‘The Audience Is Only Interested in Sex and Violence’ :
Teaching the Renaissance on Film

Rowland Wymer

Colin McCabe (my structuralist friend) told me... ‘The audience is only interested in sex and violence’. So I said to Stephen, who chopped Marlowe up, ‘Put sex and violence into every scene’. (Derek Jarman, Queer Edward II)

Only a short time ago it seemed quite bold and innovative to teach an undergraduate module devoted to film versions of Shakespeare plays. With frightening speed, however, this area of Shakespeare studies has been colonized as thoroughly as everything else. The massive ‘Annotated Checklist of Shakespeare on Screen’ compiled by José Ramón Díaz Fernández gives a good idea of the scale of recent academic interest in this topic and, as he says, ‘There can be no doubt that the next few years will witness a spectacular increase in the number of publications’ (Fernández 2001: 22). In contrast, other representations of the Renaissance on film, such as adaptations of non-Shakespearean plays prior to this year, biopics of Renaissance artists, or historically based costume dramas, have received much less attention. Richard Burt, the author of Unspeakable Shaxxxpeares, will shortly be publishing Ever Afterlives: Fashioning the Renaissance on Film and Video but I am unaware of any other significant book-length studies. In consequence, anyone wishing to teach a course on how the cinema has represented the Renaissance can still feel something of the thrill, and anxiety, of being a pioneer. In March 2001, as part of a Joint British-Hungarian Research Project, funded by the British Council, on ‘Representations of the Renaissance in Postmodern Culture’, I taught a course at the University of Szeged on ‘The Renaissance on Film at the End of the Twentieth Century’. In this essay I would like to reflect on some of the issues involved in constructing and teaching such a course, with the hope of encouraging other people to develop similar modules.

When teaching Shakespeare on film, it is possible to set some fairly obvious learning outcomes. The close study of film adaptations of the plays, even those as radical as Throne of Blood or Kiss Me Kate, leads naturally to interpretive re-engagement with the original texts, simultaneously opening up new signifying possibilities while also, through a sharpened awareness of historical and cultural difference, producing a stronger understanding of how these plays might have signified when first written and performed. Moreover, a number of Shakespearean adaptations – pre-eminently those by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Grigori Kozintsev – have achieved undisputed status as classics of film art, discussible aesthetically in the way one would discuss the films of Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, or Tarkovsky.

The goals of any course on ‘The Renaissance on Film’ seem, in comparison, much harder to formulate and achieve. The overall Research Project began with a working hypothesis that there were strong affinities between contemporary (postmodern) culture and the Renaissance which might help to explain the recent surge of films with Renaissance settings (see the Checklist of Films at the end of this essay). In both periods an intense self-consciousness about representation could be seen as the symptom of an epistemological crisis. The unresolved doubts and questions of Renaissance Europe, conceived as a transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, would then be precursors of our own uncertainties. However attractive such an argument might be, it seems to me to be very difficult to substantiate, partly because of the impossibility of arriving at any agreement about what the Renaissance was and when it took place. ‘For the “Renaissance” is not so much a historical period … as it is a statement of belief in the civilizing power of certain forms of culture, specifically literature and the fine arts’ (Hutson 1999: 1). The impossibility of an agreed definition can and should be foregrounded from the beginning. It is a major educational achievement to convince students that the historical periods through which an academic curriculum is organized and delivered are artificial constructs which tend to dissolve as soon as one looks at them closely. The implications of using the phrase ‘early modern’ rather than ‘Renaissance’ might usefully be discussed at this point, including the reasons why a course on ‘the early modern period on film’ doesn’t sound quite so inviting. In learning about ‘the Renaissance’, students are learning about a series of stories (’myths’ if you will) that have been told at different times and for different purposes to explain a mass of very loosely related events taking place at some time between the early fourteenth century in Italy and the mid-seventeenth century in England. In learning about ‘the Renaissance on film’, they will be in danger of not even getting the most up-to-date academic stories about these events.

Many of the issues which might seem very important to modern historians will resist cinematic representation and thus risk being silently passed over. Where do we find the shift towards a more mercantile and urban economy adequately treated on film? Where do we find the philological endeavours of the humanists treated in any more depth than the joky reference to ‘this new learning’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? For most film makers and audiences the Renaissance surely means, in the first place, a time of vivid and colourful personalities leading lives filled with grandeur, passion, and cruelty, thus providing historical justification for the scenes of sex and violence which the audience is assumed to want. The publicity for Alexander Korda’s groundbreaking The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) concentrated on the powerful, disturbing personality of Henry rather than on the political and religious crises of his reign: ‘Was he a tyrant, was he a monster, concerned with nothing but his own lascivious pleasures?’ (Harper 1994: 22). Although there were arguments about the film’s historical accuracy – had Henry’s table manners really been as bad as that? – its focus on his frustrated emotional and sexual life ensured its commercial success. The idea that the Renaissance was unusually endowed with extreme personalities, whether tyrants, artists, criminals, or some mixture of all three, is of course a very nineteenth-century notion, part of the narrative of emancipated individualism constructed by Burckhardt and Symonds. Its persistence in twentieth-century film is not remarkable, given audience tastes, but nevertheless needs noting. Whether, by the end of the twentieth century, the Renaissance has started to signify other things in the cinema will be addressed in the rest of this essay.

