Viewing Shakespeare’s Plays


Recommending film or television versions of Shakespeare’s plays is complicated. Almost always the texts are cut, often substantially; sometimes scenes are rearranged; efforts to update the settings can make the plays virtually unrecognizable. Many directors feel compelled to recreate Shakespeare’s plays in their own image, fundamentally distorting their meaning. Bearing in mind our duty to read what Shakespeare actually wrote, we can still benefit from watching his plays, which, after all, were written to be performed and take on a new vitality in theatrical representation.

All of Shakespeare’s plays are conveniently available in the BBC-Time-Life series; unfortunately the quality of the performances varies from play to play, but generally the productions are acceptable and some of them are excellent (such as the Hamlet with Derek Jacobi). Searching on YouTube will yield a variety of performances of most of the plays; here the quality is even more variable, but at least the productions are available for viewing for free. What follows is a set of recommendations for the 17 plays covered in the lectures; it is not based on a careful and comprehensive study of all the Shakespeare productions available today, and necessarily reflects personal taste and personal experience. At least we hope to call attention to some of the best performances of Shakespeare’s plays available at the moment. In some cases versions are recommended only on the basis of good reviews and/or promising casts.

Antony and Cleopatra—Two adequate performances are available on DVD, which, alas, 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.

As You Like It—There is a 1936 version that features the Orlando of Laurence Olivier, but the play is heavily cut and the Rosalind is miscast. Several versions of the play are available, but each has its own problems.

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.

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. The 1948 version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier is worth seeing.

History Plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V—1) The BBC series The Hollow Crown offers good versions of all four of the plays, with a generally outstanding cast—the Richard II is particularly strong; the Henry V is relatively weak. 2) One of the best adaptations of any Shakespeare play to the screen is the 1989 Henry V directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays the king); it has some problems, particularly in what it omits, but it basically does justice to the play. 3) The 1944 Henry V starring and directed by Laurence Olivier is worth seeing, but it omits far too much from the play. 4) Orson Welles’s 1965 Chimes at Midnight (available from Criterion) is a conflation of the two parts of Henry IV with Henry V and presents his wonderful portrayal of Falstaff, but with its massive cuts and rearrangements, and its telling the story largely from Falstaff’s point of view, it distorts Shakespeare’s work.

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.

King Lear—Perhaps the best version all-around features Ian McKellen as King Lear in a Trevor Nunn production. The Laurence Olivier version was made too late in his career, but it features some superb performances in the other roles (especially by Leo McKern, John Hurt, and Diana Rigg). An oddity is a kinescope of a 1953 television production by Peter Brook with Orson Welles as Lear. It is cut mercilessly and omits the entire Gloucester subplot, but it records Welles’ magnificent performance as Lear.

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’s 1948 version of Macbeth is remarkable in many ways, but his tampering with the text makes it difficult to recommend this film as a first choice.

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.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Perhaps the best version available is the 1968 Peter Hall production, which, if nothing else, includes a dream cast on the female side: Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench. A curiosity worth viewing is the Hollywood 1935 version, directed by the great Max Reinhardt (along with William Dieterle). An extravagant production, it allows us to hear in dramatic context Erich Korngold’s adaptation of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the play. And the casting is a roster of Hollywood stars, including James Cagney, Joe. E. Brown, Dick Powell, Victor Jory, Olivia De Havilland, and Mickey Rooney (as an astonishingly feral Puck). In short, a great deal of talent was lavished on this production, even if the results are mixed.

Othello—Perhaps 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. 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. Orson Welles’s 1951 version of Othello has much to offer, but budget constraints weakened the production and Welles’s rearranging of scenes prevents making this a solid recommendation.

Romeo and Juliet—The clear winner is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version—one of the best of all cinematic realizations of a Shakespeare play. It captures the Renaissance setting of the story effectively and thanks to inspired casting, we get a youthful Romeo and Juliet, as well as Michael York as Tybalt.

The Tempest—Perhaps the best choice is a poor quality recording of a television production from 1960—it is cut and some scenes are rearranged but its cast is extraordinary, including Maurice Evans as Prospero, Lee Remick as Miranda, Roddy McDowell as Ariel, Tom Poston as Trinculo, and no less than Richard Burton as Caliban. A production from the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival has received good reviews, and with Christopher Plummer as Prospero, it ought to be worth watching.

Twelfth Night—There is a good version by Trevor Nunn, featuring excellent performances by Ben Kingsley and Helen Bonham Carter (it is, however, a rather dark realization of the comedy). An earlier version, including Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson, and Joan Plowright in the cast, looks promising.