December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (a review)

Let me be the first to say that I did not expect to like this movie. I expected to sit through it, see pretty steam-punk pictures of “Victorian London”, and cry a little inside at the perversion of some of my all-time favorite characters of literature. I even had the opening line of this post written in my head, “Holmes,” I would lament, “What have they done to you?”.

Despite my initial misgivings, and despite myself, I actually immensely enjoyed this film. I thought all the notes which required playing were hit impeccably; neither hammered too forcefully nor touched so lightly as not to be heard. The movie was enjoyable to both myself (an admitted literati-snob and hard sell on revisions such as this) and my father (an avid enjoyer of mister Holmes but certainly not a literature scholar and also partial to bad action flicks). Crossing demographics, it was a film to please both the oxford-shirt-and-sweater-vest novel-touters and the average “this movie looks awesome” Saturday-afternoon action buffs.

Let’s start with my one little gripe before I continue to rave about this movie. In addition to our dynamic duo, Irene Adler is added to the fray as an on-again off-again member of the team. She spends the movie wrestling with her own wistful romantic feelings for Holmes as she kicks butt and takes names along with the boys. Now trust me, I do love a good female action hero. But to me, chicks don’t belong in Holmes’ universe. The notorious woman-hater should not be pining for a pretty face when he has a case to solve, even if the object of his affection is, as Watson puts it, “the woman”. I know that in Conan Doyle’s mythology Adler was the only woman who ever found a way into Holmes’ heart and indeed managed to best him at some point, but I really always pictured their relationship with more rough edges than soft spots. This film is a study in the soft spots.

In short, she was cool, but I really didn’t need to see that.

Now onto the fantastic stuff:

The Holmes/Watson relationship was NAILED. There are some critics who will say “first we have gay hobbits, now we have gay Victorian Super Heroes. WTF Hollywood?”. Honestly, though I can see the homosexual under (and sometimes over) tones, they didn’t bother me. They’re there from the literature, people. Holmes and Watson are the Victorian Batman and Robin. They come as a packaged set. What, since two men are more like brothers than friends they automatically have to be sleeping together? They care for each other, true, but for years they were their own support network. Holmes cannot exist without Watson, no more can Watson exist without Holmes. It is only natural that a third party in this equation (in this case Mary) would bring tension between the dynamic duo. To me, whether you see this relationship as “gay” or “bromantic”, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, they love and support one another, and the movie nailed this.

Holmes’ character was spot on. When I first heard that Robert Downey Junior was going to be playing our dear detective, my thoughts immediately soured. He’s too young and good-looking, not dynamic enough, and would reduce the genius into a mere action hero. I could not have been more mistaken. Through a combination of the actor’s performance and the filmmaker’s creativity, I bought this character hook, line and sinker. A few particularly spectacular elements were the CSI-esque slow-mo explanations of Holmes’ thought processes, the priceless portrayal of Holmes’ quirky detective techniques, and the sense of profound loneliness that true brilliance incurs. This Holmes was very clearly a beautiful disaster, if an eccentric genius.

Jude Law’s Watson was also a pleasant surprise. He was made, in the film, into much more of a comrade to Holmes than sidekick. Able to hold his own in any fight, and more importantly pick up the pieces when Holmes dropped them, Watson was certainly not Conan Doyle’s lapdoggy Doctor. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the classical Watson, but Law’s had more gravitas. He was more of an equal to Holmes, if not in deductive reasoning than in practical experience. He and Holmes seemed to go together- I understood why Holmes would want and indeed require this Watson around.

Now I’m not saying the plot of this movie was “classic entertainment”, nor am I implying that the writers wrote Holmes better than Conan Doyle, but they did manage to modernize our beloved series while maintaining its integrity. In classic Holmesian style, this was a universe ruled by the laws of science rather than magic (no matter how it would otherwise appear). In the end, it was logic and reason that solved the mystery not wand-waving and incantations of power.

