Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English,
April 12, 2012

At the beginning of a Shakespeare class I typically ask students about their previous experience with Shakespeare. Most students have already read one play, and if that’s the only play they’ve read, it is almost always Romeo and Juliet. Others have read a couple of plays, or a large handful. One student in the fall Paideia I lecture on 1 Henry IV said that he had read all thirty-six of the plays (Good work—you know who you are!).

A fair number of students also say that they have seen a Shakespeare play or two. But on further inquiry I find that very few of these students have seen plays in a live theater. Rather, they have seen the plays as movies.

What interests me is that these students consider a theater and movie performance interchangeable. In fact it often turns out that some of the students who say they’ve “read” a Shakespeare play actually mean that they’ve seen the movie.

In other words, movies—no big news here!—are so prevalent a medium for today’s students that they treat them as the most natural way in which to experience Shakespeare.

The only problem is that movies are in fact not “natural.” They are an art form, with their own features, conventions and context, things which we’re likely to overlook if we consider them natural.

I’m not going to attempt here to give a complete introduction to film as a medium. Rather, my aim is to encourage your attendance at Michael Anderegg’s Thursday night lecture highlighted in this article’s sidebar. Anderegg is a major film scholar who I’ve brought to campus because two of his books are centrally concerned with Shakespeare. His focus will be the play that most of you have read, “Romeo and Juliet.”

I do want, however, to make just a couple of points in preparation for Anderegg’s lecture:

One: Shakespeare’s work has inspired more films than the works of any other writer. I’m sure one could argue about a few of that assertion’s key words—e.g., “Shakespeare’s,” “work,” “has inspired,” “more,” “films” – And to top it off, I can’t right now find the original citation of this claim. Still, it’s a rather remarkable “fact.”

Two: As Anderegg points out in his book Cinematic Shakespeare, most Shakespeare films include a lot of words, generally the words from Shakespeare’s written texts. Thus it is almost inevitable that our previous experience with the text will somehow influence our response to a Shakespeare film. And I’m tempted to say that a person’s exposure to any remnants of Shakespeare’s text (e.g., Hamlet soliloquies used for beer ads, Julius Caesar speeches used by preachers) will make a person see the film through the lens of Shakespeare’s language. And it’s almost impossible to be literate and not to have been exposed to some Shakespeare text. So when it comes to a “Shakespeare film,” none of us is unplowed soil.

Three: Film is a visual medium. Film is a lot of things, but it’s always visual. This works great when a Shakespeare scene is visual, or is describing something visual. When Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane (“Macbeth”), the hills are alive with the sight of moving trees. If the text includes the description of a ghost startled, like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons, then the film can convey that startled movement, even though the filmmaker does have to decide how much a ghost ought to look like a ghost. But if Shakespeare gives a character a speech that is not particularly visual in a very non-visual situation, that can be a problem that a visually-minded film director can only solve by offering a lot of hyped-up visual drinks and condiments.

Four: The greatest influence on students’ study of Shakespeare is Walt Disney. Not because Disney has produced any Shakespeare movies (or has it??), but because the images of Disney films (the castles and forests, heroes and villains, the faithful supporting workers) have so infiltrated our minds that they spontaneously erupt into life when we read anything that the images can attach themselves to.

Five: A note to my most faithful Chips readers: No, I have not yet seen “Anonymous,” nor “Coriolanus.” Am I going to have to wait until they’re out on DVD?

Six: See you Thursday night, and a week from Friday. Or sooner, if you’re in “Introduction to the English Language,” “Production Studio,” or “Design I,” which I’m visiting as part of my “Shakespeare Across the Curriculum” initiative.