Given the instability of the concept of ‘the Renaissance’ and the lack of historical responsibility of most directors and script writers, it is probably unwise, when devising a course, to draw up a list of key characteristics of the Renaissance and then systematically search out examples of their realization on film. It is better to start with a number of films that one finds interesting and then see if any general conclusions can be drawn from them. The films I chose, in the order I taught them, were Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971); Derek Jarman, Edward II (1991) and Caravaggio (1986); Agnès Merlet, Artemisia (1998); Patrice Chereau, La Reine Margot (1993); Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth (1998); and John Madden, Shakespeare in Love (1998). Although it is possible to talk interestingly about representations of the Renaissance in mediocre, or even frankly bad films, I personally prefer to teach ones which have at least some aesthetic merit, whether or not they are self-consciously arthouse films like Caravaggio, popular ones like Shakespeare in Love, or something in between. Richard Burt has called La Reine Margot ‘trashy’ and Artemisia ‘arty’ but it seems to me that they are both examples of the breakdown in the 1990s of any clear distinction between arthouse and popular cinematic treatments of the Renaissance, a breakdown which could indeed be seen as ‘postmodern’. My choice was also designed to permit a number of direct comparisons between films which fell into similar categories: thus there were two adaptations of non-Shakespearean plays, two biographies of Baroque painters, and two films based on historical events. This made it easier to structure the course but there were many other films which I would have been equally happy to use. These would include Carol Reed, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965); Fred Zinneman, A Man for All Seasons (1966); Ken Russell, The Devils (1971); Werner Herzog, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972); and Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, Winstanley (1975).

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Edward II are the two most distinguished examples of what is still too small and odd a group of films to count as a genre with its own traditions. If you exclude productions made for television, the only other instances of non-Shakespearean film adaptations which spring readily to mind are a French Volpone (1939) based on Stefan Zweig’s rewrite of Jonson, the Burton/Taylor Doctor Faustus (1967), and a universally execrated 1998 version of The Changeling, titled (in the manner of Baz Luhrmann), Middleton’s Changeling in order to remind you who one of the mangled authors was. The Independent on Sunday called it ‘thick-eared exploitation filming at its most cheerfully crude’ (8.4.98) while The Guardian said it ended up as ‘something resembling a Calvin Klein perfume ad reshot by Sergio Leone’ (6.4.98), which doesn’t sound quite so bad. Things may improve when Alex Cox’s update of The Revenger’s Tragedy (2002) goes on general release, [1] but it remains surprising that no one has yet tried to film The Duchess of Malfi. The closest so far has been Mike Figgis with Hotel (2001), which deals with a group of actors who are involved in a film production of the play.

It should be a requirement that students read the original plays by Marlowe and Ford while studying the Griffi and Jarman films but unless this is part of a fuller engagement with Renaissance drama it would be unrealistic to think that this will result in brilliant critical readings. Nevertheless the massive differences between the plays and the films open up many discussion points about contemporary representations of the Renaissance. To begin with, it is arguable that Ford’s play is in some respects more ‘postmodern’ than Griffi’s film. Like all Ford’s other work, it is aware of the vast number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays which have preceded it, using up all possible variations of plot, character, and style and threatening to deaden with over-familiarity every attempt to move an audience. If I may quote myself:

Ford’s self-conscious reworkings of previous plays are part of a continuing struggle to achieve authentic emotional expression despite the suffocating pressure of the ‘already written’. It is to this end that he complicates the situations and simplifies the language of his predecessors. His irony and allusiveness are not ends in themselves but necessary strategies for the communication of feelings to an audience which has lost its artistic ‘innocence’. (Wymer 1995: 91)

One would have thought that a modern film audience might also have lost its artistic ‘innocence’ since twentieth-century cinema has commodified affect on an even greater industrial scale than Renaissance theatre. However, Griffi, like most modern directors, retained full confidence in the affective powers of his medium and stripped away Ford’s irony and allusiveness, along with his comic subplots, in his search for a direct romantic authenticity (signalled by the straight-to-camera speech delivered in extreme close-up by Giovanni with which the film opens). Since the film is beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro, Griffi’s rejection of irony might have been vindicated, were it not for the banality of the language (’I am undone! I couldn’t keep it in me any longer’ ) which prevents any complete surrender to the visual seductiveness. [2]

