Shakespeare in Cinema
A Fidelity to the Filmic
There are several points we'd like to address in the context of Shakespeare and cinema and the first is: can Shakespearian film be art beyond the bard who is behind the texts? Some believe making a Shakespeare film can do no more than elevate the photographic through the seriousness of the dramatic. It is a claim made by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton when he says "a film is a photograph of a dramatic representation; it is not, because it cannot be, a photographic representation. It follows that if there is such a thing as a cinematic masterpiece it will be so because like Wild Strawberries and La Regle du jeu it is in the first place a dramatic masterpiece." ('Photography and Representation') But if this is so why are some films based on Shakespeare plays acknowledged as great works and others as no more than efficient adaptations? If Roman Polanski's Macbeth by Scruton's reckoning would be a better film than Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet it would have to be that the Scottish play is better than the Danish one, but they are both regarded as amongst the greatest of tragedies and few would be inclined to regard Macbeth as more significant than Hamlet. As the Shakespearian critic Harold Bloom proposed in a talk discussing his book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, "after four centuries, it is still the most experimental play ever written." It suggests that the Polish filmmaker is a better director than the Italian one and also perhaps that the preoccupations of the text met with the fascinations of the director in the former instance more than in the latter. Scruton may insist that "the camera, then, is being used not to represent something but to point to it. The subject, once located, plays its own special part in an independent process of representation. The camera is not essential to that process: a gesturing finger would have served just as well." But this seems a false analogy. Yes, the finger can point to show us something just as a photograph can but how does one's finger indicate a specific angle, colour or monochrome, depth of field or shallow focus? If all a filmmaker could do was no more than point out a Shakespeare play that they were bringing to our attention, then the only thing of import would be that they choose the best play.
While we wish to focus on the plays that are acknowledged to be three of Shakespeare's greatest Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear what matters more is that they are great films of the dramatist's work and we only choose to concern ourselves with them as great cinema and not as faithful adaptations of the material. Watching Polanski's Macbeth, the film is recognisably Shakespeare's play but no less a work consistent with two of his earlier films: Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. When Lady Macbeth starts to lose her mind one might think of Carol in Repulsion. When there is a scene with the witches halfway through the film the mise-en-scene calls to mind Rosemary's Baby. Macbeth may not be Shakespeare's most violent play (next to Titus Andronicus) but it is gory enough and Polanski emphasizes the violence. He does it in both form and content. A play after all retains the given distance of the seat in the context of the stage. That distance remains between the viewer and the screen in the cinema seat but is constantly altered by the camera's capacity to offer long-shots, medium-shots and close-ups. While the text in The Penguin Modern Classic says no more than that "Macbeth is slain" (Four Tragedies), Polanski's film shows Macbeth face down on the ground leaning over some steps while MacDuff beheads him. As the head is cut off, the film then shows us a close-up of the crowned head rolling into the frame. Polanski is both a fine director of the implicit and the explicit, suggesting in the framing a horrible portent and in the deed terrible violence. We know in Rosemary's Baby something is untoward because of the way the camera cuts from Rosemary's point of view to the camera showing a door frame as we see cigarette smoke billowing but cannot see her husband and the neighbour in discussion. The same implicit feel is evident in an off-centre party sequence and in numerous other scenes too. But Polanski can also show us terrible things that a filmmaker might be inclined to leave to our imagination evident in Chinatown where a 'midget' (played by Polanski) cuts central character JJ Gittes's nose with a knife. In Macbeth, there are numerous examples of both the implicit and the explicit as Polanski points and points out details that take us into the cinematic and away from the theatrical. When Macbeth and Banquo are about to see the witches, the camera travels briefly along the wall before showing us the crones huddled together escaping the atrocious climate. That camera movement contains within it a portent not unlike that so often deployed by Hitchcock when he made the viewer aware that Roger O Thornhill was to be kidnapped in North by Northwest and Marion Crane would go off with the money in Psycho. This is implicit cinema at its best, pointing indeed but utilising very specific filmic means.