Small touches truly made the film rest in Conan Doyle’s story. The picture of Adler Holmes had in his study, the inclusion of Holmes’ famed disguises and skill as an actor, Holmes’ use of his violin all led to a believable and inclusive image of the famed detective. The one thing I did miss from the movie was Holmes’ opium addiction, though I do believe his addictive personality and reliance upon substances to free him from the prison of his own intellect was made entirely clear.

If you can forgive the villain a silly reason for his hostile take-over plan and Holmes’ monologuing at the end (but really, Holmes was born to monologue), the movie really delivered.

Oh and the faux-antique-pencil-sketch-still-frames during the credits are really nifty too.

December 28, 2009

The Stare-Down

Have you ever been secretly intimidated by a piece of literature?

And I don’t mean “secretly” as in being intimidated but not admitting it to your book club, I mean “secretly” as in being in denial about it. You keep meaning to read something, let’s say A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You know you should read Shakespeare because he is the father of modern theatre and the English language as we know it. You know you should read this particular play because it is a staple of theatre companies everywhere. It’s a comedy with lots of fun elements- no heavy-hearted Othello or Lear. Maybe you’ve heard of some of the characters before; Puck, the lovers Hermia, Helen, Demetrius or Lysander, Oberon, Titania. Or maybe you’re even a Greek history buff and want to read another take on the Theseus/Hypolyta story.

But for some reason, some reason unbeknownst to yourself, some ethereal reason that you can’t put your finger on, you just never read this particular work of literature. Even though you should. Even though culture tells you to. Even though your better sense tells you to. You may page through the book every time you pass it in the bookstore. You may even go so far as to purchase the volume. But, despite the piece beckoning you, you just don’t do it.

That’s been my relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale for the past week. I was supposed to be on a strict fifty-page-a-day regime over the winter break before the craziness of my jam-packed semester started. However, the holidays hit and I took some time off. Then it became “Oh, I’ll read it tomorrow”. And that’s gone on since I finished Heart of Darkness.

I don’t know what it is about this book. It’s a friendly book. Not too thick. If I put my mind to it, it’ll be finished in a matter of a few days. The subject matter doesn’t seem too terribly dry, the language isn’t dense or archaic, the story is renowned and well-written… there shouldn’t be anything stopping me from picking up this book and giving it the good ol’ Graduate School try. Somehow though, I’ve been finding ways to push dear Meg from my schedule day after day.

Well, I can no longer hide from her. I have a week before I begin my position TAing over winter break, and that means only seven days of unadulterated literature with nominal other demands upon my time.

There’s no more hiding, running or avoiding. There’s no more calling apologetically and promising to reschedule. There’s no more setting her up with a friend hoping that she likes him better than she likes me because I can’t stand to see the look on her face when I miss our appointed coffee meetings together. Tomorrow I have a date with Margaret Atwood.

December 24, 2009

A New Task...

My usual interests and extracurricular pursuits have officially been commandeered.

I have completed one semester as a Master’s student in English. This has brought with it a brave new world of work, pain, sleepless nights, new interests, new insights, tears, joy, you name it it’s been in there. I’m loving every minute of it.

It does, however, cut into my blogging time. Which is part of why I’ve decided to broaden the focus of my work here. One of my professors this semester made the observation that if she doesn’t write something about what she’s reading, it doesn’t stick. I tend to agree. The act of writing makes your mind process things differently. It makes your brain juices digest all those scrumptious words on the page. It makes you translate a mental experience to a different kind of mental experience and, ultimately, a physical experience.

To achieve my Master’s, I am required to pass an exam. The exam is on this booklist. As I wasn’t an English major in my undergrad, most of these books I’ve never heard of much less read. I’ve decided that as a companion to this reading list, as I slowly chew my way through it, I’m going to keep a record here of some thoughts about what I’m reading. At least then, when I go to study for la grande exam of doom I’ll have something to look back on. And maybe someone will enjoy my ramblings.

First up: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

First published in 1899 in Blackwood’s Magazine as a three-part series, the novella was then published as a complete work in 1902. Having spent time as a steamboat captain on the Congo, Conrad used his experiences in Africa as a basis for the book.

