Reconfiguring Wit: Shakespeare, Film and the Critique of Genius

W. Scott Howard

This essay (1) draws upon my experience of recently teaching three undergraduate courses at The University of Denver <> in which, during an eleven-week quarter, my students studied film productions of Shakespeare’s texts from interdisciplinary and international perspectives and also utilized digital media resources—such as the electronic classroom system, Blackboard—for their contributions to daily discussions as well as their completion of mid-term and final projects. The first of these three classes—’Shakespeare and Film’ (Spring, 2001) <>, (2) which was team-taught—included twenty-seven students who collectively represented each level of the undergraduate curriculum as well as a variety of disciplines other than English, such as business, engineering and sociology. The second ‘Shakespeare and Film’ course of eight students—(Fall, 2001) <>—was designed specifically for English majors <>. And the third class, with twelve students, was a ‘mentoring seminar’ <>—’Looking for Shakespeare’ (Fall, 2001) <>—that is, a Core Curriculum course offered exclusively for freshmen during their first quarter at the University. This seminar incorporated, in an abbreviated fashion, some pedagogical elements from the ‘Shakespeare and Film’ courses, but also realized other motives (e.g. academic advising, new student orientation and mentoring) and worked toward different goals (e.g. on- and off-campus interviews).

Plays by Shakespeare examined in the first two classes included Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and The Tempest; the films investigated were: The British Film Institute’s Silent Shakespeare, Pacino’s Looking for Richard, Loncraine & McKellen’s Richard III, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Polanski’s Macbeth, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, Bennett’s Hamlet for BBC, Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books and Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. ‘Shakespeare and Film’ students also studied Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (both text and film), Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (text) and Mussorgsky’s opera based upon Pushkin’s drama (audio, text and video). Students in the mentoring seminar, ‘Looking for Shakespeare’, read Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, and watched those corresponding film productions noted above. All three courses also involved an introduction to film studies, for which we consulted Timothy Corrigan’s A Short Guide to Writing About Film.

A primary goal in each class was to challenge undergraduates to investigate how and why Shakespeare’s plays have been transformed from works of ‘literature’ into works of ‘culture’. I discovered right away in each course that a majority of my students—especially the non-majors—possessed some strong beliefs about The Bard and their relationship with him and his works; for example: that Shakespeare was a universal genius; that the original texts were perfect; and that the essence of Shakespeare could be grasped intuitively by just about anyone. I encouraged my students to reexamine those beliefs with regard to contemporary and international cultural discourses that the cinematic productions articulate within and against the ethos of Shakespeare’s world. Narrative tensions between the films and the plays challenged students to return to the original texts (and the movies as well) with renewed enthusiasm and more rigorous questions about how and why Shakespeare’s wit and genius were either successfully or unsuccessfully reconfigured across cultural and disciplinary boundaries.

The course syllabi (which may be viewed by way of the in-text links, above) grounded those pedagogical goals in daily and weekly topics and assignments that progressively emphasised two primary issues concerning the transformation of Shakespeare’s works into other media, especially film: the similarities and differences between literary and visual art; and the new cultural narratives that national and international cinematic productions project, through strong interpretations of the plays, upon specific twentieth-century social contexts. Weekly essays—each roughly five hundred words in length—were especially useful in this regard as vehicles for provoking students to reflect upon specific details from class discussions, such as: the relevance of cinematic concepts (e.g. ‘mise-en-scène’ and ‘realism’ ) for their interpretation of, for example, Loncraine andMcKellen’s Richard III; the translation of ‘Shakespeareanism’ across cultural, national (and artistic) boundaries into Pushkin’s (and Mussorgsky’s) Boris Godunov; and the applicability of an early modern allegory about colonialism (i.e. The Tempest) to a post-WW II cautionary tale about scientific exploration in outer space (i.e. Forbidden Planet). Furthermore, these informal essays, which were all submitted electronically via Blackboard, facilitated out-of-class discussions among students and the professor alike since the Discussion Board topic forums, which will be examined below, functioned like chat rooms, allowing for both individual and group visibility and response. The weekly essays also encouraged students to link their day-to-day studies to their work toward the mid-term and final papers.

