Shakespeare in the Movies

Antony and Cleopatra (to be released in the United States later this year)

directed by Charlton Heston

Macbeth

directed by Roman Polanski

King Lear

directed by Peter Brook

Piety, as we’ve all discovered by now, won’t get us anywhere. If Shakespeare has a right to attention, that right must be established again and again. The authority that establishes it has itself to be proved by demonstration, not by the old appeal to the dead, the sanctity of what has been accepted always, everywhere, and by everybody. Some of the men who direct his plays on stage or on film are intensely aware of this, and of the fact that their giant, if he is to live at all, must live in change. There was a time, in the history of the movies, when a man might make a version of a Shakespeare play and expect it to last for many years. That time has passed, not only because television can exhaust the movie almost at one shot (as it did Olivier’s Richard III) but because the very concept of the “classic” performance has withered.

Shakespeare is a willing but restless collaborator; his fidelity is to next year’s language. He has never, like true classical drama, required that if rapport is to be kept up, the whole culture must hold itself in a position of fidelity. He can be made new in far more possible ways than Racine or the Japanese No play. Obviously the cinema has advantages as a setting for the wrestling match between this angel and the bold director.

Roger Manvell, in his useful and well-illustrated survey of the history of filmed Shakespeare, makes the point that the cinema can, much better than the modern theater, match the fluidity of action on the Shakespearean stage. This is too obvious to dwell on, since the forty-odd scenes of Antony and Cleopatra or the arrival of a forest at Macbeth’s castle, or of a ghost at his banquet, present no real difficulty to the movies, and though modern stage directors have found how to do most of these things there are still problems, as the sad stage history of Macbeth demonstrates. And as Manvell rightly remarks, much more is required than fluidity. He emphasizes the problem (peculiar of course to English versions) of ensuring that what we see endorses rather than replaces the text, “points” rather than usurps it. As George Bernard Shaw observed in 1936, “It is extraordinary how much can be spoiled if you let the photographer…get the upper hand. There is the human voice; you have the verse and the lines. They may be deliberately distorted for some reason, but you have to be careful.”

Some of these difficulties are primarily technical—Manvell reprints an interesting conversation with Peter Hall that explores them—but others go deeper. It’s still harder to get an actor to say the lines right than to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, and it’s harder still to rethink imaginatively the text of the play without falling into fanciful perversity. Granted, any archaeological reproduction of a Shakespeare play will certainly be a dead …

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