Whereas Jarman’s Edward II is uncompromisingly arthouse, the marketing of the video of ‘Tis Pity exemplified the blurring of high and low culture which is a characteristic of the postmodern and also perhaps of Renaissance theatre itself. If one had watched Griffi’s film at the time of its original release in 1971, one would have received it as a European art film, made by a respected director working with one of Europe’s top cameramen. Some of the reviews quoted on the video cover sustain this ‘high’ cultural appeal: ‘Titian and Michelangelo were clearly the film’s spiritual art directors’ (Financial Times). On the other hand, the advertisement which appeared in Sight and Sound for the video release in 1993 read, ‘Dedicated to the macabre, depraved world of the bizarre, Redemption Films brings you a cocktail of horror, passion and extreme decadence on video... Corrupt yourself now!’ and ‘Tis Pity appeared alongside such masterpieces as Killer Nun and Salon Kitty (Sight and Sound, April 1993). If the Renaissance means Titian and Michelangelo in some contexts, it means ‘horror, passion and extreme decadence’ in others. Lord Henry told Dorian Gray to think of Sibyl Vane’s suicide ‘simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, Ford, or Cyril Tourneur’ (Wilde 1975: 143). The ‘decadents’ of the late nineteenth century valued Renaissance drama for its capacity to represent extreme situations and ‘perverse’ desires before these were occluded by eighteenth-century decorum or Victorian prudishness. Griffi and Jarman likewise found in Ford and Marlowe the narrative structure and ‘classic’ support for intense explorations of their own sexuality. There is still an element of indirection in Griffi, since the incest is a displaced representation of another ‘love that dare not speak its name’, but Jarman is totally confident that there is a ‘queer’ Renaissance which he can appropriate (Ellis 1999).

Pater, Symonds, and Wilde had all encouraged a Hellenistic view of the Renaissance which had the consequence of making it a homosexual or bisexual high point in history and Jarman was happy to follow suit: ‘The hunt was on for forebears who validated my existence. Was Western civilization Queer? The Renaissance certainly was. Lorenzo di Medici, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Boticelli, Rosso, Pontormo, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon.’ (Jarman 1993: 46). At times this could lead him to an idealization of Elizabethan England as ‘a rich and free society that did not confuse, as we do, puritanism with the hedonistic, morality with the hypocritical’. [3] Edward II, made after Jarman knew he was HIV positive, is of course a much darker film than this would suggest, though Jarman seeks to protect something of his earlier Elizabethan idyll by calling his script ‘increasingly Jacobean’ (Jarman 1992: 293). One of the questions which should arise in the classroom from these ‘Renaissance’ representations of transgressive desire, is how far sexuality itself is historical. The standard academic line tends to follow Foucault in seeing ‘the homosexual’ as a nineteenth-century medical and legal category rather than anything more essential. This is something to be debated rather than accepted, however, and Jarman himself, despite sometimes making the Foucauldian point (Jarman 1984: 21), saw desire (if not social identity) as transcending history: ‘An orgasm joins you to the past. Its timelessness becomes the brotherhood; the brethren are lovers; they extend the “family”. I share that sexuality. It was then, is now and will be in the future’ (Jarman 1993: 31). Although his Edward and Gaveston speak Marlowe’s lines, they are dressed in modern clothes and some of the distinctive Renaissance ambiguity about close friendships between men has been sacrificed.

The inclusion of two films by Jarman was an acknowledgement of the special importance the period had for him in his search for national as well as personal identity. ‘For Jarman, Englishness meant the age of the first Elizabeth’ (Simons 1999: 264), though he abhorred the traditional style of costume drama which he denounced as ‘a delusion based on a collective amnesia, ignorance and furnishing fabrics’ (Jarman 1991: 86). The use of Elizabeth I and John Dee as framing characters in Jubilee made both 1970s punk culture and the Elizabethan past look equally strange and I used a clip from the film in the introductory seminar, contrasting it with a more ‘classic’ sequence from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Although Jarman’s Renaissance was partly derived from childhood memories of G.M. Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History, it was also (as the inclusion of John Dee indicates) influenced by the later scholarship of Frances Yates and others, which argued for the importance of hermetic and alchemical traditions in Renaissance thought. Like many artists, Jarman was fascinated by ‘magical’ thinking and the importance of the Renaissance for him was not so much that it was ‘early modern’ but that it was pre-modern. Although its Hellenism emancipated it from medieval Christian repressiveness, it had not yet succumbed to the scientific revolution which would separate out astrology from astronomy, alchemy from chemistry. Although Jarman was an eccentric and highly individual film maker, in this respect he was undoubtedly representative of the general resurgence of anti-Enlightenment thinking in the 1960s which has continued to play an important and ambiguous role in contemporary culture. In this ‘alternative’ reading of the Renaissance, John Dee is more significant than Francis Bacon because the spiritual and material worlds remain more fully interconnected in his work; there has been no ‘dissociation of sensibility’. In Jarman’s version of The Tempest (1979), Prospero’s staff includes Dee’s hieroglyphical monad, a sign which Dee believed embodied all the wisdom in the universe.