Throughout each quarter, especially in the ‘Shakespeare and Film’ courses, I also emphasised the two matters of key importance for my pedagogical aims—i.e. similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s ‘texts’ and ‘images’ ; and new cultural narratives inflected within film adaptations of the plays—by exposing students to a diversity of cinematic productions, including, for example: the arresting performance of ‘Gertrude and Hamlet’ in Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria, Why?; the allusive borrowings, in John Harrison’s SciFi Channel production of Frank Herbert’s Dune, from Richard III during Baron Harkonnen’s soliloquy that reveals his plans to undermine Duke Leto Atreides; the overtly reductive and ‘Oedipal’ interpretation of Hamlet in Zeffirelli’s film starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close; and the outright (also brilliant) departures from the original text in Stoppard’s adaptation for the screen of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Each week, in conjunction with these various artistic engagements within and against Shakespeare’s characters, plots and subjects, these classes invited students to rethink their inherited assumptions and beliefs about The Bard through teaching contexts and materials that alternately estranged that which was already familiar—such as the Silent Shakespeare productions of Richard III and The Tempest—and familiarized the strange—such as the combination of studying first Shakespeare’s Macbeth, then Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and then Polanski’s Macbeth.

The most rewarding aspect of these courses was at once the least tangible: as the students and professor alike strove to justify their preferences for one version or staging over another, the criteria for judgment became increasingly clear and stringent, and attention to detail became a highly-developed skill. I include the ‘professor’ in this statement because it is fair to say that my bias was always on the side of ‘Shakespeare’ and his text—that is, I was unlikely to prefer this or that production to the original, however much I may have liked it—while the predisposition of the students was generally (and paradoxically) on the side of ‘popular’ cinematic versions that revealed the ‘true’ intentions behind Shakespeare’s ‘original’ works. The impassioned and increasingly persuasive defense of such films as Loncraine and McKellen’s Richard III and Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet on the part of some of the students less keen to study ‘the text’ was very gratifying to watch unfold. Although the nearly universal dislike of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood—in which the students astonishingly saw almost no resemblance to Macbeth—and incomprehension of both Pushkin’s ‘Shakespearean experiment’, Boris Godunov, and Mussorgsky’s elaboration thereupon were initially disappointing, I made much of the opportunity to discuss the transpositions of Shakespeare into different artistic media, cultural settings and traditions. That this discussion succeeded in broadening the students’ vision of Shakespeare can be attested by the fact that the films that made the least impression were the more or less ‘straight’ and ‘faithful’ versions: Polanski’s Macbeth and Bennett’s BBC production of Hamlet.

This essay examines the successes and failures I encountered in the aim of clarifying the problems of ‘teaching’ Shakespeare on the page, stage and screen. The following section concerns the complementary and often adversarial relationship between linguistic and visual arts that inflected my work in each course from, for example, Ben Jonson’s poem, ‘To the Reader’, and Martin Droeshout’s accompanying 1623 portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio to the fragmentary and spare production of The Tempest (1908) from Silent Shakespeare and then the elaborate and sumptuous creation of Prospero’s Books (1991). One student’s final, creative project serves as the centrepiece for those observations. The essay’s next section addresses the ubiquity of cinematic allusions to and direct borrowings from Shakespeare’s works—such as Richard III in The Goodbye Girl and Being John Malkovich—and also the ways in which those appropriations both legitimize and destabilize Shakespearean narratives within modern artistic and social contexts. The essay’s conclusion then extends that reflection to a broader study of my students’ ambivalence and enthusiasm towards some of the more ‘commercialised’ U. S. films under consideration (such as Pacino’s Looking for Richard and Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) as well as of the corresponding rigour with which students either resisted or engaged their interpretative abilities in response to some of the more ‘radical’ international productions (such as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Pushkin’s Boris Godunov) that transpose Shakespearean plots, characters, scenes and motifs across cultural boundaries. Posted topics and assignment guidelines from the Discussion Board system in Blackboard and a selection of excerpts from my students’ corresponding weekly essays together provide the evidence for this essay’s final reflection upon each course’s pedagogical design, methods and instructional materials.

