are Coursen’s discussion of the relatively recently released silent films from the British Film Insitute, and his account of the second series of Animated Shakespeare. Tackling the accusation that so-called silent film cannot be true to the Shakespearean script, Coursen argues that they instead “tell us much about the inherited scripts, their appeals to the imaginations of the earliest film directors, and the ways in which the translation of the plays to film has developed and continues to develop” (96). The best of these films, he argues, “[mime] the language of the play,” so that “when [Lear] plucks a grass and holds it with trembling fingers across Cordelia’s lips, he is hoping that it ‘stirs’ from her breathing” (102), or depart from “the script” by “reveal[ing] the secret love of Romeo and Juliet” at the Capulet party in order to focus upon the two principals more strongly (110).

  7. In contrast to the silents, which “teach us...about Shakespeare through his confrontation with a new medium,” writes Coursen, the animated Shakespeare shows us “what some of us tend to forget--that the plays are meant to entertain” (115). Coursen prefers the second season to the first. Most interesting is his discussion of the differences that the various methods of animation (puppets, painting on glass, cel animation) make to each version. In the puppet Winter’s Tale, beautiful Brueghel-like backdrops give way to a resurrection scene disappointing in part because of the question of whether “a puppet [can] ‘come to life’ in a world already made up of puppets...our suspension of disbelief has been tampered with” (118). In contrast, cel animation appears to be surprisingly effective in tragedy, providing an Othello whose “skin pigmentation keeps changing” in and out of the “grays, browns, and blacks” of the film and whose words sound before an animated backdrop of “combat, sieges, and sea battles between giant galleys” (126). Different styles of glass-painting work to great effect in As You Like It, in which the impressionistic style of the play proper gives way to Elizabethan woodcuts for Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” speech, an effect “akin to that of a play within a play” (120). The laboriousness of painting on glass works in Richard III to “reinforce the production’s emphasis on plotting, fatality, and the speed with which Richard implements his schemes” (122). Unfortunately, the second series is still unavailable in the U.S., although on sale in Britain in PAL format.

  8. The first printing of this book was marred by some embarrassing proofing errors, most of which have been noted in an “Errata” slip pasted into paperback copies; it is to be hoped that the remainder will be corrected in future editions.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).