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The Socially Sensitive Shakespeare

On cultural diversity in Shakespearean film adaptations


There is hardly any doubt that William Shakespeare is the standard-bearer of the literary Canon of Dead White Men. The bard’s themes are universal in nature and great writers have reused his tropes after him. But despite the ubiquity of his appeal, Shakespeare’s dramatis personae betray a Eurocentric vision that 21st century audiences may find trouble with. It’s no secret that many of his characters are vicious racists, but the playwright’s textual ambiguity obscures his political views from many concerned readers. In a highly globalized world, the concept of a cultural Other is slowly being blurred and the task of modern-day storyteller is to diversify the ethnic landscape of the Shakespearean narrative. With film being the most prolific medium for Shakespeare, filmmakers and cinemagoers have the opportunity to reconstruct Shakespeare for a more diverse audience.

Don Pedro of Aragon (Washington) leading the band

Much Ado About Nothing

For Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”, Denzel Washington was cast in the role of Don Pedro of Aragon. While Washington was excellent in his role as a military officer from Spain, some viewers are still confounded by the choice of casting an African-American in a role traditionally meant for a Caucasian actor while the narrative is set in 18th century Italy. This is compounded by the fact that Don Pedro as played by Washington is the half brother of Don John the Bastard as played by Keanu Reeves. Some will argue that the Moors were present in Spain during the time period chosen by Branagh and that the possibility of ethnically disparate half siblings is reasonable. Instead of worrying about the oddness of the casting choice, most people prefer to focus on Washington’s incredible performance, and ignore Keanu’s horrible acting abilities.

Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann amplifies ethnic diversity in Shakespeare by setting is modern day Romeo and Juliet in Miami-esque Verona Beach. Luhrmann keeps the racial difference between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The characters cast as Montagues share the “fair” (blonde and blue-eyed) physicality reminiscent of Northern Italians while the Capulets come from a more Southern Italian or Latin American background. The major non-Caucasian character of the film was Mercutio played by Harold Perrineau, whose performance as Romeo’s best friend will always be attached to and image of him in Mercutio’s drag queen costume. Juliet’s Nurse is played by Margaret Margolyes who gave the character a more Spanish flair. The issue of racial difference becomes almost invisible against the film’s urbanized setting.

Harold Perrineau as Mercutio

Mercutio in drag

West Side Story

Racial difference is brought to the foreground in Arthur Laurent’s retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story for 1950’s New York. Against the rapid influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to the Big City, the Jets try to reinforce white dominance in their neighborhood. The Sharks have to deal with the trouble of defending themselves from potential hate crimes while trying to purse the “American Dream.” Cultural difference is highlighted even during dance numbers: the Jets perform the traditional lindy hop and Fosse-ish musical numbers while the Sharks scandalize their rivals with bold flamenco and salsa moves. Maria and Tony are the star-crossed lovers of this tale. Although Tony is the captain of the Jets, he is also an immigrant of Polish descent. His Slavic features make it more reasonable for him to ally himself with his fair-skinned peers. Natalie Wood, who was born to Russian immigrant parents, portrays the role of Maria in the film adaptation.

As You Like It

Kenneth Branagh attempts to retell another Shakespearean comedy in more culturally heterogeneous manner. For his adaptation of As You Like It in 2006, Branagh moved his story to a European colony in 19th century Japan after the Meiji Restoration. The film contrasts the setting of a highly Westernized Japanese city with the culturally diversified Forest of Arden. The cast is a delightful mix of actors: Corin and Audrey are Westerners, Phoebe, Silvius and William are Japanese, and Orlando and Oliver are played by Black British actors. The film was met with some disappointment due to the apparent lack of Japanese actors and culture despite the setting. While Branagh was applauded for his diverse casting, many still ask if the task of art was neglected in an effort to appease cultural demands.

East meets West at court

Bryce Dallas Howard and David Oyelowo

A Side Note on Sex and Gender Issues

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves

There have also been other efforts to rework other themes in Shakespeare’s texts. Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) is loosely based on Henry IV and Henry V. In the film, Prince Henry is reformulated as Scott, a young man who tries to avoid following in his father’s footsteps as a governmental leader by keeping the disreputable company of his hustler friend, Mike. The film explores a homosocial relationship that parallels the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in “The Merchant of Venice.” MGM’s Kiss Me Kate (1953) uses the story of The Taming of the Shrew and sets it against the narrative of a divorced couple that takes on the lead roles for a Broadway rendition of the play. Lilli, the female lead puts adds a feminist layer to her characterization of Katherine.

Taming Kate/Lilli on stage

The diversification of actors in Shakespearean film adaptations is not merely exercise in “colorblind” casting. It also goes beyond the matter of transportation Shakespeare to a new cultural setting like the transference of Macbeth’s Scotland to Akira Kurosawa’s Japan in  “Throne of Blood.” Diversification has become a conscious effort to update these texts for the popular audience and has lead to Shakespeare in cinema becoming a more political medium.

 

 

 

 

–> Camille Martinez

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Categories: Multimedia Essays
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