Not his Picture, but his Book:

Representing Shakespeare’s Text, Image and Wit

In order to introduce students to the long-standing debate as to whether or not visual art either successfully or unsuccessfully represents the alacrity of Shakespeare’s wit and capaciousness of his vision, I initiated the course descriptions in my syllabi with side-by-side presentations of Ben Jonson’s poem, ‘To the Reader’ <>, (3) and Martin Droeshout’s engraved portrait of The Bard <> (4) from the 1623 First Folio. These two ‘exhibits’ proved to be excellent teaching tools because together they underscore a cluster of topics and motifs that reach across the spectrum of literary and cultural materials studied in each of these classes, such as the politics of memorialisation; Shakespeare’s ‘genius’ and ‘wit’ ; the ‘art’ of nature; ekphrasis; early- and post-modern iconoclasm; the emergence of print and visual culture(s); and early- and post-modern authorship, subjectivity and hermeneutics. I had great success, in each of these courses, with generating discussion on the first day of class about Jonson’s and Droeshout’s epideictic works that, in turn, framed my goals for the following ten weeks. Then, as the courses progressed, I was able to return productively to the front page of the syllabus to reconsider the relevance of the 1623 ‘quarrel’ between Shakespeare’s texts and images in light of the twentieth-century cinematic productions under examination during a given moment in the quarter.

One student in particular, Lauren Mulkey (5) from the ‘Looking for Shakespeare’ mentoring seminar, found the interplay between Jonson’s and Droeshout’s works so intriguing that she was moved, on the first day of class, to take-up the visual artist’s challenge implied by ‘To the Reader’ : ‘O, could he but have drawn his wit / As well in brass, as he hath hit / His face; the Print would then surpass / All, that was ever writ in brass’ (5-8). In her essay, Lauren reflects: ‘I was presented with an open choice for my final project [which] was introduced the first day. The little gears in my head started turning, and I came up with a couple of ideas of what I could do, but none were really strong, until we read the syllabus’ <>. In order to encourage students to investigate how and why Shakespeare has become a cultural icon in the United States, the mentoring seminar included a final project—academic and/or creative in design and content—that would combine community-based interviews with library research. During the quarter, in groups of three or four, students recorded interviews with fellow students, average citizens in the Denver metropolitan area and various professionals (actors, teachers, writers, etc.) to discover what Shakespeare means to different people. The guidelines for the final project accordingly required that, in some way, the work engage with: the texts and films studied in class during the quarter; the on- and off-campus interviews; and a limited amount of library research. Lauren’s final project, which consists of a linguistic and visual elaboration upon Droeshout’s engraving and an accompanying five-page exposition, succeeded brilliantly: <>.

In reply to Jonson’s provocation, Lauren writes: ‘Ah ha! A challenge. At this point I knew what my final project would be; I would attempt to create a picture that communicates the same amount of life that William Shakespeare can put in a play’. Lauren—an electronic media arts design major <>explains in her essay that her creative revision of Droeshout’s engraving emphasises three components—the background, Shakespeare’s clothing and his face—each detailed specifically to signify key points in her interpretation of the cultural construction of Shakespeare’s ‘genius’ and ‘wit’. Upon the background Lauren projected her reading of the on- and off-campus interviews in order to suggest the local, cultural discourse about and memory of Shakespeare’s importance. She observes that ‘out of all the interviews done by this class only a few plays were remembered by the public: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Richard III’. Her portrait thus respectively includes selected, ‘famous’ quotations from those three plays: ‘To be, or not to be—that is the question’; (6); ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ ; (7) and ‘A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!’. (8) Lauren’s colours for and detail work upon Shakespeare’s clothing signify ‘the amazing amount of personality and vibrancy put into each of his characters’ <>. She wanted to exaggerate a contrast between the ‘dull facial expression’ of Droeshout’s original and Shakespeare’s ‘new’ ‘vivacious clothing’ in order represent The Bard’s singularity. ‘Shakespeare’, Lauren reflects, ‘was a diamond in the rough’. Her detail work consists of plastic jewels and beads sewn into the portrait. The final key component to Lauren’s work of art concerns Shakespeare’s face: ‘The amazing and noble face’ <>. Through her library research Lauren discovered that Shakespeare is credited with creating more than six hundred words that are still in use today. As a way to portray that aspect of Shakespeare’s ‘genius’ and ‘wit’, she selected eighty-seven of those words to write upon The Bard’s head, brow and cheeks. Each of these three components in Lauren’s revitalisation of Droeshout’s engraving thus speaks for a different level of social discourse about Shakespeare, his works and legacy: the background underscores a ‘local’ appraisal of twenty-first century U. S. cultural memory; the clothing, an individual reader’s esteem for the author’s life-like characters; and the face, etymological contexts of the playwright’s literary history and reception.

