Shakespeare and the Movies Essay

This essay has a total of 2357 words and 10 pages.

Shakespeare and the Movies

Shakespeare and the Movies

What is it about the works of William Shakespeare that appeal to us today? Is it the
poetry, the violence, the humor, or the romance? Is it because all of these things relate
to our times? No. These aspects of Shakespeare's plays have always appealed to audiences.
Shakespeare's plays are timeless, and due to this enduring significance, the Bard's works
have easily translated to film. Scarcely a Shakespearean play has not been made and remade
numerous times into to a movie, and more often than not the film is either a hit at the
box office or critically acclaimed. There is something about Shakespeare that has
continued to capture the attention of audiences for the past four hundred years. In our
present age of short-attention spans and exploding graphics, it is difficult to imagine
that literature and poetry could attract people to the movies, but it seems that film has
become the best medium for Shakespeare. All that the stage once limited can now be seen at
the movies in its full glory; what the Bard wrote for everybody may now be known visually
and in total splendor.


In Taming of the Shrew, we are presented with the story of a very independent woman and a
very controlling man in an Elizabethan Battle of the Sexes. Appropriately, the female
submits to the male and all is happy and well. For many, this is certainly not the best
story to update to the present era of liberated women. On the contrary, Taming of the
Shrew is an ideal film to update to our time. In 1967, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton
starred in Franco Zeffirelli's version of Taming. For those familiar with the history of
the 20th century, you may recall that the 1960's are somewhat notable for the women's
liberation movement. Zeffirelli directed a film that, on the surface, advocates female
obedience to males. Upon careful inspection, however, it can be seen that submission was
not the message at all. When Shakespeare wrote Taming, Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne
of England. Elizabeth was a famous shrew who ruled alone without the aid of a man. Such
autonomy by females was not commonplace and certainly not appreciated. So when this
playwright named William Shakespeare came out with this story of a strong-willed woman
being tamed by a brutish man, many felt it was a commentary on Elizabeth and an
appropriate way for a woman to behave. Shakespeare may have had another message to send.
The shrew Katrina is starved and sleep deprived before she submits to her husband
Petruchio. Was Shakespeare saying that a woman must be beaten down before she gives in? Or
perhaps that the only thing that defeats a strong female spirit is madness? Either way, it
is obvious that Shakespeare was making a statement about "appropriate" behavior for men
and women of his world. Zeffirelli took this statement, and using the Bard's own words,
made a statement for his own time. Was Zeffirelli saying that women should obey men? This
was probably not his message. In the final scene where Katrina gives her speech on the
duty of the obedient wife, Shakespeare had written that both Petruchio and Katrina exit
together. Zeffirelli gave his ending a slight but poignant twist, this being that Katrina
leaves on her own while Petruchio, oblivious, delivers his triumphal speech of having
subdued his wife. The director seems to indicate that Petruchio has not tamed Katrina at
all, but rather has gotten what she wanted (food, sleep, etc.) by giving her husband a
false sense of dominance. When considering the context in which this film was made, the
message appears entirely fitting.

Other aspects of Zeffirelli's Taming were designed to appeal to his audience. Aside from
the technical differences from Shakespeare's original staging, like the use of real women
and the ability to film in an analogous setting, the 1960's Taming offered more physical
comedy, more sexiness (i.e., the almost sex-scene between Petruchio and Katrina), and more
of the story relied on action versus Shakespeare's poetry. The words of the play seemed a
bit downplayed to allow for what audiences love - sex and comedy. Not to say that the
Elizabethan audience didn't want sex and comedy, but they certainly did not have a Three
Stooges mindset for what was funny. The modern viewers often require an emphasis of the
visual comedy to be entertained and Zeffirelli satisfied that requirement in his
translation of the play.

In our present cultural context, there are a few problems of Taming of the Shrew.
Obviously, a wife's submission to her husband is not presently considered acceptable.
Also, a man like Petruchio would not be admired based on his taming skills but would
rather be more likely to be featured on an episode of "Cops." One critic has claimed that
the play "enacts the defeat of the threat of a woman's revolt" (Petruchio's Horse,
website). What was considered appropriate male and female behavior in Shakespeare's time
has not survived into the 20th century.

There are some core values and assumptions that still exist today that were present in
Taming's original setting. Today, though certainly not as extreme, there are desirable
social behaviors specific to one's gender. More importantly, however, is the treatment of
individuals specific to their gender. That is why a woman with the same training and the
same experience as a man tends to make lower wages and be passed over for more promotions
in the workplace. Another cultural message from Taming that we still respond to is that
one can get what he wants if he is willing to "play the game." Katrina gave in to
Petruchio to gain peace of mind, not necessarily because she honestly believed that
submitting to him was the right thing to do, but the easy thing to do. Ever present in our
own society we "suck up," shmooze, etc. to get what we want even though we may not be
doing what we believe in.


One of the Bard's most famous characters got into a lot of trouble doing what he may not
have necessarily believed in, and his name is Hamlet. Hamlet is a play that is not be
entirely cross-cultural (Bohannan, Shakespeare in the Bush) but is, at least for the
Western world, considered timeless. The play has been translated in most every way
imaginable, from modern updates, to female leads, to even a Disney cartoon.

For the new millennium director Michael Almereyda gave us Hamlet 2000, a modern update of
the classic using Shakespeare's own words. The story of the pensive Danish prince was
translated to that of a wealthy New York slacker in the year 2000. Almereyda appeals to
his audience by including lots of high-tech gadgets, violence, and plenty of visual
symbolism to stimulate the post-theater discussions. The modern Hamlet delivers
soliloquies into a camera lens or while wandering the action section of a Blockbuster
video store. Ophelia, always never much for words, is given a visual voice as she
fantasies suicide by drowning. All the characters Shakespeare wanted us to dislike, like
Claudius, Polonius, and even to some extent Gertrude, are hedonistic, "slimy" urbanites
with too much money and no consciousness. It has been said that the extreme use of modern
technological wonders was intended to overwhelm the contemporary lives of the characters
(Mr. Brown, website).

As can be seen by the modern translation, Hamlet possesses many of the same core values we
have today. Daily we struggle with choices between good and evil, right and wrong, or, in
Hamlet's case, the "no-win" situation. Usually these decisions are made on the basis of
costs and benefits, but poor Hamlet had to deal with dreadful costs no matter what route
he chose. If he ignored his mother's and uncle's union, he would be allowing incest and
overlooking his father's murder. If he chose to avenge his father's death, he would be
killing his uncle and his widowing his mother once again. The message may be that
sometimes there is no good solution, an idea that we grapple with still today.

Even though Hamlet is a tragedy, Hamlet 2000 is riddled with humor. A reference to
Disney's Hamlet, The Lion King, is found when Hamlet retreats below the Broadway play's
Continues for 5 more pages >>