However, Polanski often points out the brutality of an environment that Shakespeare wasn't shy of observing but that the Polish director can make much more vivid. While in the play the captain speaks of Macbeth's deeds including a man he "unseamed...from the nave to the chops, and fixed his head upon the battlements," the passage is still quoted but it is preceded by a moment of brutality where a man hits a prostrate figure with a flail. A minute or two after that Macbeth and Banquo pass through the countryside before meeting the witches as Polanski pauses for a moment to show us numerous hangings. Macbeth is initially shown large in the foreground and then glances behind him to see the gallows. Polanski adapts Shakespeare but demands that the Shakespearian meets the Polanskian with the director insisting that his purpose isn't merely to film the play but make the play filmic on his terms. As he insisted, "there were some stage conventions that had no meaningful place in a film" (Roman), including for Polanski a Lady Macbeth getting out of bed already clothed and the murder of the king offstage. Polanski noted that people slept nude in the Elizabethan period and saw that while refusing to show the killing of the king was demanded in a time when royalty was so vital, that needn't be the case in the 1970s. Hence we have a nude Lady Macbeth and the slaughter of Duncan in detail.
Our second point of enquiry rests on a comment Hitchcock once made. "The better the villain, the better the picture." (Hitchcock) Shakespeare wrote great villains, from Richard III in the play of that name, to Iago in Othello, from Claudius in Hamlet to Edmund in King Lear. In Kurosawa's Ran the great villain is Lady Kaede, a figure obviously not to be found in Shakespeare's play and not only because Ran is set in Japan rather than England but also because Kurosawa offers an adaptation that is both conflation and renegotiation. Without getting too lost in the differences between the film and the play, the three daughters (Cordelia, Regan and Goneril) become three sons (Saburo, Taro and Jero), and the secondary plot concerning Gloucester and his two sons (Edgar and Edmund) gets excised even if some of Edmund's villainous qualities are given over to Taro's wife Lady Kaede, and are more than a little exacerbated. But the most obvious shift that makes the film Kurosawan is the samurai backdrop, perhaps inevitable for a filmmaker who may have made numerous films set in contemporary Japan but who remains the director of samurai cinema. The Lear figure here is Lord Hidetora Ichimonji who can choose to divide his domain amongst his three sons because he mercilessly brought the domain together by murdering his rivals. He is seen as a much more ruthless figure than Lear but not as cruel and hard-hearted as Lady Kaede, who cannot forget that Hidetora murdered her father and brothers after she married the eldest brother Taro. Her family relaxed after the wedding, feeling they were safe, but this didn't stop Hidetora slaughtering them; indeed gave him the chance to do so. As we see Lady Kaede and Taro sitting in a room at the castle, a distance apart on separate raised platforms adjacent to each other and facing out to the camera, we recognise a woman who is capable of monstrosities in the present to avenge the monstrosities of the past committed by her husband's father. Now Hidetora has divided his domain, while also excluding his third son who mocked his father's decision, Kaede sees that Hidetora and his family are weak enough to be avenged and after Taro is killed she takes up with the middle brother and manipulates events so that the family is destroyed.
Though Kurosawa removes the subplot from King Lear he manages to increase the villainy. In Shakespeare's play there is little sense that Lear has been a tyrant in the past; just someone who hasn't been very alert to the world around him. "Thou shouldst not have been old still thou hadst been wise" the fool insists. But in Ran we have a monster in the past who has given birth to a monster in the present: to Lady Kaede whose emotionless, flat delivery indicates a loss that revenge is a necessary evil that she cannot but dutifully fulfil. While Jero's wife lost her parents too, and whose brother was blinded by Hidetora, finds sanctuary in Buddhism, Kaede offers a mercilessness in the present that matches the cruelty Hidetora had shown in the past. The play has two villains but one who is now a relatively harmless old man who in the course of the play loses his mind and another who has bided her time and, with evidence of Hidetora's failing powers starts, to utilise her own.