The order in which we studied the plays and films in each course proved fortuitous, especially concerning these (and other) tensions between Shakespeare’s ‘texts’ and ‘images’. Silent Shakespeare, the first film examined in each class, allowed students to raise questions right away about the essence of Shakespeare in a medium where language was relegated to secondary status. The selection of ‘most important’ scenes in these brief, spare productions was intriguing: for example, Percy Stowe’s 1908 version of The Tempest consists primarily of the ‘fairy-tale’ story of Prospero’s and Miranda’s arrival at the enchanted island and the subsequent courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda. At least half the plot in this early twentieth-century film involves incidents that take place in Shakespeare’s text before the stage action properly begins. In a surprising way, this part of Silent Shakespeare thus prepared my students for the more radical departures from The Tempest with which I concluded the ‘Shakespeare and Film’ courses: Prospero’s Books and Forbidden Planet.

Prospero’s Books challenged the average American student’s approach to movie-watching as a basically passive venture; the synaesthetic lushness of Greenaway’s film ironically forced students to focus on Shakespeare’s poetics more than any other production screened during the classes. Forbidden Planet allowed students to contrast ideological implications of The Tempest with the demands of popular science fiction, whose mission from its earliest days to the popular series Lost in Space and Star Trek (all generations) has been to question technological advancement and resolve all contact with ‘the other’ on a note affirming the superiority of ‘good old’ human values and the nostalgia for Mother Earth. This is rather different from the questions raised by Shakespeare’s play about leadership, science and the colonial venture. The journey from Prospero’s renunciation of magic in favour of humanistic values to Morbius’s confrontation with and acceptance of the ‘untamed’—’monsters from the id!’ (9) —part of his human nature is a long one indeed. This radical essentialising of The Tempest, as the Discussion Board postings below attest, provoked very fruitful responses and proved particularly valuable, considering that almost all the popular science-fiction works named above—including as well Harrison’s production of Dune—consistently allude to Shakespeare when evoking the essence of what it is to be ‘human’.

Expecting an Epiphany?: Contesting Shakespeareanisms

Kimball: ‘I was expecting to have an epiphany—an outpouring of, uh, of the soul upon seeing the place where Shakespeare was born’.

Pacino: ‘Well, why don’t you go out and come back again? If you’re really an actor you can come back and have an epiphany. I did: only, you know, but I’m not showing it. I’m not showing it: no, it’s an inner one. (10)

Pacino’s Looking for Richard—one source of inspiration for my mentoring seminar, ‘Looking for Shakespeare’—proved to be an outstanding introduction, in each of these courses, to various problems The Bard has encountered in the United States, such as: the ‘difficulty’ of Shakespeare; and the ability of big (American) stars to enrich a remote depiction or, alternately, to distract from Shakespeare’s character or even to demean it. Looking for Richard also addresses, rather humorously, the capability in general of American actors to play Shakespeare well. And, lastly, the film raises the question of ‘fidelity’ that hounds any adaptation (or deconstruction) of a classical text: Pacino exploits (and takes some cheap shots at) the distance between the teacher of Shakespeare and the actor/director. My students responded with nearly unanimous enthusiasm for Pacino’s brilliant combination of acting, directing, interpreting, producing and teaching Richard III. I worked very closely with Looking for Richard during the first two weeks in each of the classes and often returned to it throughout the quarter in discussions with students.

