“The play’s the thing…”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet
There are countless versions, interpretations, and the occasional horrifying slaughter of Shakespeare so the choices are vast, but I was raised from a young age with the Bard. And so will my children be. Thus I bring you, C.’s Definitive Guide to Obligatory Shakespeare Adaptations:
The Taming of the Shrew
The best version of this is The Taming of the Shrew, Franco Zefferelli’s 1967 version staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Why? Because however you choose to read the original play (pro wife-beating, proto-feminism, lighthearted, or sinister), Zefferelli’s adaptation turns the tale into a marriage of equals perfectly suited to one another. Taylor’s Katherine is the less-loved daughter of a man who dotes on her sister (Bianca, a spoiled and manipulative wench). She’s second best and spends most of her day hearing about it, and can only throw tantrums to get attention or satisfiy a sense of injustice. Burton’s Petruchio is a loudmouth bore who’s never learned to behave himself and, in trying to turn Kate into a lady, becomes a gentleman. Fantastic.
My mother watched this movie with me for the first time when I was fairly young and I loved it. It was my introduction to Shakespeare, and I’ve never looked back. Years later, when I found it one day on DVD in a bookshop, I snatched it up and mailed it home ten minutes later. Of course, I also bought one for myself. “Fear boys with bugs!”
Yeah, yeah, Lawrence Olivier, blah blah blah. Best version in my opinion goes to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V from 1989. Did I mention Paul Scofield, Dame Judi Dench, and Emma Thompson are included (along with a not-yet-legal Christian Bale)? This adaptation is sweeping, epic, gritty, poetic, occasionally funny, powerful, and gripping. Again, Mum got me hooked young. As I recall, I hid my eyes during the gory battle scenes or she fast forwarded through them (remember VHS, darlings?). I had memorized the St. Crispin Day Speech before I was 10 and in high school, my friend Moll and I had to make a movie for French class, so we acted out the scene where Alice teaches Princess Katherine English. Honestly, probably one of the best Shakespearean films of all time. “God for Harry, England, and St. George!”
Venice is probably the authority on this play, she teaches it each year and by the end, any Bard holdouts are converted. She always has the best stories about the day the kids act it out (with stabbing, naturally) and we always go into raptures about the 1953 version of Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Not that it’s referred to as Makiewicz’s movie, it’s invariably called “The one with Marlon Brando.” And with good reason. One of the best scenes of the film is Marc Antony [Brando] orating to the people in Rome’s forum and slowly, subtly rousing the mob to rebellion. The moment when he turns away from the screaming riot and walks into the senate chamber smirking darkly still makes me feel chills.
Brutus is conflicted, Cassius is sly and evil, the actual assassination is a little off as Caesar just seems to take knife after knife without too much complaint, but still: best version. Honor, loyalty, friend, patriotism, betrayal and the conflicting tug of each is brilliantly laid out. “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar.”
So, we’ve covered one of my favorite comedies, histories, and tragedies, but wait, kids, there’s more!
Much Ado About Nothing – Branagh again, this time as the irrepressible Benedict and Emma Thompson as the fiery and fiercely loyal Beatrice. A classic tale about the vicissitudes of love, the interference of friends (and enemies), and kicking up a great row about nothing much at all. Sparkling. “The world must be peopled!”
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a tale of justice, honesty, and deceit, this film is utterly stolen by Al Pacino as Shylock. Now, Scarface has never been one of my favorite actors, but the levels of emotion he poured into one of the most villainous (or victimized) Shakespearean characters is incredible. The whole thing is nice and morally ambiguous. “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
Twelfth Night – I first saw this version in the 8th grade, under the tutelage of my teacher The Friar, with whom I keep in contact to this day. It’s never too soon to expose children to gender-bending, right? “Most wondrous.”
Other Other Adaptations
And because the most odious thing in literature or culture is people who can’t take a joke, I have to recommend Shakespeare Retold, done by the BBC and first introduced to me my Angel two weeks ago. Shakespeare brought into the modern day and frighteningly funny. Hero doesn’t marry Claudio (and good on her, because he was an unbelievable ass and I could never believe she forgave him!) and Katherine, a vicious and snarling MP is tamed by Petruchio, a lonely aristocratic exhibitionist who really just wants someone to think the world of him. “And all we do is set around in front of the telly all day eating chocolates. I know I do, when I’m not running the country.”