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The Ghost at the Feast

The celebration already anticipates the incipient hangover; as soon as the play ends, Theseus and Hippolyta will settle into a loveless marriage, and the young lovers will begin to realize that their lives will not improve on the mysteries of the vision they have just woken from. The hilarity of a good feast, with Pyramus and Thisby for entertainment, may in fact be as good as it is ever going to get. The play needs only itself to confirm that the magic is real; the production adds the somewhat waspish acknowledgment that it is also unattainable outside the theatrical moment.

Shakespeare, more than anyone else,” writes Miller of this production, “recognized that the stage is a place in which blatant pretense is a perfectly satisfactory alternative to miraculous illusion.” By eliminating decoration, by favoring the matter-of-fact social function of the language over its poetry, Miller lets us see Dream in skeletal form. Nothing essential is lost because the play turns out not to be about fairies any more than it is about weekend country-house parties in the 1930s. If it is about anything it is about the music of thought, which is why William Hazlitt considered the play intrinsically unstageable. Indeed, it may well have been unstageable in 1816 when, at Covent Garden, Hazlitt saw it “converted from a delightful fiction into a dull pantomime…. Fairies are not incredible, but fairies six feet high are so.”2 Perhaps—and wouldn’t it be odd if it were so—the art of performing these plays to their fullest advantage is only now being invented.

But where, and for how many, they will be performed remains a question. It is a long way from the familial intimacy of the Almeida—with its audience and actors exquisitely attuned to each other, and a seating capacity one tenth of Shakespeare’s own playhouse (300 against the Globe’s 3,000)—to the wider and colder world of multiplexes and cable television and the megastores in which the shiny video boxes containing Hamlet and Twelfth Night will have to compete on equal terms with Mars Attacks! and Beavis and Butt-head Do America. It’s a world that’s hard on old material, even as it pays lip service to what is “vintage” or “immortal”; where the earlier Shakespeare films are apt to turn up under rubrics such as Nostalgia or Classic Hollywood, and a phrase like “timeless classic” is just as likely to be applied to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy as to Henry V.

Shakespeare movies have never exactly been a genre in the same sense as cowboy pictures or musicals. There have never been enough of them, for one thing; although the record books cite astonishing numbers of adaptations, most turn out to have been made in the silent era. As for the filmmakers who have seriously explored the stylistic possibilities of Shakespeare adaptations, the list is very small: Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski, and a few others. In any event it’s something of a genre apart; there are regular movies, and then there are Shakespeare movies.

Kenneth Branagh, who kicked off this particular cycle of Shakespearean revival with his 1989 Henry V, challenged the distinction. With a defiance worthy of the victor of Agincourt he demonstrated that Laurence Oliver’s Shakespeare films of the Forties and Fifties, and the performance style they embodied, could no longer be regarded as definitive. He also undertook to make a genuinely popular movie, against odds stiffer than those Olivier faced, at a moment when more than ever before Shakespearean language had to fight for a hearing. Henry V played at the local multiplex alongside Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and it was obvious that Branagh was prepared to meet that competition on its own ground.

Yet for all its superficial indications of pop refurbishing—Derek Jacobi’s playing the Chorus in modern dress and wandering among the trappings of a movie studio, or Branagh’s Henry striding, to the accompaniment of strident electronic wheezing, into a medieval council chamber framed to look as much as possible like the inner precincts of Star Wars‘ Darth Vader—the new Henry V gave signs of an almost purist agenda. To a degree unusual in Shakespeare movies, one had the impression of having actually sat through a production of the play. Branagh restored many scenes—Henry’s entrapment of the traitorous English lords, his threats of massacre at Harfleur, the hanging of his old companion Bardolph—that would have detracted from Olivier’s single-minded depiction of heroic national effort (although even Branagh could not bring himself to include the English king’s injunction to “cut the throats of those we have”).

What was most strikingly different was the level of intimacy at which Branagh’s film was pitched. The Olivier version of 1944 clearly occupied a niche quite separate from the other films of its moment, delivering in clarion tones a classical language inspiring but remote. For Branagh this was no longer an available choice. The continued power of Henry V was not to be taken for granted; what for Olivier had been a universally recognized (if far from universally enjoyed) cultural monument now had to defend itself.

The chief point of Branagh’s direction was to keep the language in front of the audience at all times, with Derek Jacobi’s clipped, almost haranguing delivery leading the way. The job of the actor was to clarify, line by line and word by word, not just the general purport of what the character was feeling, but the exact function of every remark, as if some kind of match were being scored. Abrupt changes of vocal register, startling grimaces and seductive smiles, every actorly device served to maintain awareness that absolutely every moment had its singular thrust, and thereby to keep the audience from being lulled into an iambic doze. The result was a more pointed, even jabbing style, a tendency to deflate sonority in favor of exact meaning, while at the same time giving the meter of the verse a musician’s respect, and the rhetorical substructure a lawyer’s questioning eye.