The story is told in a nested narrative as a sailor named Marlowe relates his experience in the ivory trade to other passengers of an unknown steamboat. This structure, reminiscent of that of Frankenstein or The Canterbury Tales, frees Conrad from having to take direct responsibility for any ideas stated by the text. Whether or not he meant to, Conrad liberated himself via the nested narrative, the mask of the inner character can be said to deflect any fault in the novella from Conrad himself.

The novella itself is short and dense. Packed with imagery and metaphor, at times it almost feels surreal to read. Because of this drifty dream-like quality to the narrative, I had to be particularly careful to not allow my mind to wander into my own dreamland. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the book (I actually did like it), it was that the boundary between this misty Congo river and my own hazy hallucinations was so thin that it was easy to forget. I had to re-read several passages due to having arrived at the end of the page and not being able to recollect what it was I had just read.

The major theme of the novella is supposedly the darkness of the dark continent (it is, after all, named for this), but other than throwing the word “dark” into a few passages I didn’t find this theme to be compelling or pervasive. Yes, the darkness of Africa is held against the light of civilization. Yes, civilization is supposed to bring light to dark places, etc. so on and so forth. I found a more pressing theme in the great silence of Africa. The jungle is constantly described as somewhere utterly quiet. Perhaps this is indicative of an ideal quality in its people; the people of Africa should remain as the country itself. Majestic, beautiful, and silent. They ought to have no voice, either in civilization or in their own home.

Funny enough the word “Africa” is never actually used in the book. Though this could be chalked up to the logic that no place names are used in the book, but I wonder what this says about sense of place in “the Dark Continent”. Does it not exist? Is one thing the same as another to the point that no word can describe place because place is interchangeable? Is Africa just too horrid to name?

I found myself reading in the school of Chinua Achebe (even before I realized there was a school of Chinua Achebe); this book does portray the African people in an utterly racist fashion. But can you blame it? I didn’t read Heart of Darkness thinking I would get a sermon on equality or some great enlightening “we are all equal” message. It was published in 1902 for chrissakes! This was a mere forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Conrad by no means lived in a “racially enlightened society” and we cannot expect forward thinking. If we did, such thinking would no longer be extraordinary.

So I did find the portrayal of the African in this book to be as something other than human. They are animals, robbed of language, sense and even human form. At their best, they are part of the majestic otherworldly Africa scenery. At their worst, they are savage brutes. The cannibals that Marlowe’s steamboat crew hires are treated better than the run-of-the-mill African native in this novella, both in action and in description.

Pre-Achebe, the common reading of Africa in Heart of Darkness was of a place for insanity. It was what drove Kurtz mad. This is true, the man likely suffered from some jungle fever, illness of malnourishment, or parasite. Kurtz’s death is a fitting end for a man who fashioned himself into some sort of jungle God in order to pillage Africa herself. The Europeans rape Africa for her ivory, and Africa fights back. The Dark Continent reclaimed Kurtz and as the steamboat which bears him back to civilization leaves Africa, his health ebbs. Africa, then, is a cruel mistress. She will be revenged upon her tormentors, one way or another.

Achebe invokes a metaphore in his essay which I find particularly poignant; “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray -- a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man's jeopardous integrity.” This also makes Africa the ultimate downfall of Europe. A single look into her dark, silent depths will kill the very image she was made to keep alive.

Perhaps the most pertinent to this blog, and of course the most interesting to me, are the brief glimpses and echoes of Shakespeare which I found within this book (oh shush, I find them all over). As Kurtz lays dying, Marlowe remarks, “His was in impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines” (86). I cannot help but hear echoes of Juliet’s “Me thinkes I see thee now, thou art so lowe, /As one dead in the bottome of a Tombe, /Either my eye-sight failes, or thou look'st pale.” The image of the far-away man, bellow the speaker, is pervasive in both these utterances.

