Thursday, June 15, 2006

Shakespeare Goes to Hollywood

I love watching Shakespeare's plays. However, as we all cannot go to the theater at every opportunity, nor do we all have a good theater near us, film offers another option in the enjoyment of the Bard's works. Now they can be done poorly (alas, Mel Gibson, you could have been a great Hamlet but were not), but even the badly done versions and interpretations can give a Shakespearean scholar some insight into the play. After all, they were meant to be watched, not read.

I've seen many of the film version of the plays and have enjoyed a good majority of them. Versions with Kenneth Branaugh are usually a good bet: he plays a chilling Iago in Othello, a tormented Prince in Hamlet, and a Machiavellian king in Henry V, just to name a few. I also enjoyed A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and most recently Twelfth Night.

Which leads me to my post--Twelfth Night. An enchanting comedy about love, disguise, and marriage, the story begins with a shipwreck and the separation of a brother and sister, who just happen to be twins. The sister, Viola, disguises herself as a young man, Cessario, so she can move through society, falls in love with the Duke Orsino, who asks Cessario to woo Olivia for him, who then falls in love with Viola as Cessario. When Sebastian, Viola's twin, reappears, confusion ensues, but ends gracefully as a comedy usually does, with weddings. The play was enjoyable to read, but it wasn't until I watched it that some of the points really hit home. It's amazing how an actor or actress can lend meaning to the lines by how they are said, facial expressions, or other non-verbal additions.

For example, Viola spends most of the play disguised as a man. When reading the play, I didn't really think much about the difficulties that might arise from being a woman who everyone thinks is a man. The movie brought this out brilliantly with several scenes: Viola, as Cessario, is practicing fencing. The fencing instructor comes to correct her form and places a hand on her chest over a hidden breast underneath, whereupon an uncomfortable Viola moves his hand away. Another scene finds Viola encountering her master, the Duke, who happens to be bathing. (Remember that she's in love with him). She responds like a gentlewoman ought, by averting her eyes, but at the same time, she has to try to pretend that it's not a big deal. He also gets her to wash his back which so disturbs her, as a woman, that she shaking drops the sponge and finds an excuse to leave.

None of these idesa were conveyed by reading it, but the film's director (or a play's producer) has to be able to understand what should be said without words to create a film that is both beautiful and alive. Thus our advantage as readers (and scholars) of Shakespeare is to watch different versions (film or live) and observe the differing interpretations. We also have the opportunity to derive more meaning from the words by watching a play after reading it and see the scenes, characters, and language come vividly to life.

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