“These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air: and, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Shakespeare may have revolutionized the English language, invented or at least popularized countless words and phrases that we use every day, and possibly—if you subscribe to Harold Bloom’s hyperbole—invented human beings, but it’s the cinematic adaptations of his work that have made the most immediate and indelible imprint on our consciousness. You may not have read Romeo and Juliet since middle school, but you almost certainly remember Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio peering at each other through a fish tank. Chances are good you’ve never read Hamlet in its entirety (or made it through all 242 minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s adaption), but you’ve definitely got a mental image of a thoroughly depressed man in black, gesticulating with a skull and talking a lot about his mom’s sex life.
Reading the texts of the plays is endlessly rewarding, and has been one of the principle literary pleasures of my life, but Shakespeare’s work was always intended to be experienced visually and aurally. The scholar Russel Jackson, in an essay included in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, notes that "the images and sounds—the visions—that Shakespeare has provoked in filmmakers will remain potent in the context of any medium. Olivier's French cavalry charge, Welles's Falstaff in the snow and Kurosawa's arrow-pierced Washizu could not have existed without Shakespeare, could only have been achieved for the cinema, and will continue to imprint themselves on the way viewers perceive not only Shakespeare films, but also their play-script originals."
My own personal favorites include Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s adaptations of Hamlet and King Lear, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (an idiosyncratic take on the Henry IV plays, starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix), the epic BBC production The Hollow Crown, and the 2009 RSC production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant. If you’re at all interested in experiencing Shakespeare’s plays for yourself, I highly recommend the following films. These are accessible and entertaining adaptations, which are largely faithful to the source material and may serve as gateways to further viewing.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Directed by notable nerd Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers), this adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays does just about everything right. Viewers have reveled in the caustic courtship of Beatrice and Benedick for centuries, and Whedon wisely keeps their relationship front and center. It has been suggested that the rapid-fire banter between Beatrice and Benedick in some ways prefigures the antagonistic dynamic common to later couples in popular media, from Jane Austen’s protagonists to the romantic leads of 1930s screwball comedies. Apparently there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching two people who despise each other begrudgingly fall in love.
Richard III (1955)
Laurence Olivier famously adapted three of Shakespeare’s plays for the big screen: an overtly nationalistic version of Henry V, released during World War II; an appropriately moody adaptation of Hamlet, released in 1948; and finally, Richard III. All three films have their merits, but Richard III is easily the most fun. Armed with an oddly comical wig and the requisite limp, Olivier is delightfully villainous as the “foul bunch-backed toad” of the House of York. The influence of Olivier’s performance as Richard, which sometimes verges on camp, has been enduring and surprisingly varied. For instance, punk rock icon Johnny Rotten has cited Olivier’s Richard as an influence on his own stage persona.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, and starring Sir Ian McKellen as the title character and Dame Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, this performance of the Scottish Play is deservedly legendary. Performed with minimal props on a set that is alternately dark and pitch-black, the stark production values allow the chilling source material to cast its spell on viewers. Sir Ian has—correctly, in my view—described it as a “horror movie.”
The Hollow Crown (2012)
This lavish BBC production of Shakespeare’s Henriad—the sequential history plays Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V—boasts a wealth of talent. Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, Ben Wishaw as King Richard II, Jeremy Irons as the usurper, Henry IV. But adaptations of the Henriad live or die on the strength of the actor portraying John Falstaff, and there is no better Falstaff than Simon Russell Beale. The relationship between Falstaff and the future King Henry V is among the most complex in all of Shakespeare; venal, manipulative, laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Finally, if you happen to be preparing for a role in a Shakespeare production and are seeking a helpful resource, legendary Shakespearean actor and exemplary human being Ian McKellen has got you covered: Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare. (Though I would argue that everything one needs to know about acting is succinctly and hilariously explained by Sir Ian in this scene from Extras.) While some of Shakespeare’s plays are infrequently performed, stage productions of all of them can be found on DVD in the complete dramatic works of William Shakespeare, which includes everything from The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Henry VIII.