A second parallel is found in Kurtz’s fiancĂ©’s words upon hearing of his death. She laments, “I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never” (95). Read that and tell me you don’t see Lear over Cordelia’s body, “Why should a Dog, a Horse, a Rat haue life, /And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, /Neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer.” I suppose it shouldn’t be all too surprising as Conrad originally learned English by perusing Shakespeare (betchya didn’t know that… betchya didn’t really care either… ah well it could be a conversation starter at your next cocktail party).

So to wrap things up for today; Africa: Big, Dark and Silent. Joseph Conrad: utter racist, but who could really blame him? Shakespeare: Still relevant.

Happy Holidays!

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Modern Library Classics Paperback. New York: Random House, 1999.

May 4, 2009


According to a recent article in the New York Times, Genius isn’t “who you are, it’s what you do.”

NY Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks published an article this past week analyzing the modern scientific take on “Genius” as presented by scientific research. Science tells us that “Genius” does not come from some innate spiritual connection to a muse or the like, but rather a set of circumstances which are predictable, and more importantly replicateable. According to this research, what truly leads to a genius is practice, analysis, logical function of the brain, the ability to quantify and sort data, and the ability to develop and maintain a “deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.”.

Brooks uses the example of Mozart, who was not always a genius at the piano. In fact, suggests Brooks, Mozart’s early works are merely a clever amalgamation of others’ pieces. Mozart’s true key to this “Genius” we have labeled him with was his ability to practice for so long at such a young age. So my question is… what about Shakespeare?

Yes, it’s true, grammar schools during Young Will’s the time did provide the practice with language as outlined by Brooks. Though he was no University Intellect, Shakespeare did spend his young years meticulously translating Latin texts to English, making lists of synonyms in Latin, memorizing and re-writing portions of ancient documents, et cetera so on and so forth. But this was not unique to our Young Bard, this was education as an institution. Any who could afford the time to be sent to school would have had the same exact methodologies applied to their education. Those who went to University would delve even deeper into these methodologies, thereby (according to this article) given even more of that meticulous practice regime which Brooks claims is so key to the “Genius” factor. Marlowe, Kid, Johnson, Fletcher, Webster… the same educations but more. And yet these playwrights are often reduced to footnotes, if they are even mentioned, in the great books of general Theatrical knowledge which Shakespeare is our key and sometimes only player.

Consider a few numbers. An Elizabethan company learned a new play about every seventeen days, and depending on the play’s popularity it would be performed for a period of between one and two years. During a four-week period in the Autumn of 1595, fifteen different plays were recorded to have been performed. The first reference to Shakespeare as an actor was recorded by Robert Greene in 1592 (the famous death-bed utterance of “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”). Green’s editor, Henry Chettle, later apologize publicly for the remark in the preface to his work “Kind-Heart’s Dream”. This apology leads us to believe the Shakespeare was already a well-respected thespian by 1592, and indeed records indicate that several of his plays (including Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, and The Comedy of Errors) had been performed and were popular before this time (Henry VI is supposed to have been written around 1589/1590). The theatres were closed due to plague from 1592-1594. We’re pretty sure Shakespeare returned full-time to Stratford in 1610 (though again, this is Shakespeare so nobody really knows). This gives Shakespeare a solid seven years of performance at the peak of his career in London (and likely more like eight or so). The cannon (that survives) is thirty seven plays large, and there is evidence that Shakspeare co-wrote another five plays which we either no longer have or have been attributed to others. So… for arguments sake… assume Shakespeare wrote fourty two plays. This averages out to five and a quarter plays per year, not a hefty sum considering that a playhouse had the potential to go through twenty two plays per year.

So… practice? While Shakespeare was without a doubt constantly writing (churning out a new play every two and a half months or so), this isn’t exactly the kind of intense practice that Mozart was getting. And truly, couldn’t one argue that other playwrights of the time were getting as much, if not more practice than Shakespeare was?

The reason why we remember Shakespeare’s plays is because of the clever wordplay, but it’s also because of his clever use and treatment of the human condition. He speaks of issues that effect us even to this day, four hundred years after his death. In his capable hands, the troubles of the universe are alit in ways that make them relevant to us, despite space and time.

And really, no amount of practice can make some so capable.

