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Cinematic Narration and Shakespeare's Plays

Many of the limitations William Shakespeare faced in the technical facilities of the Elizabethan stage are answered in the nature and abilities of modern film. Where Shakespeare seemed to yearn for a way to express the true colors of his vision through words, film offers a ready palette and the ability to "show" what Shakespeare could only "tell." Shakespeare's theater, with its lack of technical resources, painted verbal pictures of battlefields and fantastical places, scenes and exchanges in a span of places from the underworld to the heavens, and snapshots of a character's inner thoughts and feelings, entirely through words. By its nature and technical abilities film has a broader visual vocabulary available to it than Shakespeare's theater could ever access.

In Henry V the chorus laments the limitations of Shakespeare's Elizabethan stage:
. . . Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram,
Within this wooden O, the very casques,
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may
Attest, in little place, a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
In director and actor Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, preeminent British classical actor of the first post-Olivier generation, Derek Jacobi, spoke these words of the chorus' prologue from the backstage of a modern theater. Jacobi's speech ended on the stage, where the play's opening scene is expected to begin. However the battle scene that follows is not in fact filmed on a stage, but on a 15th Century battlefield. By filming the opening sequence in this manner, Branagh both acknowledges and shatters the limitations Shakespeare faced on his Elizabethan stage, and opens a door for the cinematic narrator to offer its unique and virtually unlimited contribution to the production.

In a similar manner, Branagh's 2006 adaptation of Shakespeare's As You Like It takes us behind the scenes of its actual filming when Rosalind (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) delivers the play's epilogue among the actors' trailers and the general hubbub of the crew. Film's ability to break the fourth wall opens new realms for the cinematic narrator, bringing an intimacy between actor, filmmaker, and audience which Shakespeare could only experience in his dreams. This intimacy introduces the other end of a spectrum available to the cinematic narrator, ranging from spectacle to minute detail, and outlines its possible contribution to the filming of Shakespeare's plays.

But the modern cinematic narrator's contribution to the filming of Shakespeare's plays is not merely technical. The cinematic voice is the product of its own day and age just as much as the voice of Shakespeare. In "Shakespeare and the Cinema," Russell Jackson, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, observes:
To an extent, the history of Shakespearian film-making is one of variations on this theme: shifting attitudes to the Shakespearian source material, varied objectives, and changing techniques.
So the adaptation of Shakespeare to film serves the needs of both play and filmmaker, and the cinematic narration developed for each individual film will be dictated by the attitudes, objectives and techniques applied to the material.

The Shakespearean canon offers a nearly comprehensive palette of human emotion and experience with ready-made scenarios to match each filmmaker's objective. However, public opinion about the individual plays continues to change. The play As You Like It, although neglected in performance for more than a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616, has been a popular play on the stage ever since. Although The Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies, interpretation of the play's commentary about women changes with the times. While few would dispute the numerous merits of The Merchant of Venice, its anti-Semitic themes have caused the work to fall out of fashion at times when these themes could not be readily justified. Attitudes about Shakespeare himself continue to change throughout the years; while he is often hailed as a great genius who has made numerous contributions to the English language as well as our overall understanding of humanity and the individual, at other times even his existence has been called into question and William Shakespeare has been thought to be the compiled penname for several writers of the Elizabethan stage.

In an interview for his 2006 film adaptation of As You Like It, director Kenneth Branagh spoke of his objectives for filming Shakespeare:
I felt as though I was watching Shakespeare across the generations and in a new medium - - sort of waving the flag and saying, We're not telling you this is better than anything you'll ever see but we think it's wonderful.
By nature of its creative flexibility, film opens the door to radical objectives and the use of distinctive narrative voices. Director Baz Luhrmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sought to update the play with a radical approach intended to appeal to a broad audience. However, it may be argued this adaptation pales in comparison to Franco Zeffirelli's unforgettable 1968 film, which handled the material in a more traditional manner and is now considered a film classic. Addressing this capacity of film, and perhaps implying some restraint should be exercised in its use, Kenneth Branagh said:
When you make a film of a subject that existed in another medium - particularly in the theatre, where it's worked as a play for four hundred years - I think one is obliged to consider what the cinema can do to reveal the story of the play that the theatre can't do in the same way. I'm not suggesting one is better than the other, but simply, what can the medium do? Why do it in the cinema?
While the quality and influence of Shakespeare's plays may be a common reason they are adapted into film, these works have also been used as vehicles for promoting and preserving the work of individual actors. Sir Laurence Olivier's film performances of Shakespeare, which include King Lear (1983), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), As You Like It (1936), Richard III (1955), and The Merchant of Venice (1973) are currently valued more for their preservation of work by such a legendary actor than their other cinematic merits.

It could be said Shakespeare's plays lend themselves to screen adaptation more readily than scripts from modern theater. A modern play frequently must be "opened up" so the visual narrative of film may be more fully applied, even though this process of opening is likely to superimpose new ideas onto the original play. Where modern theater seems to have been influenced by cinema and television, presenting dialogue virtually void of descriptive language, the plays of William Shakespeare give us language rich in narrative. With Shakespeare's plays the material for cinematic narration is often readily available in the existing text and may simply be translated into an artistic and effective visual representation. Coupled with modern cinema's technical capacities, the wealth of description present in much of Shakespeare's work may be more fully appreciated and realized than could ever have been possible on the Elizabethan stage.

