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Essay: How Shakespeare’s characters are represented across different nations

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 11, 2021*
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  • How Shakespeare's characters are represented across different nations
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Shakespeare is without doubt the author of theater the most adapted to the cinema, either in faithful transpositions of its plays or in adaptations to other settings in time and space. The first question that opens this paper is: why does the Shakespearean drama transfer so easy to the screen? A possible answer to this mystery could be related to the similarities, but moreover to the differences between the structure of the Elizabethan theatre and the cinematic productions. Both of these forms of artistic representation are based on a rapid and as natural as possible change of scenes, which gives the possibility to the theatre or to the cinema producer to change the focus of the spectator when least expected.

Going back to the differences between the two areas we discover the real basis on which a Shakespearean play can be translated so naturally to the screen. At the age of the Bard, theatre was directly connected to the spectators who were implicated in the development of the plot, participating with their reactions to the actions of the actors. This way, there was a lack of control of the play producer, who could not always send a clear, unique message beyond the stage, as those in front of it had the possibility to view the dramatic act from different angles, whereas in the case of a cinema performance, the person standing in front of the screen has only the possibility of watching the action from a single angle. This apparent disturbing detail, gives the screen producer a unique possibility to transfer his personal perception to the audience, without having to face the danger of being misunderstood.

Film and theatre are in a permanent process of influence, and in the particular case of Shakespeare, this juncture underlines the adaptability of his works in all medium of development.

The British Arts & Humanities Research Council created an impressive database containing all the adaptations and representations of Shakespeare’s drama on television, film and radio created from 1890 to the contemporary time. The result was a list of more than 410 films and television variants of the Bard’s plays, some of which respect the original text and others rebuild it for a new audience, for a new age. However, the most important aspect of this study is that it proves one more time that Shakespeare is the author that raised the most the interest of producers, film directors and simple writers all over the world.

The aim of the paper is to illustrate how Shakespeare’s characters are represented across different nations. My analysis is focused on the earliest silent movies of the twentieth century up to the present era, movies which suffer various interpretations of their original plot.

Franco Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968, UK/Italy)

Zefirelli’s interest in the complexity of the Shakespearean drama has been materialized in four cinema adaptations: The Taming of the Shrew in 1929, Otello, in 1968 and Hamlet in 1990. These four plays of the Bard opened the curiosity and the inspiration of the famous Italian filmmaker, proving once again that Shakespeare can be a source of artistic creativity for any age. Romeo and Juliet has been greatly adapted to the cinema, but this variant has been very well received by the public and its value is still recognized in the contemporary age. The two main actors were Leonard Whiting (17 years) and Olivia Hussey (16 years). The choice of actors was very controversial because the two appear there naked while they are not major. However, this was the first time that actors who play the role of Romeo and Juliet were the same age as the characters in the play, detail which developed the credibility and the resemblance between the original text and the adaptation.

The interpretation of Zeffirelli was filmed in Italy and it proved to be a success, a natural expression of the purest form of love of all times. The proof of its triumph are the four Academy Award nominations and the two Oscars for the best cinematography and the best costume design. Except for the Juliet played by Olivia Hussey, dazzling beautiful and the Romeo played by the blue-eyed Leonard Whiting, Zeffirelli kept from the original story Friar Laurence, Juliet’s Nurse and regarding the plot the convulsive scenes between the two enemy families and the suicide of the main characters. An important alteration that the producer brought to the film is the adaptation of the Shakespearean dialogue for that time. Zeffirelli chose to trim some of the sequences which could have been boring for his public. An example is Juliet’s potion speech. In the Shakespearean original variant, the reader enjoys one of the masterpieces monologues of the universal literature.The attitude of Juliet is outlined by the Bard through such a long and complex soliloquy, in order to underline the tension and the gradual increase of Juliet’s fear and terror in front of the possibility of death or of an unexpected end to her decision to drink the potion. Her sense of insecurity is transmitted to the reader through the remarkable length of her monologue.

In the case of Zeffirelli’s adaptation, he chose to avoid the Shakespearean version by reducing the monologue to a toast. She overcomes her fear without expressing all her thoughts and feelings, by simply praying by a toast for strength to face the fatality of death: “Love give me strength!” From the beginning, the prologue is classical, having the role of setting the scene, briefly announcing the main articulations of the plot. Zeffirelli chose to ease the original variant cutting off a part of the prologue.

The option of the Italian producer to cut several sections of the Shakespearean play can be explained by the imminent transformations imposed in the translation of a tragedy to the cinema.

Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948,USA/UK) and Chimes at Midnight (1966,UK/Spain /Switzerland)

The adaptation of Welles has a paradoxical nature: it has the characteristic of being in some ways very close to a play and yet its success seems to be mainly due to the talent and cinematic inspiration of its director. When recording, Welles required his actors to use the Scottish accent to recreate the atmosphere of a primitive and disturbing Scotland. Jeannette Nolan played the magnificent role of Lady Macbeth. The actual filming can be considered ideal because of the mastery of the text by the actors, recently exercised at the theatre, and the project as a whole by Welles. The latter was able to apply the technique of “filming in continuity”. Thus, from the first shooting, he managed the coup to finish at midnight the complex plane for more than ten minutes during which occurred the murder of King Duncan. According to Welles his film is “a violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play”1. It assumes that the cinema can render the greatness of Shakespeare’s plays. The position of Welles is therefore clear: any adaptation of Shakespeare, theatrical or film, is doomed to have a limited scope. It directly opposes the idea that a play (at least in Shakespeare) doesn’t acquire its true dimension than through its representations. We’ll look at the liberties taken by Welles for the original text taking into account this postulate of departure: without wanting to make wealth, his choices were guided by the desire to render the essence of the piece in a modest movie. In the design of Welles, the film appears as a kind of illustration of the text of Shakespeare, whose quality is conferred by the grandeur and the genius of the original text, that is indeed impossible to completely render. He eliminated whole fragments of texts of secondary characters to refocus the film on the lines of the main characters. Another major change that he brings to the text is a decomposed dialogue that accentuates the tragic intensity of the film.

In 1966, Orson Welles played the lead role of Falstaff in his film Chimes at Midnight.The title of the film is drawn from Falstaff’s poignant reminiscence of long-gone days of joy; Welles makes it the movie’s first scene, setting the entire story in the shadow of loss. The movie’s underlying drama is Welles’s identification with Falstaff. The script contains text from five of Shakespeare’s plays; primarily Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, but also Richard II, Henry V, and uses some dialogue from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Welles considered Falstaff to be “Shakespeare’s greatest creation” and said that the role was “the most difficult part I’ve ever played.”.He believed that the core of the story was “the betrayal of friendship.

Chimes at Midnight is often recalled for its Battle of Shrewsbury which is a true cinematic achievement.Welles used editing techniques to give the appearance of armies of thousands. According to Welles, the core meaning of the story is ’the betrayal of friendship’ and critics characterize the movie as a depiction of the gap between political power and its human instrument.It is thought that he wanted to depict modern political hypocrisy and militarism by producing this somehow anti-war movie.

Welles always had a deep admiration for William Shakespeare. But beyond the tribute of an artist to his spiritual father, Falstaff can equally be seen as an outline of a self-portrait: “Falstaff is me!” Said Welles and one can easily believe there are many similarities between the character and the man who embodies. Same imposing physique, same shrewdness and especially same worldview. The film often borrows the appearance of a farce, full of sound and fury, and mirrors Welles’ reflection on life, man and power.

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