I’m not saying that Shakespeare made a pact with the devil or was blessed with some divine astronomical event at the time of his birth, but maybe the scientists need to take another look at their definitions. Not everything can be explained in numbers. Human beings are highly emotional and rarely rational creatures, and the discussion thereof thereby must maintain a sense of irrationality in order to parallel it’s true meaning.

April 21, 2009

A Very Bardy Birthday

On this very week, dear reader, our own Bard turns 445.

I say week as no one really knows the day upon which Shakespeare was born. The actual birth day of a child went unrecorded for the most part in Shakespeare's time as so many infants did not live until their baptism. Shakespeare was baptized on April 26th, 1564 in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon.

Now, there are varying opinions on what this means. Some will say that traditionally, baptisms are held three days after the baby's birth (placing the Bard's Birthday on April 23rd). The Prayer Book of 1559 offers instructions to have infants Christened before the first Sunday or holy day following the birth unless there were some extenuating circumstance, in which case a curate's permission could be obtained to hold the Baptism on another day. A little bit of Calendar work tells us that in 1564, the 23rd day of April just so happened to fall on a Sunday. That Sunday, due to its proximity to the Feast Day of St. Alphege and the feast day of St. Mark has traditionally been an unlucky day, which means that Shakespeare's Baptism may have been one of those extenuating circumstances. So, like most aspects of the Bard's life, his day of birth still remains a mystery.

What it does mean, however, is that heads are being turned towards the Bard once more as the day of his probable naissance approaches. In fact, the Mayor of Chicago has proclaimed this April 23rd to be "Talk Like Shakespeare Day". In case you were having strange flashes of "Talk Like a Pirate Day" (September 19th of every year, more information can be found at, yes it's just like that.

Now I don't know about you, but I am truly torn about this proclamation. On the one hand, it is wonderful that such attention is being drawn to the Illustrious Bard. It is also fantastic that individuals are being encouraged to think "Elizabethanly" and outside of their normal comfort zone in an effort to connect to a piece of Bardom. It sounds like a fun endeavor, and I do hope that people take it as such. But on the other hand, efforts like this merely encourage the stereotype of "speaking Shakespeare". Yes, CNN does concede that "It isn't as difficult as it sounds", but then they go on to list various ways of "Shakespeareanizing" one's speech (among the suggestions are to not "waste time saying "it." Just use the letter "t" ('tis, 'twill, I'll do't)", to "add the letters "eth" to the end of verbs (he runneth, he trippeth, he falleth)", and "to add weight to your opinions, try starting them with "methinks," "mayhaps," "in sooth" or "wherefore."".

Really, guys, it's not that hard. Most people speak Shakespeare every day without even knowing they are speaking Shakespeare. If in your life something has ever come full circle, been Greek to you, as obvious as the nose on your face, a wild goose chase, a foregone conclusion or the be-all and end-all, you're speaking Shakespeare. If you have felt faint hearted, fancy free, as merry as the day is long, more sinned against than sinning, stony hearted, like a laughing stock, like you’ve seen better days or not slept one wink, you're speaking Shakespeare. If you’ve ever been sick at heart, lain low, waited with baited breath, put your best foot forward, felt something in your heart of hearts or seen something in your mind’s eye, had a method to your madness or a spotless reputation, played fast and loose, gilded the lily or been snatched from the jaws of death, you're speaking Shakespeare. If you’ve ever been given cold comfort, been eaten out of house and home, killed with kindness, told the naked truth, been sent packing, seen a sorry sight, worn your heart upon your sleeve, had something set your teeth on edge, felt as though the world’s your oyster, had too much of a good thing, given the devil his due or waited forever and a day you're speaking Shakespeare. If someone has ever broken the ice, been dead as a doornail, the devil incarnate, had a heart of gold or a knit brow. If you’ve refused to budge an inch. If you know that every dog will have his day, as good luck would have it you're speaking Shakespeare.