As I first listened, in that same multiplex, to the accents of Henry V—“But pardon, gentles all,/The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared/On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object”—transmitted in Dolby Stereo, an unanticipated excitement took hold. It didn’t matter that I could read those words any time, or pop a video of the Olivier film into the VCR. The thrill was to hear them in the multiplex, in that public space from which the possibility of such language had been essentially barred. Here was real home-cooked bread, water from the source. It was possible to imagine that the strangers around me shared a similar unarticulated longing for a strain of expression that the culture seemed programmed to withhold.


Everyone who subscribes to cable television has had the experience of switching rapidly from channel to channel and hearing at every stop the same tones and inflections, the same vocabulary, the same messages: a language flattened and reduced to a shifting but never very large repertoire of catchphrases and slogans, a language into which advertisers have so successfully insinuated their strategies that the consumers themselves turn into walking commercials. It is a dialect of dead ends and perpetual arbitrary switch-overs, intended always to sell but more fundamentally to fill time: a necessary substitute for dead air. Whether in movies or television dramas, talk shows or political speeches or “infotainment” specials hawking hair dyes and exercise machines, the homogenization of speech, the exclusion of anything resembling figurative language or rhetorical complexity or any remotely extravagant eloquence or wordplay or (it goes without saying) historical or literary allusions of any kind whatever, becomes so self-evident that the only defense is that winking tone of faux inanity of which the ineffable “whatever” seems to be an ironic acknowledgment. By contrast the dialogue in the old Hollywood movies unreeling randomly night and day—The Road to Rio or The Falcon in San Francisco or The File on Thelma Jordan—seems already to partake of some quite vanished classical age: how soon before it, too, needs footnotes?

Nothing leads from or to anything; the show rolls on because it isn’t time for the next show yet. It is talk without any but the most short-term memory, as if language were not to be permitted its own past, a state of affairs which makes language in some sense impossible. In this context Shakespeare assumes an ever-stranger role as he becomes the voice of a past increasingly less accessible and less tractable, the ghost at the fast-food feast. If in translation Shakespeare can remain our contemporary, in English he carries his language with him, a language by now almost accusatory in its richness when compared with the weirdly rootless and impoverished speech of Medialand. “I learn immediately from any speaker,” wrote Emerson, “how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech.”3 But there is no telling what a four-hundred-year-old man will be saying; the older he gets, the more it changes, and we no longer know if we really want to hear everything. It is like peering into a flowerpot full of twisted vines and splotched discolored lichen surviving improbably from some ancient plot.

It is absurd that Shakespeare alone should have to bear this burden, as if the whole of the European past rested in him alone, but that’s only because nearly everyone else has already been consigned to the oblivion of the archives. We aren’t likely to get (speaking only of the English tradition) the Geoffrey Chaucer movie, the Edmund Spenser movie, the John Webster movie, the John Milton movie, the William Congreve movie, the Laurence Sterne movie, or even the Herman Melville movie; and the Bible movies, when they appear, owe more these days to the cadences of Xena: Warrior Princess than to those of King James. (One of Orson Welles’s last and most quixotic film projects was a movie of Moby-Dick consisting of himself, in close-up, reading the novel against an empty blue background.) Shakespeare has to stand, all by himself, for centuries of expressive language erased by common consent from the audiovisual universe which is our theater and library and public square.

If Shakespeare movies are to be worth making at all, they can hardly duck the language. It isn’t simply that the language cannot be handled gingerly or parceled out in acceptably telegraphic excerpts; the words must be entered, explored, reveled in. Syntax must be part of screen space. (The new sensitivity of recording technology, with its potential for communicating an awareness of depth and distance, serves admirably toward that end.) How refreshing it proves occasionally to reverse the primacy (not to say tyranny) of the visual, that fundamental tenet of filmmaking textbooks.

Disregard this problem of language and the upshot can be something like Baz Luhrmann’s high-speed, high-concept William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There is no real reason why Luhrmann’s updating could not have worked; the whole mix, complete with automatic weapons, hip-hop cadences, religious kitsch, and teen sex, could have added up to the kaleidoscopic excitement obviously intended. As it is, the compulsive cleverness of the postmodernization—Friar Lawrence sending his message to Romeo by Federal Express, members of the Capulet and Montague gangs sporting CAP and MON license plates—keeps undercutting the teen pathos to the point of parodying it. However amusing Luhrmann’s conceits of characterization (Lady Capulet as blowsy Lana Turner wannabe, Mercutio as drag queen), they seem to have strayed in from his more charming debut feature Strictly Ballroom.

  1. 2

    William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (Chelsea House, 1983), p. 95.

  2. 3

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Essays and Lectures (Library of America, 1983), p. 62.

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