Jarman’s enthusiasm for Caravaggio was also both highly personal (deriving partly from rumours about the painter’s sexuality) and more broadly representative of tendencies in contemporary culture. By the time Jarman released his film in 1986, Caravaggio’s reputation was already much higher than it had been earlier in the century and it has gone on rising to the point where, far from seeing him (as E.H. Gombrich had done) as a somewhat marginal figure in the history of art, many people now consider him to be one of the world’s greatest painters. For both Jarman and more recent art critics, what makes Caravaggio great is his merging of the past with the present, his refusal to maintain a careful historical distance in the ‘archaeological’ manner of a painter like Poussin. When ‘Caravaggio painted biblical scenes they were always of people of his own period’ so that for him ‘the past is always contemporary’ (Jarman 1985: 55). Jonathan Jones praised Caravaggio in similar terms when reviewing ‘The Genius of Rome’ exhibition at the Royal Academy:

These paintings push painting to an edge where it is becoming life, is ending as art. Caravaggio looks like our contemporary because his scenes are so mesmerically poised in time, dramatizing moments of choice and decision in which we ourselves are implicated. Will you accept the boy’s offer of fruit? Will you just stand there watching St Peter being crucified upside down, or will you do something about it? These scenes transfix us as they transfixed their original viewers. (Jones 2001)

In Jarman’s film, these contemporary jolts are provided by deliberate anachronisms (motor bikes, typewriters, the sound of a train) and startling direct speeches to the camera. [4] This emphasis on a dramatic human immediacy which threatens to break the frame of art contradicts dominant academic discourses concerning both the Renaissance and the postmodern and suggests that Jarman is not so completely removed from the values of the popular historical film. Despite himself being a ‘difficult’ avant-garde painter, he lamented ‘the lack of emotional force in modern painting’ (Jarman 1986: 10) and thought that cinema was capable of doing what the fine arts had done in earlier periods. In the history of art, Caravaggio is of course labelled a Baroque painter rather than a Renaissance one and this should be the moment when the relation of these terms to each other and to concepts of realism and affective power is explicitly discussed. Although Caravaggio was frequently praised for his realism, his paintings have an extraordinary spiritual intensity and in Jarman’s film he claims triumphantly to have ‘trapped pure spirit in matter’, making him another example of a pre-modern undissociated sensibility, though the ironic consequence of this achievement is that ‘what should have no value and grow like the lilies of the field is horribly perverted and placed high on the altars of Rome in mockery’. [5]

Caravaggio was the expression of Jarman’s highly personal investment in the Renaissance but it is also discussible as a genre film and can be grouped with a number of other films about painters: Rembrandt (1936), Lust for Life (1956), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Edvard Munch (1974), Vincent and Theo (1990), Artemisia (1998), and Love is the Devil (1998). All these films equate personal unhappiness with artistic creativity in a way which conforms closely with Romantic and post-Romantic conceptions of genius. There would, these days, be something truly shocking and innovative about representing a major artist (Shakespeare perhaps?) as thoroughly at ease with himself and his society, concerned more about property deals than crises of the soul. The Agony and the Ecstasy, which deals with Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel, frequently looks ponderous and clichéd in comparison with Jarman’s film but it opens up similar discussion points about the Renaissance artist needing to emancipate himself from Christian hatred of the body whilst simultaneously having to defend himself from the charge of being ‘unclassical’. Charlton Heston towers heroically above his pygmy ecclesiastical critics as he looks down from the scaffolding and tells them: ‘He [God] created man with pride not shame. It was left to the priests to create shame’. But when he is accused of contorting his figures in an unclassical manner, his contempt for the Church is shown to coexist with genuine religious feeling: ‘I’ll tell you what stands between us and the Greeks. Two thousand years of human suffering stands between us. Christ and his cross stands between us.’ In the same way, the dying Caravaggio hurls away the crucifix which the priest is forcing on him, yet paints Christ, his mother, and his disciples with an empathetic and ‘indecorous’ intensity. The nineteenth century liked to see the Renaissance as a freeing of the human spirit from the constraints of medieval religious thought but, owing to the impact of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can just as easily be seen as more self-consciously and intensely religious than the Middle Ages themselves and this is a puzzle about the Renaissance which is worth discussing.