Pacino’s vivid and provocative ‘contextualising’ of Shakespeare, his works and cultural significance also facilitated more brief, focused examinations, during the first two weeks of course meetings, of clips from, for example: Harold and Maud (e.g. Sunshine’s egregious performance of Juliet’s suicide); The Goodbye Girl (e.g. Elliot Garfield’s campy portrayal of Richard III); and Harrison’s production of Dune (e.g. Baron Harkonnen’s soliloquy that borrows from Shakespeare’s ‘Now is the winter’ ). (11) These (and many other) popular movies either allude to Shakespeare or quote him in a way that indicates an expectation of familiarity with his plays on the part of the ‘average’ viewer. Rather than merely recapitulating Shakespeare’s narratives, however, such appropriations also underscore thematic and cultural tensions between early modern and late twentieth-century artistic and social contexts that can be both provocative and productive for in-class discussions.

For example, in preparation for our study of Richard III, I showed my students, from The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss’ ‘performance’ in an off-off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s play. The scene is comical because the ‘director’ (Paul Benedict) makes Elliott Garfield (Dreyfuss) play Richard in an extremely ‘gay’ manner, and the audience is expected to appreciate both the absurdity of this interpretation and its plausibility within the context of New York theatre trends. In addition, after the initial comic surprise that Garfield’s ‘gay’ Richard produces for his friend, Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) and her young daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings), the remainder of the scene focuses on their boredom as well as the jaded, indifferent expressions on the faces of other audience members. From this small clip students could readily ascertain that Shakespeare is so familiar (among American actors, directors and theater audiences) that one is perpetually striving to stage him anew and make him ‘up-to-date’ within current artistic trends and cultural contexts.

All three of these classes engaged with this kind of contextualizing from the first to the last days of instruction. The following selections from the Discussion Board forums in Blackboard demonstrate the extent to which my students, in turn, endeavoured to reconfigure Shakespeare’s wit and genius on the page, stage and screen.

’Shakespeare & Film’ : Discussion Board Forums

Because access to the Blackboard pages for the ‘Shakespeare & Film’ and ‘Looking for Shakespeare’ courses is restricted to enrolled students, I offer here a reproduction of the topics and assignment guidelines posted in the Discussion Board system for the weekly essays that corresponded with the respective syllabi for each class. Each forum below includes an excerpt from at least one student’s essay. (12)

1. Where’s Richard?

For your first informal essay of the quarter, please follow these directions:

  1. In A Short Guide to Writing About Film read pages 66-74 about ‘The Shot’ and ‘The Frame’.
  2. How does Pacino use ‘shot’ and or ‘frame’ in his film version of Richard III in order to achieve an effect that would not be possible in a stage performance of the play? Discuss one or two examples, paying close attention to how those filmic techniques offer new interpretations of Shakespeare’s text.
    1.1 Student Essay: from ‘Richie’ by Bensen Loveless

In filming Queen Margaret’s rebuke of Richard, [Pacino] attempts to capture the feeling of the scene. The shot focuses on Margaret in a dark, cold room confronting a family that is opposed to her. Her dress is not well kept and its light color portrays her more as an apparition than as a living character. It’s as if this ghost from the past is tormenting Richard and attempting to block him from attaining the crown. The frame begins close to her and moves out as she becomes more disturbed. To show the conflict, the camera pans to Richard, as if the viewer were Margaret. Richard fills the frame, but as he speaks the viewer is focused on the anger in his eyes. His eyes appear to jump out from his dark clothing and the charcoal-gray stone. The viewer can understand the depth of this scene through the camera’s use of small details in each frame, which is nearly impossible on a stage.

