An Interview with Kenneth Rothwell
Darren Kerr
De Montfort University

Kerr, Darren. "An Interview with Kenneth Rothwell." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 6 <URL:

At the centenary Shakespeare on Screen conference in Málaga, Spain, in September, 1999, Kenneth Rothwell gave the closing plenary. Afterwards Darren Kerr asked him the following questions.

DK Russell Jackson opened this conference saying we are collectively arriving at what the topic is and you closed it by remarking on reaching an apex in this field of study. Could you elaborate?

KR We're studying Shakespeare in the movies, on screen and through other new electronic technologies. The study of Shakespeare on film has run parallel with this new way of communicating and it has taken a century for us to find a vocabulary to manage this concept. Initially, fifty years ago people in Shakespeare studies were very reluctant to have anything to do with what Walter Benjamin called "the mechanical reproduction of art." Nowadays we'd call it the electronic reproduction of art. They [Shakespeare scholars] didn't know what to make of it. It made them very nervous and we had difficulty gaining a foothold in the academic establishment. This conference marks a milestone.

DK So despite a hundred years of Shakespeare on screen it is only now that we have the beginnings of an academic understanding?

KR We're right on the threshold. The twenty-first century will show and open up great progress in this area. The problem is that people still see a conflict between the word and the image and I think as the electronic culture becomes increasingly ensconced in our thinking that gap may narrow. The twenty-first century may not see this huge gap as the last generation saw it.

DK Your closing lecture was one of maybe two or three talks that celebrated film. Why is there a lack of academic attention that praises Shakespeare on film in a context of cinematic art?

KR I think it is because what you see here [the centenary conference] is a mixture of people who have been trained in the printed word and it is difficult for them to break out of that. Ironically some haven't changed their thinking one bit. And essentially they're still looking down their noses at [laughs] film, and the stigma attached to it.

DK Is it time to get away from studying Shakespeare on screen purely in terms of, for example, what I see as tired arguments on the politics of race and gender and focus on how the cinematic uses the texts?

KR Exactly. I totally respect Shakespeare's language. That's where I began but the films that are made based on his work, and I know they're not 'Shakespeare' -- who on earth ever said it was -- but the films based on his language are not properly understood if all you do is criticise them on the grounds that they do not reflect the Quarto or Folio texts. It's irrelevant. In a film you have to make a scenario. You have to establish new ways of framing it, new methods of continuity. You can't just rely on the Shakespearean text. If you want to read the text you can do it in the library. The page, the stage and the screen. Those are the three environments and I don't think we should confuse them but they interrelate too. There are paradoxes here because it's not just either or, it's both.

DK Where do you think Shakespeare and film have met successfully?

KR Well, ones that have been creative recontextualisations and reinterpretations of the play. The least successful have been ones that attempt to merely replicate which ties in with this idea of a 'haemorrhage of significance' when all you do is record something on a camera that's just flat with no significance to it. You have to rearrange it for photographic purposes.

DK Can we have good film that is embedded in Shakespeare's text?

KR Yes. The Olivier/Burges Othello that is almost a photographed stage version but it works because of brilliant actors. If they're no good forget it. Acting transcends all other considerations. No film director could salvage Jason Robards' Brutus, for example, about thirty years ago.

DK Do you foresee Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost as a thirties musical as innovative Shakespeare?

KR People are always resetting Shakespeare and all I can say about it is that Shakespeare himself had very little feelings for historical accuracy. His plays were filled with anachronisms. There were clocks before the clock existed, Roman Catholic monasteries in pre-Christian times. So I don't think the status of Love's Labour's Lost as a musical is really all that important.

DK Has cinema pushed Shakespeare back into the realm of popular entertainment after centuries of academic reverence?

KR Yes.

DK So is this a good or a bad thing?

KR Well, there have been many teachers who think that the entanglement of Shakespeare with mass entertainment is a bad thing and I can understand their feelings. On the other hand why not turn a threat to one's advantage. If we are teaching Shakespeare why not welcome greater access to his work? The Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet stimulated many students' interests in Shakespeare without the need for any other help. I mean the film itself was enough to move them. So I think it's definitely happened [i.e. returning Shakespeare to popular culture] but I also think that the films don't reach out to as wide an audience as people think. How many people really if they had to choose between a Hong Kong action movie and Shakespeare at the box office would choose Shakespeare? In some moods I'd choose the action movie myself.

DK I think the thirst for action, bloodshed etc is undoubted so are you surprised it has taken so long for a big screen treatment of Titus Andronicus?

KR Well in view of the fact there have been so few stage productions of Titus it's probably not so surprising. But I am delighted and looking forward to it. It is wonderful to have so much attention on one's subject. If you teach English lit how many films are made of Paradise Lost or Spenser's The Faerie Queene?

DK Finally, you said that you regarded yourself as someone who presents views rather than inflicts them. So if you were to inflict them on screen which play by which director would you like to see?

KR Hmmm. Well my favourite tragedy is Hamlet. My favourite comedy is Twelfth Night. I wish that Stanley Kubrick had been around to direct a Shakespeare play. He did a great job on Barry Lyndon based on a nineteenth century novel. That would have been fascinating. But. I'll take Robert Altman or Woody Allen. Yeah, Woody Allen doing Comedy of Errors.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).