Home > Multimedia Essays > Lights. Camera. Shakespeare.

Lights. Camera. Shakespeare.

A hopefully successful attempt to differentiate the cinema from the theatre through adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, at the same time elaborating on the evolution of Shakespeare on film

For the man who had written almost a quarter of the millennium’s greatest plays, William Shakespeare could not have known the impact he would have on the global filming industry, as of present and of the decades succeeding his death. Had Shakespeare lived to see his works being filmed, being discussed in universities, and being argued upon by Transmedial Shakespeare students, he would have been living a life of tremendous luxury, considering the commissions he would have been paid for all his works. However, as he did not, various media try to immortalize him through his works instead. This is where the “transmedial” comes in.

Film, originally perceived to be something of vitality for entertainment, has developed from a recreational pursuit to a medium for extending literary knowledge, or simply even literary awareness. Before the filming industry made its entrance, the only other medium through which Shakespeare plays were made known to the public through visual means was the theatre. Theatre back then was considered to cater to affluence; for the elite. Though they had inn-yards—

[mini] inexpensive indoor theaters—for those who could not afford the level of entertainment that the big[i] theaters could provide, the intimacy between the audience and the actors captured on camera, and of that between the audience and the actors on stage still spelled a big difference. For one, the cinema claims more intimacy, as the individual’s experience is exclusive to his or her own, as opposed to the theatre, where the experience is more collective; interactive.

The sense of intimacy experienced by a cinema audience is very different from that achievable in even the most intimate of playhouse spaces. However emotionally involved they may become in the events replayed on-screen, since they are physically ‘detached’ from what has been filmed and edited in another time and place, moviegoers will be in quite another form of relationship to what they are watching to that of the theater-goer. How film spectators receive, decode and engage with movies is therefore of prime importance to those who create the drama projected on-screen, since producers, directors and actors all want to attract and to hold the attention of audiences who have paid to watch. (Hindle, 2007)

Also, as the theatre boasts of its theatricality; the emphasis on elegance, on histrionic gestures and dialogue, the cinema has its actuality to feature; actuality being the ‘naturalness’ or non-pretentiousness of the scenes. Whereas the theatre is confined to the stage, the cinema may be considered more ‘liberated’. Liberated in the sense that, the audience’s perception of the setting is not restricted to the small space of the platform; instead, through the use of cinematic technology, panoramas, close-ups and a wide span of fast-paced movements are made possible through the screen.



Shakespeare on film began during the latter years of the 19th century, in the milieu of a theatre performance.

On 20 September 1899, a production of King John opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, with the theatre’s owner and actor-manager in the title-role, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. On the same night a short film recreating scenes from the play was premiered at the Palace Theatre, London, at other theatres in Britain, Europe and America. / The only fragment that survives of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s King John (1899), the first ever Shakespearean film, recreates part of Act 5 Scene 7, the final scene of the play. / Tree is flanked by his youthful son Prince Henry and the Earl of Pembroke on one side and by Lord Robert Bigot on the other: all sport medieval period costumes. A hint hat this is a Shakespearean ‘first’ on film is suggested by the fact that just before these attendants turn to gaze concernedly upon their king in his death agonies, we see them all glancing toward the camera before moving ‘into character’; evidently they have waited with some amusement for the ‘Action!’ signal to come from film company director and photographer William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson. (Hindle, 2007)

Tree’s King John was not originally meant to be a film, it was simply ‘filmed’ to promote his stage play; therefore a publicity material. However, the first Shakespearean film adaptations were ‘silent pictures’, ‘moving pictures’ in the literal sense that they were photographs in action, and photographs produced no sounds. It was during the later years that the motion picture industry had decided to incorporate sound into their films.

Shakespeare’s films made their way to Hollywood in the 1930’s, where silent films slowly turned to sound films. However, the transition went rather slowly, because sound films were much more costly, and because not all cinemas were equipped with sound in 1929. The first ever feature-length Shakespeare film to be made was Sam Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1929, originally released as a silent film, but then a sound version was released after the dialogue of the characters were dubbed in.