2. Mise-en-scène & Realism

For your second essay, please follow these steps:

  1. Read pp. 41-66 in chapter 3 of A Short Guide to Writing About Film, paying close attention to the discussions of ‘mise-en-scène’ and ‘realism’.
  2. Then write a 1-2 page essay in which you offer an interpretation of McKellen’s Richard III that engages with these two cinematic concepts.

    2.1 Student Essay: from ‘McKellen’s Richard’ by Arlene Gavrilis

One of the most amazing scenes in McKellen’s film is where he, as Richard, pretends to deny the crown when Buckingham offers it to him. In the text, Buckingham refers to the two bishops attending Richard as ‘props of virtue’. In the movie, the important idea and word that McKellen takes from this line is ‘prop’. Using mise-en-scène, McKellen emphasizes the idea that Buckingham and Catesby are helping Richard put on a play. McKellen changes the bishops into make-up artists and hairdressers who help Richard to look the part of a virtuous man. The Bible that Richard holds is nothing more than a bit of pulp fiction with the cover ripped off—like Richard, this book is just a prop that plays a role in his play.

3. Narrative & Characters

For your third weekly essay, please continue working through chapter 3 in A Short Guide to Writing About Film (pp. 46-52), paying close attention to the discussions of ‘narrative’ and ‘characters’. Then respond in this forum to the following question:

  1. How and why does Kurosawa’s story differ from Shakespeare’s Macbeth? You may either pick one character as a point of comparison, or discuss the plot as a whole.
    3.1 Student Essay: from ‘Oh, What A Tangled Web!’ by Sharisa Kochmeister

In what is most definitely a clever metaphor for the spider and web-weaving, Kurosawa gives us—instead of three witches stirring a cauldron and chanting—one very androgynous and rather spider-like spinner-prophet squatting before a loom in the aptly-named ‘Cobweb Forest’. In a story that is as filled with deceits and treacheries and treason as this one, there are many webs being woven simultaneously, for example: Asaji’s (i.e. Lady Macbeth’s) web to ensnare her husband and kill his enemies; Washizu’s (i.e. Macbeth’s) web to gain power and hold it through whatever ruthless means necessary; and the use of trees to disguise soldiers and facilitate prophesy. Most intriguingly to me, there is, finally, the inescapable deadly web of arrows fired at Washizu by his own soldiers—a web he tries so valiantly to fight, but to which he at last succumbs in death. All these webs, however, are overseen and woven together in deadly fashion by the spinner-prophet, whose character is seen in only two scenes of the movie, but whose presence is felt in every scene.

4. Shakespearean Transpositions

For your fourth weekly essay, please respond to the following:

  1. Write one page in which you examine Polanski’s version of Macbeth and write one additional page in which you examine Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, responding in each essay to the following question: what does each director/writer consider to be the ‘essence’ of Shakespeare? Please be specific in your responses, paying close attention to how and why the film and the play convey various meanings of ‘Shakespeareanism’.

    4.1 Student Essay: from ‘Polanski’ by Amy McVicker

Perhaps one of the greatest talents that Shakespeare possessed was his ability to delve into the human mind. Shakespeare allows his audience to peer into the mentality of his characters. Polanski thought that this was one of the attributes that made a work truly ‘Shakespearean’. The asides in Shakespeare’s texts indicate that the innermost thoughts of a character are being disclosed. Polanski continues with this idea, having these thoughts heard aloud and without having them spoken. Even the soliloquies are delivered in this manner. The actor playing the part of Macbeth is seen with only facial features and bodily movements to follow along with the thoughts that are being heard by the audience. Polanski feels that Shakespeare was a master in the art of incorporating internal dialogue into his plays.

    4.2 Student Essay: from ‘Pushkin’s Shakespeare’ by Clarice Golesh

Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of well-known stories or of historical legends. Knowing this, Pushkin embraced the idea of staging Russian history using Shakespeare as a model. For Pushkin, the essence of Shakespeare was in the psychological themes and the historical purposes. Therefore, Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov as a nationalistic play in which he examined the psychology of various historical characters. Following one of Shakespeare’s techniques, Pushkin’s play has two protagonists, the Pretender and the Tsar, setting up a ‘foil’ by which each character opposes the other. Most importantly, Pushkin is very aware of history and the [ways] in which it is represented. Just as Shakespeare is aware of how history is written and revised in Richard III, Pushkin shows history in the process of being written through Pimen, the scribe. By using common people and their discussions of events from their points of view, Pushkin also examines how rumor creates history.