Artemisia also revolves round questions of emancipation and begins with the heroine being ‘liberated’ by her father from a convent where the nuns are too shocked by her paintings of her own naked body to appreciate their aesthetic merit. Joan Kelly famously asked ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’ and concluded, along with many subsequent feminist critics, that the Renaissance was not an important stage in female liberation (Kelly 1999 [1977]). The freeing of the human spirit celebrated by Burckhardt was in fact highly gender-specific. Nevertheless feminist critics have succeeded in drawing attention to those few women artists who did succeed in what Germaine Greer has called ‘the obstacle race’. Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi and, like him, an admirer of Caravaggio, was the first female member of the Academy of Florence and the first woman in the history of art to have her work commissioned. Although Agnès Merlet’s film has aroused the anger of some feminist historians (Jones 1998), it provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students of literature or film to one of the truly iconic figures in feminist cultural history. Despite falsifying some crucial facts, the film is quite subtle in its treatment of her situation, playing with binary oppositions of imprisonment and freedom, inside and outside, dominance and submission, subject and object, without ever resolving them. In the final sequence, she uses a perspective grid (or velo) to frame the sea and shore whilst simultaneously being framed by it herself. The degree to which she achieves real agency and escapes being an object of the gaze of others is likewise continually in doubt. Her ‘rape’ by her fellow artist Agostini Tassi occurs in a messily ambiguous way which has some psychological persuasiveness, but it is hard not to feel sympathy with the historians who have protested that Merlet has perverted the historical record. At Tassi’s trial in 1612, the historical Artemisia maintained consistently, even under torture, that she was raped. Tassi denied the charge and was eventually freed. In the film, she refuses to testify that she was raped and Tassi has to nobly ‘confess’ in order to save her from further torture. Since this is a film which, in other respects, has considerable integrity, it is perhaps worth spending some class time discussing the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of this deliberate violation of historical truth.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s most famous painting was of the Biblical heroine Judith cutting the head off Holofernes, one of several pictures of this story which she painted. This shockingly violent picture is foregrounded in the film in a way which leaves it open to quite different interpretations. It can be seen as a genre piece, attempting to follow and improve on Caravaggio, whose own version of the beheading also appears in the film. It can be read more personally as expressing a violent but mutual attraction between her and Tassi. When modelling for the picture, both are excited when she assumes the dominant position on the bed. This seems a deliberate riposte to feminist art criticism, which usually reads the picture as Artemisia’s fantasised revenge upon her rapist. Finally, in the trial, the violence of the picture is used to blacken her character, showing her to be ‘a Judith, a criminal, a traitor’. At this point, an excursus into the iconography of Judith during the Renaissance would be appropriate and would demonstrate that it is most unlikely that ‘Judith’ would ever have been used in this way as a term of abuse. On the contrary, as Margarita Stocker has shown in great detail, she was one of the few culturally approved role models for active, violent, but virtuous women in the medieval and early modern periods (Stocker 1998). Since the conventionally feminine virtues were not very appropriate to military leaders, most female rulers of the Renaissance, including Marguerite of Navarre and Elizabeth I (the subjects of my next two films), were represented as Judith at some point in their careers.

There may have been no general Renaissance for women but the accidents of inheritance meant that the sixteenth century saw a remarkable number of women in positions of power (Hopkins 1991). This is undoubtedly a major part of the period’s appeal for popular cinema, as the many films about Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots attest. Both La Reine Margot and Elizabeth exploit the conventional source of dramatic interest in female rulers – the conflict between their feelings as a woman and their political role as a queen. Some of the reviews of Elizabeth argued for its originality and difference from previous costume dramas: ‘A far cry from the sterility of British heritage movies, its acting and characters are refreshingly unlike the cardboard stereotypes of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) or the BBC’s 1970s series Elizabeth R’ (Bruzzi 1998). However, despite the vigour and intelligence of much of the filming, a close comparison with earlier Elizabeth films reveals strong similarities. At whatever stage of her life and whether the lover is Thomas Seymour, Robert Dudley, or the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth must painfully renounce her feminine side and harden into a regal figure. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Young Bess, and Elizabeth all end with shots of the Queen’s face becoming a resolute mask. The main difference is that in the earlier films this is presented as more of a tragedy (’a queen is less than a woman’ ) than a feminist victory. La Reine Margot is actually more interesting in this respect since although Margot’s sexual desires are ‘dangerous’ they are not in complete opposition to duty, loyalty, and friendship. In a thoroughly ‘modern’ way (though of course the film is based on a nineteenth-century melodramatic rendering of the sixteenth century), Margot tries to ‘have it all’, indulging her powerful sexual appetites but never betraying her husband in a deeper sense or losing her moral bearings in the treacherous and bloody political and religious feuding going on round her.