So... why go on making faux intellectual statements about how to "Shakespeare up" your speech? Why not just take some time to pay homage to all of the things you actually say every day which came from the Man himself and don't make you sound like "that guy" at the office? You'll still be honoring the spirit of the holiday, you'll probably learn more than you will by throwing "forsooth" in now and again, and you won't make yourself into the laughing stock of corporate functions.

And if all else fails, just take a moment to read your favorite speech. Don't have one? You can borrow one of mine. Love's Labor's Lost; Berowne; line 1639 "Oh tis more than neede...". King Lear; Bastard; line 335 "Thou nature art my Goddesse....". Hamlet; Hamlet; line 1829 "Speake the speeche I pray you as I pronounc'd it to you...". Midsummer Night's Dream; Helena; line 240 "How happy some oer othersome can be..."

Happy Birthday, Will. The world is truly a better place for having you.

March 26, 2009

Shakespeare by any other genre....

These days, you see very few truly classically-framed productions. There are several reasons for this; the costumes are expensive and difficult to make (nearly impossible to fudge), period pieces are sometimes hard for a modern audience to connect to, and sometimes these hard-core traditionalist productions are merely seen as “doddery old bits of theatre” (usually because they are). The result of this is a lot of Shakespeare out there re-framed to a different context, be this context genre, era of time, or concept.

But is such re-framing necessary? Is it right? What does a director need to do in order to make choices about re-framing a show? Let’s take a moment to consider these questions.

I have a personal mantra which I frequently use when discussing such productions: NO CONCEPT SHAKESPEARE. No Hamlet on the moon, no Macbeth with flying monkeys, no Merchant of Venice in the year 2045 after the nuclear holocaust (yes, I have actually seen this in a production). It’s just not right. Taking the Bard’s work and demeaning it into your own little personal fantasy is not your job as a Director. It is not funny, it is not nice, and frankly it gets confusing. It is people like these Directors who give audience members scarring Shakespeare experiences and makes them Bard-shy.

So, you may be wondering, what qualifies as “concept Shakespeare” and what kicks a production over into this magical world of “re-framing” ?

If a Director’s choice supports the text and adds something to the production without being confusing, it is a re-framing. If a Director’s choice has no grounding in the text whatsoever, no explanation, and leaves the audience going “what?”, it is a concept.

Romeo and Juliet, the classic story of love kept sundered by an ancient family feud; set it in Israel and have R and J represented by Israeli/Palestinian actors. Set it on the Irish border between North and South and make Romeo a Northerner and Juliet a Southerner. Heck, set it in the American South pre-civil war and make Romeo the son of a plantation owner and Juliet the maid’s daughter.

Support the plot, support the setting, don’t destroy it.

I heard someone mention “Throne of Blood” the other day and how it was likely the best rendition of Macbeth they had ever seen, despite not using Shakespeare’s text. I’m in agreement with this statement. The story is supported by the genre and Kurosawa puts his own flavor to it. Sure, he takes liberties with the plot (no Macduff for one….), but the sense of a deadly downward spiral into madness and the fear that comes with it- pivotal to Mabeth- is retained.

I’m actually also a huge fan of "The Lion King". Again, Disney takes huge liberties with the central characters. The elements of the Hamlet plot are twisted and some omitted all together- but they couldn’t exactly have Nala go nuts and drown herself (it’s a kid’s movie for crying outloud!). What "The Lion King" does achieve is a righteous line of succession which angers us when it is not followed. We love Simba as we wish we could love Hamlet. And really, who can resist James Earl Jones kitty? Most importantly, it hooks kids. Kids. Watching Shakespeare. And LIKING IT!

So- support the plot, don’t confuse the audience, and remember- you’re playing Shakespeare, not your own demented twisted version of some dream you had when you were five.

March 25, 2009

Bard On Screen

Hello poor, neglected blog. I missed you- I truly did.

In an effort to find a topic I was enthused enough about to post on, a thought occurred to me. Shakespeare on Film.