4.3 Student Essay: from ‘Pushkin’s Shakespeare’ by Matt Maclain

I actually have a difficult time believing that Pushkin really used Shakespeare’s Macbeth as inspiration for his Boris Godunov, though we have seen much proof in class. I can see the connections in Pushkin’s play, but I don’t believe it captures the ‘essence’ of Shakespeare. Pushkin is a master of the story as is Shakespeare, but nowhere near the linguistic genius. What makes Shakespeare’s work so familiar to the entire world is the incredibly dense, passionate language, not the story. Pushkin has taken a story and has made it a national piece of artwork. The essence of Pushkin is the story; the essence of Shakespeare is the language.

5. Minor Characters in Hamlet

For your fifth essay, please write in response to the following:

  1. Choose one or two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and offer your interpretation of the ways in which Zeffirelli’s film represents those figures. How and why does Shakespeare’s text construct that character (or characters) in a particular way and how and why does the film create different identities and roles for that figure or figures?

    5.1 Student Essay: from ‘Clowning Around’ by David Coats

In the story of Hamlet we have a brief but curiously funny encounter with a rather morbid man. He is a riddle-making, joyous singing gravedigger. In both examples of the story (text and film) he is rather inappropriate with the Prince and disrespectful [of] the dead. In Shakespeare’s text we have two ‘clowns’, as they are called, who banter back and forth about the burial of a noblewoman (i.e. Ophelia). In the film, however, we do not have the other clown riddling with the gravedigger; rather they talk back and forth for a line or two and then Hamlet approaches them. From here on out, Hamlet is in the spotlight and the ‘gravedigger’ takes a back seat. There is very little, if any, comedic performance on the part of the gravedigger and instead we have Hamlet strutting around, talking to the skull of his old jester Yorick. For me this was the best part of the film.

6. Are They Dead Yet?

Please post a reply to these questions for your sixth essay:

  1. What do you make of all of the stage directions in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead? What do they contribute to your interpretation of Shakespeare’s original text, characters and plot development; and how and why are they important to Stoppard’s play?
  2. How and why does the film version of Stoppard’s play manage all of the elaborate stage directions from the original text?

    6.1 Student Essay: from ‘DOA’ by Bensen Loveless

The heavy-handed use of stage directions serves the purpose [of adding] meaning to statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and it only makes sense that [these directions] are adhered to in Stoppard’s film version. While they are constantly attempting to outwit each other, as shown by the game of ‘questions’, the questions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to ‘answer’ have already been answered in the real play (Hamlet). It appears that their existence, in general, is a joke. Stoppard’s directions clue the reader into the characters’ intricacies, or the lack [thereof]. Even though the stage directions may seem overbearing, and at times overly didactic, they still impart an understanding of the characters that is not made apparent by the language of the play.

7. The Edited Image

For your seventh weekly essay, please respond to the following directions:

  1. In A Short Guide to Writing About Film read ‘The Edited Image’ pp. 74-83, paying close attention to the definitions of all the key terms, such as (for example) ‘editing pace’ and ‘long takes’.
  2. Write an essay in response to Baz Luhrmann’s production of Romeo + Juliet in which you offer an interpretation of two edited images and/or scenes. How and why are those images and/or scenes significant for the film’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s plot? How and why do these examples of film editing offer something new to Shakespeare’s narrative?