It may seem a pedantic tactic to keep asking what were the ‘real’ historical facts which are being (mis)represented in these costume dramas but it is a good way of getting to understand the artistic logic which is at work. If one makes students think hard enough about Elizabeth, they should be able to explain why Ridley is accompanied to the stake by unnamed male and female martyrs rather than Latimer and Cranmer, why Cecil appears much older than the thirty-seven he would have been in 1558, or why the unimpeachably Protestant Robert Dudley should become involved in a Catholic plot. At the end of the film a series of historical statements appear on the screen, a device which normally means that we are now outside the dramatic and fictional frame and are being given the unvarnished truth. However, many of these statements are either demonstrably false or at best highly questionable. They include the assertion that ‘By the time of her [Elizabeth’s] death England was the richest and most powerful country in Europe’. This untruth has the merit of exposing unambiguously the film’s highly traditional view of the Elizabethan period as the foundation of a glorious national (Protestant) identity. The Renaissance was indeed a crucial period in the formation of the English (and British) nation but there are always other stories which can be told about this and students might be invited to think what a film about Elizabeth made from a strongly Catholic viewpoint would be like.

In France, of course, the sixteenth century has quite different connotations and representations of it are likely to imply a very different and less triumphant version of national identity. In restaging the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, La Reine Margot was apparently intending to comment on the horrors of ethnic cleansing which were taking place in Yugoslavia but the film is also surely alluding to some of the more disturbing aspects of recent French history such as the complicity of the Vichy government with the Holocaust or the murder of hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in 1961, an atrocity which has never been fully acknowledged. A brief juxtaposition of the religious massacres with anti-Semitism occurs in the film when the Huguenot exiles in Holland are assisted by a Jewish financier who has been forced to flee Spain. The importance of French historical films in contemporary battles over multiculturalism and national identity has been noted (Vincendeau 1995), but the precise ideological significance of Chereau’s film can be argued about. If there were sufficient time, I would want to examine La Reine Margot in relation to Jean Dréville’s earlier (1954) film of the same name, the St Bartholomew’s Day storyline in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (1593), and of course the original Alexander Dumas novel (1845). The most obvious initial debating point would concern the ethical and aesthetic problems of conjoining romantic melodrama with something approaching genocide. It is also worth discussing how the concern with national identity in modern historical films coincides with the dissolution of national cinematic boundaries in an era of international co-production and global artistic mobility. La Reine Margot was made with a mixture of French, German, and Italian money while Elizabeth had an Indian director, an Australian leading actress, and received some support from the Media Programme of the European Union,.

After examining six films which all, in their different ways, strove for strong emotional impact, I wanted to finish with at least one film which could be called explicitly postmodernist in its ironic and knowing treatment of fictionalized emotion. Shakespeare in Love, co-scripted by Tom Stoppard, flourishes its postmodernist credentials by constantly signalling its own fictionality. There is the mug in Shakespeare’s room labelled ‘A Present from Stratford-upon-Avon’, the impossible aristocratic title ‘Lord Wessex’, the appearance of the Queen at a public theatre, and the frequent use of anachronistic in-jokes (’I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once’ ). [6] Yet for at least one reviewer, the film was handicapped by a continuing commitment to naïve realism in many of its details:

despite all the efforts to puncture the bubble of historical accuracy, this is absolutely mainstream costume romance. Every last codpiece is given the painstaking period look; the muddy streets feel researched to the last wisp of straw. The earnestness which invariably attends such re-creations only stifles the humour. (Romney 1999)

And if we are tempted to feel knowingly superior to the crowd at the Curtain who gasp with excitement at the stage violence or weep unrestrainedly at the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, we should notice that the film also has designs upon our affections, designs which are perhaps successfully realized in the stunning final shot of Viola as a tiny purposeful figure on ‘a vast and empty beach’ (one of the few truly cinematic moments in a film distinguished more by its script than its camerawork). At the heart of Shakespeare in Love is the far from sophisticated notion that stage love will never convince us until the women’s parts are played by actresses rather than boys and until writers begin to write out of their own experience of love. In the same way, while the film seems at times to play deconstructively with the myth of Shakespeare’s original genius, showing him taking plot ideas from Marlowe and using lines he has heard in the street, it ends by powerfully reasserting the traditional Romantic view of his originality. The actors and stage audience are left open-mouthed by the brilliance of the plot twists in Verona as ‘the film “forgets” that the story of Romeo and Juliet was already well-known and popular when Shakespeare began the play’ (Kingsley-Smith forthcoming 2003). [7] Despite the self-consciously postmodernist gestures of Shakespeare in Love, it is arguable that much of its commercial success was based on the same proven formulae found in other films with Renaissance settings – a story of dangerous, forbidden love which ends poignantly and a story of an unhappy genius who makes great art out of his personal suffering.