Kurosawa has often been a director of slowness despite his genius for battle sequences. What we see in Ran is that for all the horror evident in the two major confrontations in the film (a raid on the castle Lear is in; the late battle sequence), sitting behind them is the question of thought rather than action, and behind that the problem of hubris so central to King Lear. Kurosawa may completely reconfigure the play narratively but he retains Shakespeare's interest in pride and self-confidence coming before a fall. In the first violent sequence, Hidetora takes over the third castle after it has been abandoned by Saburo's warriors who follow him into exile. But instead of finding a home for himself and his army, the Lord discovers that he has made them easy targets for the armies of his two sons, who lay siege on the castle in a two-pronged attack. While his loyal assistant Tango (in a role similar to Kent in King Lear) insists he should join his son in exile, Hidetora tells Tango to 'use his head' but it is Hidetora who fails to use his as he instead returns to the third castle and becomes a sitting target. Kurosawa coincides with Shakespeare in his interest in the hubristic but deviates from the English playwright by emphasising the logistics of battle, evident in the importance of the banner colours for each of the brothers' warriors. Saburo is blue, Taro yellow and Jiro red matching the colour of the clothes they are wearing at the beginning of the film. When Thomas S. Hibbs says, "two of the most instructive examples of film's independent artistic excellence come from Akira Kurosawa's adaptations of Shakespeare called Ran (King Lear, 1985) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth, 1957), the latter of which is reported to have been T. S. Eliot's favorite film." Hibbs adds, "in praise of these films...Harold Bloom notes that Kurosawa ignores Shakespeare's dialogue and freely refashions his plots. Yet Bloom insists that these films best capture what "Shakespeare was up to." Hibbs disagrees with Bloom on this point, reckoning the critic suggests that Kurosawa is no more than mimicking Shakespeare, while for Hibbs "Kurosawa rivals Shakespeare precisely because he has an independent, if overlapping, artistic vision." ('Is Cinema Art?')
If one sees an overlap in the interest in the hubristic, one notices independence not only in the villainy that Kurosawa completely reshapes but also in the visual manifestation of the material. Shakespeare is understandably a writer famous for his images but they are connotative rather than denotative. In other words, they are often brilliant examples of metaphor and simile rather than a direct representation of things. "An eye like Mars, to threaten and command/ a station like the herald Mercury/ New Lighted on a heaven kissing hill a Combination and form indeed where every god did seem to eat his seal." (Hamlet) "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets upon the stage/And then is heard no more." (Macbeth) Or take this passage when Kent asks where's the King. "Contending with the fretful elements/Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea/Or swell the curld waters 'bove the main/That things might change or cease; tears his white hair" (King Lear) These are strong images but not easy to film as images. Literature has the advantage over film of taking place in the realm of abstract signs rather than concrete representations. To film Lear blowing the earth into the sea would turn the nuance of the prose into the clumsiness of the filmed image. This partly rests on an important point the film theorist Christian Metz makes when commenting on Chaplin's Modern Times. Here he notes that when we see the men going into the factory and the sheep going into their pens it is an attempt at filmic simile, with the workers herded like sheep into the factories. But while in literature it is clear that the simile sees the sheep as metaphoric and the men as actual, in film you have two equally actualised elements and it can become too categorical. As Metz says when suggesting the image of a pencil of light "...the metaphor is a substitution in which the thing compared (the ray of light) takes the place of the thing compared to (the pencil)." ('Current Problems of Film Theory') Shakespeare's images are wonderful but they are not really filmable. The easiest way of solving this problem is by leaving them as they are: as chunks of dialogue. But being faithful to the play has the director been faithful to cinema's possibilities? One reason why we are concentrating on Shakespeare adaptations by international filmmakers for whom English isn't their first language is to suggest that Shakespeare on film is often best done not by those who know the texts inside/out and speak the language with such dexterity (come forward director/actors Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh) but by those who can see in the works the cinematic potential they possess.
Next to many modern plays, the stage directions that delineate character and situation in Shakespeare are minimal. We know Kent's age in King Lear not because the character is so described in the direction but because he says, "not so young, sir, to love a woman for singing, not so old to dote on her for anything. I have years on my back forty-eight." In modern plays, stage direction is often where such specificity resides. Ibsen describes the character Mrs Solness from The Master Builder thus: "she looks thin and worn with grief, but has traces of former beauty. She has fair ringlets. Her dress, of unrelieved black, is in good taste. She speaks rather slowly with a mournful voice." Or this from Pinter's The Caretaker, "Davies stands still. He waits a few seconds, then goes to the door, opens it, looks out, closes it, stands with his back to it, turns swiftly, opens it, looks out, comes back, closes the door, finds the key in his pocket, tries one, tries the other, locks the door." Some modern playwrights believe that these directions cannot be altered. As Samuel Beckett insisted: "Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me." (Guardian) No such fidelity is required for Shakespeare and one of the pleasures of watching a film production is the imaginative freedom the director takes towards the material.
In Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet, the Russian/Ukrainian director emphasizes the barren aspect of the landscape, fitting Hamlet into a world of arid solitude that gives a visual context to his isolation. It isn't just that he is an only child who frets over his mother's remarriage to his uncle so soon after his father's death, it isn't only that he suspects his uncle Claudius of killing his father after a visitation by his father's ghost, it is also that the terrain gives plenty of opportunity for rumination and of course procrastination. While a standard adaptation like Olivier's 1948 film gives us an accurate enough rendition of the play, it feels liked staged theatre whose fidelity to the text doesn't allow much room for the cinematic. While Olivier seeks to wonder how Hamlet feels, Kozintsev muses over how to film the world in which Hamlet finds himself. As Kozintsev said, he wished to "make visible the poetic atmosphere of the play" (Hamlet.com) evident in the frequent lateral tracks used in the film. Just as Polanski very much played up the brutality of Macbeth in a windswept, rainy muddy northern British context, so Kozintsev plays up a more easterly aspect while holding to the same latitude. Kozintsev filmed on the Estonian/Russian border, utilizing the fortress castle Ivangorod on the river Narva. The language of Shakespeare gives way to the language of film with the Russian director accepting that whatever would get lost in translation could be found again in innovative adaptation. (The text was based on Boris Pasternak's modern Russian version.) Kozintsev's Ophelia is presented throughout as a figure constrained rather than a person about to unravel. Whether it is the dances she performs or the elliptical death Kozintsev shows, Ophelia remains throughout a figure of litotes rather than hyperbole. While we see her earlier dancing stiffly and obediently, robed in light garments, as an older woman in black plays a cymbeline and guides her through her movements, later in the film after her father has died and Hamlet rejects her, she dances again but this time without the aid of the cymbeline and dressed in the very colour worn by her music teacher. As she sings the words hang in the air of an echoing space that manages to register madness without exaggerating it. The actress playing Ophelia (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) needn't overact as we find Jean Simmons does in Olivier's version because so much of the character is conveyed in the direction. Even when a moment earlier Kozintsev shows Ophelia behind a bannister that gives the impression of bars because of the director's framing, this doesn't indicate obvious symbolism but sustained imagery. It is just one of many images in the film that suggests the incarcerated, and none more so than the fortress in which much of the film takes place. With the wind howling and the sea lashing, it is a locale that doesn't lend itself to a sense of freedom but of containment.
Yet there is no intrinsic reason for such a setting since Shakespeare's stage directions are vague enough to allow the director to find his own imaginative focus for the film. When Kozintsev talks about 'image-clusters' he thinks less of respecting the play than finding a first principle cinematically in which to work from. As Ronald Hayman says, interviewing Kozintsev about not just his adaptation of Hamlet but also King Lear, the director's purpose is to "coax a new imagery out of the Shakespearian bedrock" ('Grigori Kozintsev: Talking about his Lear and Hamlet Films') He often wants to find an elemental aspect in the plays that can transfer well to film and that can be hampered by the stage. While a filmmaker can find in locale the very elements he seeks, the stage director has to settle for papier mache rocks and tinsel seas. Obviously, set design can be more evolved than that and a director can even incorporate back projection to suggest a more realistic milieu than the stage can usually incorporate. But if on the stage the actors are 'real' and everything else is artificial, in film everything is real but at the same time removed. The mise en scene is much more vivid but the actors are much more distant. To focus too much on the words and on the actor's mastering of them is to miss what cinema does best, which is perhaps to acknowledge the equivalence between the actor and the milieu rather than the discrepancy that is so present on the stage. The actor becomes no more and no less than an object in the frame amongst other objects. When Hamlet offers his brilliant speech alluding to the king's treachery, where the prince talks of how "a man may fish with the worm that has eat of a king...", the director starts with a tracking shot that shows Hamlet walking behind the other courtly figures before the camera and Hamlet arrive at the king himself. The courtly figures are forced to turn their heads toward Hamlet as he speaks, a contortion of their necks that suggest in them all a stiffness and strain the mobile Hamlet demands before arriving next to the king and then moving further around the room. Kozintsev doesn't present it as a display of brilliant acting or a showcase for the language, though it conveys an aspect of both, but chiefly as a question of screen space. The stage director has only so many options at his disposal but live actors to hand. The film director has many more visual opportunities available but the actor is merely an aspect of what is filmed.