Reinhardt and Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935 was regarded in 1999 as ‘the best Hollywood Shakespeare movie’ by Kenneth Rowell, primarily because of the effort put into its choreography, sound technicalities and special effects. The film garnered much appreciation from the industry that the Warner Brothers invested $1.5 million on a Hollywood version of the play. (Hindle, 2007)

A Midsummer Night's Dream Poster




Through the sixties and the seventies, Shakespeare on film inclined towards ‘cultural revolution’ and ‘filmic innovation’, as expressed by Maurice Hindle in his 2007 Studying Shakespeare on Film. As technical innovations sprang up—of sound, visual workings—directors and producers were for some time veered towards the non-conventional aesthetics of film. By non-conventional, new meanings were given to the plays’ original settings, hence new approaches to adaptations however retaining the original [key] concepts. An example would be Kozintsev’s variation of Hamlet (1964).

Given that Hamlet refers to Denmark as a ‘prison’, it could be tempting to convery his sense of ‘entrapment’ in too literal a way by playing the action in a dungeon-like setting. But as Kozintsev argues, in reality ‘court life is comfortable’, so that ‘for a person of ideas and feelings’ like Hamlet the stifling conventions that go with this can themselves ‘constitute a prison’. (Hindle, 2007)

Therefore, Hamlet is shown being treated ‘royally’ by his attendants; however his acid thoughts being spoken in voice-over as he walks among the people around the castle. Hindle illustrates some other examples used by Kozintsev in his films, such as altering Ophelia’s display of madness in Act IV, or visually emphasizing one of the latter parts in King Lear.

Scenes from Kozintsev’s Hamlet, 1964

Other developments by other producers/ directors were also enumerated, such as incorporating new [camera] filming techniques, re-defining the plays’ scenes, re-characterizing the characters, or the growing popularity of modernizing the settings.

Particularly for the ‘modernization’ of the plays’ settings and contexts, Shakespeare on film grew and branched out so widely during the year 2000 and the succeeding years that the demand for films whose plot and storylines were based on Shakespearean plays yet set in a more modern setting grew. Though they began some time during the 1940’s (in a more subdued, nearer-to-the-original manner), in the year 2000 films like these began climbing the popularity charts. Take for example Michael Almereyda’s Manhattan Hamlet in 2000, with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

Ethan Hawke as Hamlet

Manhattan Hamlet is set, of course, in Manhattan, and the cast was surprisingly contemporary, such as Bill Murray (Polonius) and Julia Stiles (Ophelia). Even the setting, and the location shots, the instances of which important scenes were adapted, were ‘modernized’. Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was taken as Ethan Hawke (Hamlet) roamed the ‘Action’ aisles of a blockbuster video store, and Julia Stiles’ (Ophelia) drowning in the Guggenheim Museum fountain.


10 Things I Hate About You may also be considered an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, falling under the ‘romantic comedy’ genre, and, of course, West Side Story, a musical film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The incorporating of Shakespeare into storylines interesting enough to satisfy a larger set of audience—wider span of ages—has become one of the most frequently used tools, especially in the year 2000 and beyond, to appeal even to the younger percentage of the audience.

Film serves only as a miniscule portion of the media that immortalize and at the same time revive Shakespeare through his works. Of course, ever-present is the theatre, for those who seek the transcendent ambience of Shakespearean staging; music, for those who prefer to satisfy themselves through crescendos and lyrics based on Shakespeare’s plays. Then dance, the perfect example of the body being a medium of expression, through which Shakespeare’s stories are narrated through movement and with the aid of music. Of course there are a lot of media which I may not have mentioned, but in today’s contemporary terrain of technology and everything else that seem to matter, then who knows what other media might just be discovered for Shakespeare to transcend, time and again.


Disclaimer: I do not own any of the videos and photos posted above. They were merely borrowed from websites for the sake of this entry. Citations are displayed below.

Marionne Jay C. Shimada
BA English Studies: Literature
University of the Philippines Diliman


[i] as in, big in size, and big in terms of the industry

Primary source:

Hindle, Maurice. Studying Shakespeare on Film. Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007.

Image sources:

” Google Image Result for http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/engl/images/shakespeare.jpg.&#8221;Google. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.google.com.ph/imglanding?q=shakespeare+and+film&hl=en&sa=X&rlz=1C1_____enPH406PH406&biw=1024&bih=653&tbs=isch:1&prmd=ivns&tbnid=0Ty0NAFqYO0FjM:&imgrefurl=http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/engl/gsp/taughtma/film%2526lit.htm&imgurl=http://www.york.ac.u&gt;.

” Shakespeare and the Players | The Players | Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.”Shakespeare’s World. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://shakespeare.emory.edu/actordisplay.cfm?actorid=89&gt;.

“10 Things I Hate About You (1999) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0147800/&gt;.

“BFI | Library | Exhibitions and Events | Shakespeare on Film.”Home | British Film Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/library/eventsexh/past/2007_04_02_shakespeare.html&gt;.