But for all the literary and descriptive quality of Shakespeare's plays, they may be more effective as film when careful consideration is given to the development of an appropriate cinematic narrator and that narrator is given a clear voice in the film's execution. The plays have been filmed countless times and with varied amounts of cinematic intervention. On the one hand we have extreme makeovers such as the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You, based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew but set in a modern high school and rewritten in prose. Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Romeo and Juliet stayed much closer to the original, both the text and the setting. Both films can claim success on very different levels, but they share the benefit of a strong directorial vision translated into a distinctive style and use of cinematic narration. Russell Jackson said:
Films based on Shakespeare's plays are best considered in terms of their vision - that is, the imaginary world they create, and the way of seeing it that they offer the viewer rather than the degree of their faithfulness to a Shakespearean original.
One of the most obvious characteristics in any of Shakespeare's plays is his use of language, and in particular his use of blank verse. Actors on the Elizabethan stage did not enjoy the benefits of electronic amplification, so clarity was a major concern of any playwright when assigning words to an actor. Like other playwrights of his day, Shakespeare employed the use of iambic pentameter when constructing his lines. Iambic pentameter depends on an oral rhythm which approximates natural speech but almost magically makes it easier for an audience to hear and understand. Each line contains a series of alternating weak and strong stresses on its words. The combination of one weak and one strong syllable creates what is called a foot, and each line contains five such feet. Built upon iambic pentameter, blank verse was a helpful tool for the Elizabethan stage, but not an obvious one for modern film. Consequently, many filmmakers place little importance on their actors' use of these elements in the blank verse even though Shakespeare's use of iambic pentameter often carries instruction to the actors and hints about his intended meanings. A modern filmmaker may decide to ignore how and why Shakespeare used blank verse, but he does so at his own peril and his final interpretation of the work might suffer.

Antony's famous speech from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is written in blank verse. In general, when a Shakespearean actor comes across a line which seems to have more or less than five feet, it is likely an adjustment should be made in pronunciation. For example, in Antony's speech, the word "ambitious" is pronounced with four syllables and not three like we generally use today. The word "interred" is meant to contain three syllables as well, indicated by the number of feet in the line. But if you allow the form to flow, without fighting the rhythms, not only is it easier to hear the lines, but you begin to hear Shakespeare's own acting directions, indicating which word is stressed and therefore important. Often the stresses in a line can change or at least clarify the meaning. The stress given to the word "ambitious" throughout the speech, both by the number of syllables and the frequency of repetition, is underscored by the rhythm. We see this is a speech about ambition, but not necessarily about the ambition of Caesar. Because it is stressed, and repeated, then followed by "Yet Brutus is an honorable man" we get the idea Antony might actually be saying Brutus was the ambitious one, and not Caesar.

Another obvious characteristic of Shakespeare's language is its descriptive qualities. Because the Elizabethan stage did not use more than the most minimal bits of scenery to depict location and time of day, playwrights alluded to such details through the dialogue. Dialogue was also used to describe events which might be difficult to depict on the stage, or to relay information which the characters on stage might not otherwise be privy to. Because film carries such a wide range of possibilities, anything from voiceovers and flashbacks to quick editing and the ability to bring any time or feeling into the scene, Shakespeare's allusions within the text, although they are often beautiful, may easily be handed off to the cinematic narrator's duties. What remains next is for the filmmaker to decide if this descriptive dialogue is necessary or if it becomes redundant when these things can be shown in other ways.

Aside from a lack of scenery, the Elizabethan stage's use of costuming was minimal as well and actors generally wore "modern dress" whether the play took place in Elizabethan England or ancient Rome. Modern film actors are usually dressed in costumes accurate to the story's time and culture, again reducing the need for descriptive language which identifies a play's locale. Modern filmmakers often stray from the setting Shakespeare intended for his plays, adding yet another discretionary element to the director's plate and another instance where the original language might best be cut. Director Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream changes the location from Greece to Italy and moves the time a few hundred years from its original era. Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It sets the tale in a British enclave of feudal Japan.

It is impossible to know how Shakespeare himself might approach the filming of his plays if he were alive today, of course. Freed from the constraints of his Elizabethan stage, we can only guess what the Bard of Avon might have given us. Perhaps he would have left out much of the descriptive sections within his plays, or maybe he would retain them for their poetic contributions. Of course Shakespeare would realize an almost unlimited palette of times and locations for his plays, but perhaps he would have rejected their importance and focused even more on the interactions between characters. Or perhaps Shakespeare would have transferred a portion of his writing from the pen to the camera, using each tool for its inherent strengths and understanding their weaknesses. What we do know is the cinematic narration in a modern film may be used to enhance what we already have in Shakespeare's plays, the only challenge comes in knowing where and how much of the focus to give that narrator.

Works cited.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. "Film Narrative and the Other Arts." Film Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 341-344.
Jackson, Russell. "Shakespeare and the Cinema." The Cambridge Companion To Shakespeare. Ed. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 217-233.

"Lawrence Olivier." IMDb: The Internet Movie Database., 1990-2009. 05 July, 2009. <>

"Online Exclusive With Kenneth Branagh." HBO Films. HBO Films, 2006. 05 July, 2009. <>

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