Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Worthy scaffold: The epic intimacy of William Shakespeare

a dramatic black and white image of a man and woman leaning with their faces close together
a dramatic black and white image of a man and woman leaning with their faces close together

A small discussion of taste during this year’s Oscar ceremonies led to an epic realization. My favorite of the Best Picture nominees was Past Lives, writer/director Celine Song’s lovely little film about two childhood friends who reconnect 20 years later. The host of the party, however, sniffed at my choice — his was (yawn) Oppenheimer — and said, “I don’t like movies that feel like plays.” I realized then that I love movies that feel like plays, and that I prefer theater that shatters the boundaries of the stage and feels cinematic, preferences almost certainly cultivated by my love for the plays of William Shakespeare.

Though the prologue in Henry V famously apologizes for the stage’s limitations — “this unworthy scaffold,” Chorus says, is too small to “hold / The vasty fields of France” — Shakespeare’s plays successfully transport audiences from city to country, from continent to continent, and from interior bedrooms to exterior battlefields, harnessing the power of the audience’s imagination to complete the illusion. Sometimes his transitions are sudden: The three parts of Henry VI, in particular — early plays that in large part established Shakespeare’s popularity — shuttle us back and forth between England and France. And sometimes Shakespeare shifts scenes more cinematically: In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Act 1, scene 4 ends when Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio “withdraw to the side” of the stage while the Capulet ball comes to life around them with the stage direction, “Servingmen come forth with napkins,” at the beginning of Scene 5. This is very like the dissolve director Baz Luhrmann used between these two scenes in his 1996 film of the play, and not unlike the tracking shot Steven Spielberg used to take us to the dance at the gym in his 2021 film of West Side Story, famously based on Romeo and Juliet.

Several of Shakespeare’s plays — notably Act 4 of Antony and Cleopatra and Act 5 of Macbeth — create accelerating momentum with short scenes that take place at the same time in different locations, similar to the quick cross-cutting of the movies. Director Joel Coen, whose 2021 film of Macbeth deliberately evoked a kind of theatrical artificiality, has expressed his appreciation for how Shakespeare “anticipate[d] that kind of [cinematic] storytelling.”

But just as an empty stage can become a surprisingly vast canvas, film’s greatest special effect is the closeup that fills the screen with a character’s face as impressive as any landscape, giving the viewer access to an actor’s thoughts and emotions while approximating the experience of sitting in the front row of a live performance. Though I love seeing Shakespeare onstage, the camera’s ability to put me right in the actor’s lap has captured so many memorable performances:

  • Denzel Washington’s Macbeth, where — in a performance I’ve written about before — the actor’s considerable power is reined in to the point where the thinking behind Shakespeare’s verse gets as much attention as the speaking of it;
  • Sam Rockwell’s Francis Flute surprising his audience and himself with his unexpectedly moving portrayal of Thisbe in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream;
  • Emma Thompson as French Princess Katherine practicing her English in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989);
  • Nathan Fillion as an unexpectedly subdued (and therefore hilarious) Dogberry in Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing;
  • Sophie Okenedo’s journey from captured war bride to fierce warrior Queen Margaret in the Henry VI episodes of The Hollow Crown miniseries in 2016; and
  • Ben Whishaw as Richard II in The Hollow Crown (2013), arguably the most perfect onscreen casting of that role ever.
a woman wearing armor and a crown with a serious expression and soldiers behind her

Sophie Okenedo as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown miniseries

Plays adapted to film can feel simultaneously cinematic and theatrical, but filmed performances of stage productions have their own power, offering not only the opportunity to see amazing shows you can’t see in person, but frequently giving you a better seat than any you could buy in the theater. For instance:

  • Shakespeare’s Globe’s extraordinary all-male 2013 production of Twelfth Night combines 400-year-old stage practices with subtle modern performances from Mark Rylance as Olivia, Stephen Fry as Malvolio, and Johnny Flynn as Viola. I’ve watched this production multiple times, and probably enjoy it more than I would have in person because, though multiple wide shots show the scope of the live production (including the audience’s reactions), the camera lets me revel in the actors’ tiniest reactions and gestures.
  • The film of the Bridge Theatre’s 2019 A Midsummer Night’s Dream captures the theatrical energy of this immersive production, in which fairies fly on trapezes and the audience is shuffled around to accommodate the moving playing areas. The actors’ comic interactions with audience members feel immediate and spontaneous, regardless of whether they were scrupulously rehearsed or improvised on the night. Also, since I’m too old to stand for three hours, seeing these productions on film is way better (for me) than being there.
  • Most recently, the NT Live broadcast of The Motive and the Cue, Jack Thorne’s exquisite 2023 play about John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in Hamlet in 1964, offers audiences the opportunity to see two incredible actors in the leading roles — Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn (again) — navigating their conflicting egos while tackling one of Shakespeare’s most complicated roles. I’m sure that seeing them live onstage had its own kind of power, but seeing them onscreen is not just the next best thing, it’s a pretty great thing in its own right.

But back to Oscar night. I think what touched me so deeply about Past Lives was its passage of time, that thing that happens most notably in Shakespeare’s Romances but also his Histories, when characters change and grow in the course of a narrative. Shakespeare’s most moving play for me might be Richard II, the story of an immature and unworthy king whose tragedy may be that he loses his crown just at the point he’s maturing enough to deserve it. In Pericles, the title character’s reunion with his wife and daughter is moving in a way Leontes’s similar reunion with Hermione in The Winter’s Tale just isn’t, because I don’t find Leontes sympathetic enough to deserve any redemption — though I am sad at everything Hermione lost.

And that’s what Shakespeare taught me: It’s possible to mourn what never was and only might have been. For my money, the small-scale Past Lives had the richness and theatrical surprise of a five-act Shakespeare play — and an emotional power that Oppenheimer couldn’t touch.