In conclusion, though a number of these films evince some self-consciousness about representation and exemplify some of the characteristics of the postmodern (the mixing of genres, ambiguous sexuality, the blurring of distinctions between high art and popular culture, trans-national production and marketing), it seems to me that the use they make of the Renaissance is in many ways quite traditional. Their sense of what will hold an audience is not so far removed from the values of Elizabethan and Jacobean popular theatre itself, with its many stories of dangerous desires and violent revenges. It is worth asking students to think hard about why Renaissance plays are in fact more aware of representational issues than most modern films. My answer would be that the incomplete theatrical illusion necessitates some explicit acknowledgement of the limits of representation if the audience is to be drawn into a collaborative act of faith which will make the stage action seem momentarily real to them. By contrast, the cinema tends to remain more confident of its abilities to overpower an audience with emotive close ups and illusionistic special effects, forcing them to accept its images as truthful, however extreme and disturbing they may be. The earliest film that I know of which deals with a Renaissance topic is The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). This is a brief attempt to exploit the new medium’s ability to stage an execution more realistically than would be possible in the theatre. It always seems more academically respectable to talk about crises of representation than about the enduring appeal of sex and violence, but Colin McCabe’s comment to Derek Jarman, which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, was only partly in jest.



The Execution of Mary Stuart, dir. Alfred Clark (1895)

Intolerance, dir. D.W. Griffith (1916)

The Virgin Queen, dir. J. Stuart Blackton (1923)

The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots, dir. Denison Clift (1923)

Lady Jane Grey; Or, The Court of Intrigue, dir. Edwin Greenwood (1923)

The Private Life of Henry VIII, dir. Alexander Korda (1933)

Drake of England, dir. Arthur Woods (1935)

The Immortal Gentleman, dir. Widgey R. Newman (1935)

The Cardinal, dir. Sinclair Hill (1936)

Tudor Rose (aka Lady Jane Grey), dir. Robert Stevenson (1936)

Rembrandt, dir. Alexander Korda (1936)

Mary of Scotland, dir. John Ford (1936)

Fire over England, dir. W.K. Howard (1937)

Under the Red Robe, dir. Victor Sjostrom (1937)

Governor Bradford, dir. H. Parry (1938)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, dir. Michael Curtiz (1939)

Volpone, dir. Maurice Tourneur (1939)

The Sea Hawk, dir. Michael Curtiz (1940)

Day of Wrath, dir. Carl Dreyer (1943)

Time Flies, dir. Walter Forde (1944)

Christopher Columbus, dir. David Macdonald (1949)

Prince of Foxes, dir. Henry King (1949)

Young Bess, dir. George Sidney (1953)

The Sword and the Rose, dir. Ken Anakin (1953)

La Reine Margot, dir. Jean Dréville (1954)

The Virgin Queen, dir. Henry Koster (1955)

Diane, dir. David Miller (1956)

Taras Bulba, dir. J. Lee Thompson (1962)

The Scarlet Blade, dir. John Gilling (1963)

The Agony and the Ecstasy, dir. Carol Reed (1965)

A Man for All Seasons, dir. Fred Zinnemann (1966)

Doctor Faustus, dir. Richard Burton and Neville Coghill (1967)

Witchfinder General, dir. Michael Reeves (1968)

Anne of the Thousand Days, dir. Charles Jarrott (1969)

Cromwell, dir. Ken Hughes (1970)

The Last Valley, dir. James Clavell (1970)

Mary, Queen of Scots, dir. Charles Jarrott (1971)

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, dir. Guiseppe Patroni Griffi (1971)

The Devils, dir. Ken Russell (1971)

Henry VIII and His Six Wives, dir. Waris Hussein (1972)

Aguirre, Wrath of God, dir. Werner Herzog (1972)

Winstanley, dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo (1975)

Jubilee, dir. Derek Jarman (1978)

Le Retour de Martin Guerre, dir. David Vigne (1982)

The Angelic Conversation, dir. Derek Jarman (1985)

Caravaggio, dir. Derek Jarman (1986)

Lady Jane, dir. Trevor Nunn (1986)

The Mission, dir. Roland Joffé (1986)

Black Robe, dir. Bruce Beresford (1991)

Edward II, dir. Derek Jarman (1991)

Orlando, dir. Sally Potter (1992)

1492: The Conquest of Paradise, dir. Ridley Scott (1992)

La Reine Margot, dir. Patrice Chereau (1993)

Nostradamus, dir. Roger Christian (1994)

Artemisia, dir. Agnès Merlet (1998)

Elizabeth, dir. Shekhar Kapur (1998)

Shakespeare in Love, dir. John Madden (1998)

Dangerous Beauty (aka The Honest Courtesan), dir. Marshall Herskovitz (1998)

Middleton’s Changeling, dir. Marcus Thompson (1998)

Hotel, dir. Mike Figgis (2001)

The Revenger’s Tragedy, dir. Alex Cox (2002)

To Kill a King (aka Cromwell and Fairfax), dir. Mike Barker (forthcoming 2003)

Marlowe, dir. John Maybury (forthcoming 2003)



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Burke, Peter (1987) The Renaissance, London: Longman.

Burt, Richard (forthcoming) Ever Afterlives: Fashioning the Renaissance on Film and Video.

Cox, Alex (2002) ‘Stage Fright,’ The Guardian 9.8.2002.