In many ways, contemporary society has replaced the theatre with film. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a social media. It was a way to interact with not only your neighbors, but also the actors on the stage- to connect with the community in a very vocal and vivacious way. It was loud, raucous and boisterous- a far cry from the snooty opera boxes which come to the contemporary mind. Unless you happen to live in New York, chances are you’ve never been to a showing of a movie where individuals yelled at the screen in an effort to communicate with the characters. In our subdued, Freudian, inside-voice culture it is something highly frowned upon. What good would it do us anyway? The actors are not there in person, it is merely a projection of them we see before us. This impersonal artform leaves us with perhaps a more intimate perspective (we can, after all, watch the sweat trickle from Johnny Depp’s forehead in a film), and yet a less human one.

Despite all of this, film remains a social exercise. One goes to the movies on dates or with friends. Movies are a topic of general discussion as they are common ground- I can watch a movie from my living room and discuss said movie with someone across the country because the performance remains the same.

In general, Shakespeare on film is divided into two categories: made-for-film screenplays (like much of Kenneth Branaugh’s work), and taped stage plays. I will be discussing the former as taped stage plays have a whole slew of other complications.

We heard it from our High School English teachers and thereby it is forever engrained in one’s mind: do NOT watch the movie before you read the book. In the case of Shakespeare, I tend to disagree generally. Shakespeare, after all, is meant to be played before an audience- not read. It takes a well-trained mindset to read and make sense of Early Modern English. Many “Shakespeare virgins” find it difficult to understand on the page- and really who could blame them? The sentence structure is entirely different often times from what we use today, the words are frequently spelled differently, there is no sense of rhythm, key-words, or intonation. Shakespeare needs actors to breathe life into it. The great bard himself did not write to publish but rather for his ACTORS. Therefore, throw away your preconceived notions- if you want to love Shakespeare don’t go picking up a folgers, rent a good movie.

That being said, there are a surprising amount of bad film adaptations out there. Overall, I am extremely enthused with the work of Kenneth Brannaugh (his Love’s Labours Lost I believe is truly a triumph of the Shakespeare-to-film genre). He takes liberties on occasion (aforementioned Love’s Labours Lost, As you Like it, Othello, the infamous FIVE HOUR HAMLET…), but he’s KENNETH BRANNAUGH! The man has worked for those liberties and deserves to take them. He consistently puts forth an excellent, accessible film which is engaging and entertaining.

The largest problem with most Shakespeare on film is that it simply lacks vivacity. The film genre is by its nature more subdued than live theatre. The cameras show us the actors from a distance unattainable on a stage, thereby the acting style must be altered to accommodate. Truly, stage techniques when filmed often appear garish and overdone. And, to me, this is where the life in Shakespeare lies.

Shakespeare writes big characters- he never does anything by halves. Hotspur, Juliet, Sir Toby, Lady Macbeth- these are people who can barely be contained in the human body much less facial expressions. They require air, space, and above all human contact to bring properly to life. Wild, wacky antics on the camera are reduced down to their core- something which makes the thick language of Shakespeare difficult to palate. When Shakespeare doesn’t move and breathe and run from hot to cold in a millisecond, it dies.

A second major complication of Shakespeare to film is the lack of subtext. There is no subtext in Shakespeare. Anything a character thinks is said- perhaps in veiled terms or a metaphor- but nothing is left below the surface. There is no deeper meaning to hint at, nothing below the truly scrumptious language to dig into. I believe that most film actors rely on these kinds of subtext to deliver a performance. It is difficult to mean every word you say. But if you can’t trust Shakespeare to deliver truth from text, who can you trust?

Film is a director’s media. It uses pictures to tell a story. Shakespeare is entirely in his words. The word “audience” holds its roots in the Latin work “audientum” meaning “a hearing, listening”. When the Elizabethans came to the theatre, it was to “hear” a play not to “see” a play. The words of Shakespeare simply do not translate well to the visual media of film. It takes a skilled hand to make such a transition, one that (sadly) most directors and actors lack.

So… watch Shakespeare. But, more importantly, hear Shakespeare. And do your research- if the film stars some young, hip, pop-culture icons and leaves out the old RSC gang entirely, you should probably find something better to do with those three hours of your life.