    7.1 Student Essay: from ‘Romeo + Juliet’ by Juliana Phelps

Baz Luhrmann’s editing establishes everything from point-of-view to setting the scene and getting the viewers involved in the action. The first scene I will discuss [involves] the fish tank. We begin with Romeo. The initial part of the scene seems to be following Romeo around in different cuts. This made me feel as though I [were] seeing what was going on from Romeo’s point-of-view. We ‘see’ Romeo looking through the glass (and fish) at Juliet. This continues for some time as Romeo moves up and down the fish tank and Juliet’s eyes follow from beyond the glass. Finally the camera cuts to Juliet’s side of the fish tank. We now see Romeo as though we are seeing him through Juliet’s eyes. The scene continues to cut back and forth between close-up shots of the two characters, showing how they have both been ‘hooked’ by love. I felt as though I were getting closer [to] and more intimate with the lovers’ emotions and thoughts.

8. In Other Words/Worlds

For your eighth and final essay, please post a reply to the following questions:

  1. How and why does The Tempest articulate an allegory about politics and colonialism?
  2. How and why does Forbidden Planet translate that allegory into a science fiction narrative? Does the allegory still hold true in outer space, or does it change? If so, how so and why?

    8.1 Student Essay: from ‘The Forbidden Planet of The Id’ by Sharisa Kochmeister

Prospero is obviously a ruler who represents the Elizabethan expectations for their rulers, including: generosity and the ability to forgive; superior intelligence and morality; and the ability to lead and have others follow (either by force or cooperation). [His] eventual ability to control his own ‘baser’ instinct for revenge is characteristic of the emergent notion that free will and the ability to change are key [factors] for both self-control and redemption. Much of this allegory holds true in the year 2200 in the film Forbidden Planet and the world of outer space in which it takes place. There are, however, some inevitable changes that serve to make the story both futuristic and fictional/psychodramatic at one and the same time. Prospero is transformed into Morbius, a scientist whose ‘magic’ lies in the wonders he has found left behind by the inexplicably vanished Krell civilization. Their ‘brain boost’ transforms dreams and thoughts into reality, just like Prospero’s magic. While this seems ideal at first, Morbius, like Prospero, finds that his magic can be cruel as well as good and that this cruelty is resolvable only by his death. While the allegorical portion of Forbidden Planet is clearly based on The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, also a mystery story and a horror movie with a scary (and almost always invisible) monster that has much more power than Caliban. And when we come to find out that the true ‘forbidden planet’ here is the evil human id, the allegory is stretched into a Jekyll-Hyde story based on Freudian psychology about the two sides of human nature doing battle with each other.


  1. I would like to thank my colleague, Catherine O’Neil, who contributed to the writing of an early draft of this essay. Professor O’Neil and I designed and co-taught the first of the three undergraduate courses central to this essay’s concern with ‘teaching the Renaissance’: ‘Shakespeare and Film’ (2001)—<>. (Back)

  2. The reproduction of digital images on web pages referenced in this essay follows fair-use guidelines for educational purposes. The Library of Congress provides useful information on copyright—<>—that may be consulted in tandem with an explanation of the ‘fair-use doctrine’ provided by Stanford University: <>. (Back)

  3. Ben Jonson, ‘To the Reader’, in The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968). (Back)

  4. Martin Droeshout, ‘Portrait of William Shakespeare’, in The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968). (Back)

  5. I wish to express my gratitude to Lauren Mulkey for permission to reproduce her artwork and to quote her essay from the ‘Looking for Shakespeare’ seminar in conjunction with this essay’s publication. (Back)

  6. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard (New York: Oxford, 1998), III.i.57. (Back)

  7. ---, Romeo & Juliet, ed. Jill L. Levenson (New York: Oxford, 2000), II.i.76. (Back)

  8. ---, The Tragedy of King Richard III, ed. John Jowett (New York: Oxford, 2001), (Back)

  9. Forbidden Planet, dir. Fred Wilcox, M-G-M, 1956. (Back)

  10. Looking for Richard, dir. Al Pacino, Jam, 1996. (Back)

  11. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard III, ed. John Jowett (New York: Oxford, 2001), I.i.1. (Back)

  12. I also would like to thank my ‘Shakespeare and Film’ students for permission to quote their work: David Coats, Arlene Gavrilis, Clarice Golesh, Sharisa Kochmeister, Bensen Loveless, Matt Maclain, Amy McVicker and Juliana Phelps. (Back)