If the stage generally emphasizes the actor as real and the stage set as merely the necessary means by which to present the acting and the dialogue, film can instead play up the screen space innovatively, finding the fundamental preoccupations of Shakespeare chiefly by visual means. Hayman notes that "Grigori Kozintsev's first book, Shakespeare, Time and Conscience contained a diary of his work on the Hamlet film and threw a great deal of light on his use of elemental imagery in the film stone, fire, sea and earth." These are elements he sees as important to Shakespeare but we can see too that they usually manifest themselves chiefly in verbal imagery for example in Hamlet's descriptions in the graveyard, acknowledging the elemental reality of a life. Kozintsev manages like Polanski and Kurosawa to register the elemental as cinematically vivid rather than theatrically ingenious, evident in Hamlet's offscreen death. The camera retreats along the rock upon which the castle is placed, showing us the grain of the rock rather than the death of Hamlet. Shakespeare's capacity to produce astonishing imagery with words is not in doubt but a filmmaker who is a little too enamoured of the language might not put enough into their own, distinct, filmic language.
We could even suggest that one reason why Shakespeare is potentially so good a writer to adapt lies in our second point, concerning good villainy, allied to another, which is that while Ancient Greek plays like Medea, Antigone, Oedipus Rex and The Trojan Women have been adapted occasionally and sometimes brilliantly (Pier Paolo Pasolini's Oedipus Rex and Medea) they don't possess the type of dramatic conflict Shakespeare's work usually offers. As the philosopher GWF Hegel proposed, concerning Ancient tragedy: "in all these tragic conflicts, however, we must above all place on the one side the false notion of guilt or innocence. The heroes of tragedy are quite as much under one category as the other." (Hegel on Tragedy) In Shakespeare's plays, this is clearly not the case: Claudius, Lady Macbeth, Edmund, Richard III, Iago, Caliban and numerous others are villainous figures and while cinema is far from reduceable to heroic and villainous dichotomies, who can deny that many films aren't based on such an opposition? Kozintsev says "in my opinion...it is necessary to explain all the figures in the play not only as characters but as materialisations of cruelty or goodness, the worst parts of human nature or the best." (Grigori Kozintsev: Talking about his Lear and Hamlet Films') he understands the point and purpose of Shakespeare just as well as the great German thinker. But where Hegel wishes to understand Shakespeare through thought, and a stage director needs to concern themselves with the language and the acting, the film director needs to allow the thespian and the linguistic to take their place alongside and never crowd out the images that are so vital to cinematic art.
Polanski, Kurosawa and Kozintsev don't just adapt Shakespeare, they utilize the playwright for a vision that becomes as much their own as it happens to be Shakespeare's. Any filmmaker who wants to put this most renowned of writers on the screen perhaps needs to see that the fidelity resides in the film form and not chiefly in poetic language. Roger Scruton might believe that "the cinema, like waxworks, provides us with a means of realizing situations which fascinate us. It can address itself to our fantasy directly without depending upon any intermediate process of thought. This is surely what distinguishes the scenes of violence which are so popular in the cinema from the conventionalized death throes of the theatre." (Photography and Representation) However, looking at Polanski's Macbeth, Kurosawa's Ran and Kozintsev's Hamlet, they all indicate that art can indeed be produced out of cinematic representation. The art lies less in attempting to bring out the genius of Shakespeare than insisting on their wilful directorial brilliance; less accepting the limitations of the film as a failure of live performance, instead seeing that everything in a film image can be, in its own way, very much alive as only the actors on stage in the theatre happen to be.
© Tony McKibbin