Because they have been so dominant in our own culture—film since at least the 1920s, video since the 1950s—these two visual media demand even more careful theorizing if we are to "de-naturalize" them and understand how bodies, space, time, and sound are configured in distinctive ways. For example, in "The Voice in the Cinema" Mary Ann Doane calls attention to the disarticulation of sound and image in film: while a film is being projected, we fuse the voices and other sounds we are hearing with the images we are viewing on the screen, when in fact sound is being broadcast from places in the theater other than the screen. The sound helps us attribute depth to what is, after all, a two-dimensional sequence of lighting effects. Most teachers of Shakespeare and their students are apt to lump film and video together as mechanical media, in contrast to live performance, and yet film and video are technically and phenomenologically quite different from each other. The large projection screen for film, exploited by deft camera work, facilitates the illusion of infinite space, whereas video, with its small screen, typically concentrates on the foreground. As Sheldon Zitner explains it in "Wooden O's in Plastic Boxes," film operates in a virtual everywhere, live performance in the middle distance, and video in a two-dimensional space with little or no depth. Even the most sophisticated video projection equipment reproduces this effect: a grainy image clearly different from film seems nothing more than an enlargement—but not a reconfiguration—of video's comparatively cramped space.

The relationship of the viewer's body to the actors' bodies in stage performance, film and video is profoundly different. In the theater, the viewer's body and the actors' bodies occupy the same physical space: their relationship is actual and remains more or less fixed at a middle distance. Film and video distort these bodily relationships, particularly by seeming to bring the actors' faces close to the viewer's own face—in some cases much closer than would ordinarily be possible in a real-space encounter with another person. At such close range visual cues to meaning replace some of the verbal cues that are more important in the middle distance. As a result, in film and video alike Shakespeare's scripts are apt to seem unnecessarily "talky." Interaction between the viewer's body and the actors' bodies in the theater—laughter from the audience can inspire a comic actor to ham it up more—gives way to increasing passivity in film and video. Even the actors become more passive: it is the camera that is doing the work of presenting them to the viewer. Film, and even more video, create environments in which, according to Zitner, human actors "are expressions of a context rather than its creators" (9). In his chapter on "Perception" Dudley Andrew draws a contrast between film and printed fiction that applies in part to the stage. "Generally," according to Andrew, "film is found to work from perception toward signification, from external facts to interior motivations and consequences, from the givenness of a world to the meaning of a story cut out of that world. Literary fiction works oppositely. It begins with signs (graphemes and words) building to propositions which attempt to develop perception" (101). As fictions made out of words and spectacle, Shakespeare's plays would seem to fall somewhere in between.

No matter how faithful to Shakespeare's verbal text a film or video claims to be, it inevitably represents a transformation from the medium of live performance into the medium of mechanically reproduced light images synchronized with mechanically reproduced sounds. Several critics have proposed schemas for analyzing the differing kinds and degrees of transformation. In his chapter on "Adaptation," Dudley Andrew, who assumes the source text to be printed fiction, distinguishes three kinds of adaptations:

  • borrowing (in which the literary text remains in control)
  • intersecting (in which differences in media are respected)
  • transforming (in which film controls the literary text, so that equivalents are found in the medium of film for elements that are purely verbal in the original text).
Concentrating specifically on film versions of Shakespeare's plays, Jack Jorgens in Shakespeare on Film gauges three degrees of distance from the original:
  • presentation (in which the film tries to stay as close to the verbal text as possible)
  • interpretation (in which the film respects the text but also insists on its own artistic integrity)
  • adaptation (in which the film uses the text as the starting point for something quite different) (7-16).
Jorgens goes on to differentiate among three styles of films of Shakespeare's plays:
  • theatrical (in which the film merely records a theater performance, sometimes from a camera in a fixed position that shows the entire stage all of the time)
  • realist (in which the film moves the play out of the theater into the outside world)
  • filmic (in which the medium of film is accepted as the dominant factor).
To these three Peter Holland in "Two-Dimensional Shakespeare" would add a fourth:
  • deconstructive (in which conventions of the two media, stageplay and film, are played off against each other).

In their contributions to the seminar, Richard Rambuss and Emily Scheuer explore some specific instances of how Shakespeare's plays are transformed in film. Rambuss's discussion of "Renaissance Tableaux in a Postmodern Age of Visual Culture" shows how familiar scenes and motifs from Shakespeare crop up in decidedly unexpected places like John McTiernan's The Last Action Hero, with deconstructive results, while Scheuer in "Ambiguities of Vision: The Spatial Context of Film" points out how the locations in which different scenes are filmed add a new dimension to Shakespeare's scripts.

Renaissance Tableaux in a Postmodern Age of Visual Culture
Ambiguities of Vision: The Spatial Context of Film

Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media