Viewing Shakespeare’s Plays

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All of Shakespeare’s plays are conveniently available in the BBC-Time-Life series; unfortunately the quality of the performances is quite variable. We will confine ourselves here to recommendations with regard to the eight plays covered in the lecture series.

1) Coriolanus—unfortunately, no good performance of this play is currently available. The 2011 film starring Ralph Fiennes is too remote from what Shakespeare wrote; the updating of the story to a modern setting ruins Shakespeare’s deliberate effort to portray ancient Rome.

2) Julius Caesar—two adequate performances are available on DVD; both suffer from a kind of monumentalizing impulse that actually weakens the drama: 1) the famous 1953 version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, featuring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, available from Warner 2) a 1970 version directed by Charlton Heston (who plays Mark Antony), available from Lions Gate.

3) Antony and Cleopatra—again two adequate performances are available on DVD, which also suffer from a tendency to monumentalize: 1) a 1974 version directed by Trevor Nunn, available from Lions Gate 2) a 1972 version directed by Charlton Heston (who plays Mark Antony), available from Warner.

4) Henry V—1) one of the best adaptations of any Shakespeare play to the screen is the 1989 version directed by Kenneth Branagh (who plays Henry V); it has some problems, particularly in what it omits, but it basically does justice to the play; available from MGM 2) the 1944 version starring and directed by Laurence Olivier is worth seeing, but it omits far too much from the play; available from Criterion, 3) the BBC series The Hollow Crown has a good Henry V (2012), with Tom Hiddleston in the title role; available from Universal.

5) The Merchant of Venicethe 2004 version starring Al Pacino has much to commend it, including Pacino’s uncharacteristically understated portrayal of Shylock; it is a very dark version of the play and omits many of its comic elements; available from Sony.

6) Hamlet—here the 1980 BBC-Time-Life production, starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet may be the best available; the 1996 version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh is also good, and has the advantage of presenting the play complete; available from Warner; the 1948 version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier is worth seeing; available from Criterion.

7) Othelloperhaps the best version is the one directed by Trevor Nunn, with the opera singer Willard White giving a great performance as Othello, and Ian McKellen as Iago; available from Image (1990); also very good is the 1965 Laurence Olivier version, available from Warner; the 1995 version starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello should be avoided, despite a brilliant performance by Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

8) Macbeththe 1971 version directed by Roman Polanski is controversial, but manages to convey much of the power of the play; available from Columbia; a more conventional version (1979) is directed by Phillip Casson with Ian McKellen as Macbeth; available from A & E Home Video.

Orson Welles’ versions of Othello (1952) and Macbeth (1948) are in many respects remarkable, but depart too greatly from Shakespeare’s texts to be safe recommendations; his Chimes at Midnight (1965) is a conflation of Henry IV and Henry V and contains his wonderful portrayal of Falstaff, but it is even further from Shakespeare’s original texts.