Davies, Tony (1997) Humanism, New Critical Idiom, London and New York: Routledge.

Díaz Fernández, José Ramón (2001) ‘An Annotated Checklist of Shakespeare on Screen’, The European English Messenger X/1, 22-33.

Duncan-Jones, Katharine (1999) ‘Why, then, O brawling love!’ (Review of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love), The Times Literary Supplement 5.2.1999.

Ellis, Jim (1999) ‘Queer Period: Derek Jarman’s Renaissance’, in Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, edited by Ellis Hanson, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 288-315.

Ferguson, Wallace K. (1948) The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation, Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin.

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Greer, Germaine (1979) The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, London: Secker and Warburg.

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Hopkins, Lisa (1991) Women Who Would Be Kings: Female Rulers of the Sixteenth Century, New York: St Martin’s Press.

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Jarman, Derek (1985) ‘On Imaging October, Dr. Dee and other matters: An Interview with Derek Jarman’, interview by Simon Field and Michael O’Pray, Afterimage 12 40-59.

--- (1986) Dancing Ledge, edited by Shaun Allen, London: Quartet Books.

--- (1991) Queer Edward II, London: BFI.

--- (1992) Modern Nature, London: Vintage.

--- (1993) At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, London: Vintage.

Jones, Jonathan (1998) ‘The historians called it rape: The film maker called it romance’, The Guardian 29.5.1998.

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Kelly, Joan (1999 [1977]) ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’, reprinted in Feminism and Renaissance Studies, edited by Lorna Hutson, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kingsley-Smith, Jane (forthcoming 2003) ‘Shakespearean Authorship in Popular British Cinema’, Literature/Film Quarterly.

Martin, John Jeffries (2002) ‘The Myth of Renaissance Individualism’, in A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance, edited by Guido Ruggiero, Oxford: Blackwell, 208-24.

Monk, Claire and Amy Sargeant, eds. (2002) British Historical Cinema, London and New York: Routledge.

Pater, Walter (1873) The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, London: Macmillan.

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Romney, Jonathan (1999) ‘A Bard day’s night’, The Guardian 29.1.1999.

Simons, John (1999) ‘Elizabethan Texts in the Work of Derek Jarman’, in Elizabethan Literature and Transformation, edited by Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 263-71.

Stocker, Margarita (1998) Judith: Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Symonds, J.A. (1897) Renaissance in Italy, London: Smith, Elder and Co.

Vincendau, Ginette (1995) ‘Unsettling Memories’, Sight and Sound (July 1995), 30-32.

Wilde, Oscar (1975) Plays, Prose Writings and Poems, edited by Isobel Murray, London: Dent.

Wymer, Rowland (1995) Webster and Ford, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

--- (1999) ‘Marlowe and Jarman: The Transformation of Edward II’, in Elizabethan Literature and Transformation, edited by Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 273-81.



1. It had its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August 2002 and Cox hopes that it will stimulate further films based on non-Shakespearean plays: ‘It may succeed or fail. But what I hope Revengers will have done is open the doors to something that is uniquely British and of great interest to British film-makers: the gaping, skeleton- and sex- and joke-filled vault that is Renaissance tragedy (Cox 2002). [Back]

2. One possible explanation of the unsatisfactory nature of the film’s language is mentioned by Lisa Hopkins. An initial decision to make the film in Italian resulted in an English translation of Ford’s play being commissioned but when it was eventually decided to film in English, the new translation was converted back into English without any further reference to Ford. Or so the story goes. (Hopkins 2002) [Back]

3. Norman Rosenthal writing in the catalogue for Jarman’s 1992 exhibition of paintings Queer. (Quoted in Simons 1999: 266.) [Back]

4. In fact most of the anachronisms in Caravaggio are not ‘contemporary’ but suggest the Italy of the 1940s and 1950s, familiar from Italian neo-realist films, and ‘the last time the world was intact before modern consumerism and Americanism swamped it’ (Jarman quoted in Peake 1998: 348). [Back]

5. In earlier versions of the script the complaint about the commodification of his art is a little clearer. The lines quoted above originally formed part of a voice-over by his manservant Jerusaleme which began: ‘he said of his painting, I’ve trapped pure spirit in matter, so it could be bartered and sold...’ (Notebook titled ‘Caravaggio shooting script’, Seq. 62, part of the uncatalogued material in the Jarman archive at the British Film Institute). [Back]

6. It was necessary to explain to Hungarian students that this last sentence alludes to a long-running joke about the conversational habits of London taxi drivers in the magazine Private Eye. There may also, of course, be a homosexual innuendo. [Back]

7. Jane Kingsley-Smith makes interesting comparisons between Shakespeare in Love’s treatment of authorship and two earlier films in which Shakespeare appears as a character, The Immortal Gentleman (1935) and Time Flies (1944). [Back]