“Elizabethan Inn-Yards.”ELIZABETHAN ERA. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-inn-yards.htm&gt;.

“The Taming of the Shrew (1929) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020479/&gt;.

“The Taming of the Shrew (1929) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020479/&gt;.

“West Side Story (1961) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055614/&gt;.

jami430. “Shakespeare and Film- Romeo + Juliet- The Symbolism of Water.”HubPages. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://hubpages.com/hub/Romeo–Juliet–The-Symbolism-of-Water&gt;.

therealtruth123. ” YouTube – Hamlet – To be or not to be… .” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YHMYkUrV7A&gt;.

type, job. “Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0

“The Taming of the Shrew (1929) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026

“Hamletguide.com | Hamlet (1964/Soviet Version) | Hamlet film versions .”Hamletguide.com | Guide to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://hamletguide.com/film/versi

” Hamlet (1964).” f i l m j o u r n e y . o r g — world cinema in Los Angeles and beyond. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.filmjourney.org/2006/11/07/hamlet-1964/&gt;.

“Movie Review – Hamlet (2000) – Xenon’s World.” Xenon’s World. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://xenonsworld.blog.ca/2008/09/06/movie-review-hamlet-4691313/&gt;.

. “Hamlet [DVD] [2000] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]: Amazon.co.uk: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Sam Shepard, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Karl Geary, Paula Malcomson, Steve Zahn, Dechen Thurman, Rome Neal, Michael Almereyda, Amy.”Amazon.co.uk: Low Prices in Electronics, Books, Sports Equipment & more. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011. <http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004Z4RP/imdb-button/&gt;.

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. Camille Martinez
    February 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I understand that the translation of Shakespeare into other media has allowed the bard’s plays to be appreciated by a wider audience, but i would still rather watch a Shakespearean play than a movie adaptation or ballet production. No, i’m not really a purist or an elitist. However, i do remember laughing harder during on stage productions of his comedies. About seven years ago, i saw a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” in RCBC and i enjoyed every moment of it. I saw Branagh’s film version a few years after that and was disappointed despite the superb casting.

    A lot of the films based on Shakespearean texts are actually pretty amazing, but i still suggest a return to text and theatre for an appreciation of Shakespeare in new media.

    • March 11, 2011 at 8:58 pm

      I am inclined to agree with Ms. Martinez. I enjoy the plays more than these other media, the dynamic “live” portrayals over motion pictures, because of the attendant deeper thrill they cause given the varying unpredictabilities possible in human performance and because the physical closeness of watching actors and actresses in person without a mechanical screen can make the audience-performer relationship more intimate, and, therefore, more real.

      Somehow watching versions of these plays as movies or as television shows contribute to a kind of their mechanized funerals because the human element is efficaciously boxed in within a machine, be it the camera or the cable. Without these machines, one cannot watch the play. But in a theater, machines are auxiliaries, and even without them the play can still proceed so long as there are performers willing to act. A play performed in a theater thus is mainly human, is mainly organic but when shown as a movie or as a television show is purely mechanical because it can never escape its bondage to machinery. A play watched in a theater envelops the spectator with a live human element, where actions and words are performed in real time and in real space, but when watched as a movie or as a television show weakly translates this live human element as something deferred, constant, regularized and impossible to change, and is thus bound to become boring and predictable. A play shown in a theater, even if it has only one title, is a new and different show every night. A play shown as a movie or a television show, even if it be shown numerously, has, when once seen, largely exhausted its appeal.

  2. mjcshimada
    March 17, 2011 at 5:59 am

    Shakespeare in films/ movies perhaps is just another way to extend the Bard’s transmedial reach. Though mechanical and, in Mr. Velasco’s words, “deferred, constant, regularized”, films offer the audience an alternative, so to speak, because after all, the theatre is restricted to those who can afford it. I am not asserting that this is a matter of economic condition, however films provide the accessibility and convenience (watch-at-home Shakespeare) that theatre is unable to offer. Though yes, I would agree that it is infinitely better watching the play itself (I myself am a theater-goer), I think that we might as well consider the convenience and “freedom” that films allow us. Although, I would greatly recommend Ms. Martinez’s suggestion that a return to text and theatre be made, for the audience to experience that “live human element”, however I would also greatly recommend that we appreciate the presence of films, and most especially the presence of the Bard in films through adaptations and direct productions, because after all, we are lucky that we have alternatives to choose from should one or the other be unaccessible 😉

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