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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare on Film

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 26

For most of us, “seeing Shakespeare” means experiencing live actors in a theater. But for more than 100 years, Shakespeare’s words, plots, settings and characters have also been brought to life on film.  

Shakespeare on film has never been like Shakespeare on stage. In the earliest years of the medium, it simply couldn’t be. Then, as film matured, directors realized that the medium offered new ways to tells Shakespeare’s stories that were impossible to reproduce on stage.  

Along the way, trends, like multiplex theaters, the rise of independent films, and teen comedies, and directors from Orson Welles to Laurence Olivier to Julie Taymor and Joss Whedon have reshaped and reimagined Shakespeare.

Our guest for this Shakespeare Unlimited episode is Sam Crowl, professor of English at Ohio University. He’s also the author of A Norton Guide to Shakespeare and Film, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, and Shakespeare Observed. He was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.  

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published June 17, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “See What I See,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Tobey Schreiner at public radio station WAMU in Washington and Steven Skidmore at WOUB, a public radio station in Athens, Ohio. 

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “See What I See.”

For most of us, seeing Shakespeare means experiencing live actors in a theater. But for more than 100 years, Shakespeare’s words, plots, settings, and characters have also been brought to life on film. Shakespeare on film has never been like Shakespeare on stage. In the earliest years of the medium, it simply couldn’t be. Then, as film matured, directors realized that the medium offered new ways to tell Shakespeare’s stories that were impossible to reproduce on stage. Along the way, trends like multiplex theaters, the rise of independent films and teen comedies, and directors from Orson Welles to Laurence Olivier to Julie Taymor and Joss Whedon have reshaped and reimagined Shakespeare.

For the past 45 years, Samuel Crowl, professor of English at Ohio University, has been writing and teaching about Shakespeare on film. We brought him here today to offer a broad overview of the subject. He is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

[CLIP from Henry V, 1985:]

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand o’ tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

REBECCA SHEIR: You’ve written that the greatest explosion of Anglo-American films based on Shakespeare’s plays came out in the last decade of the 20th century, and that’s more than we’d seen in something like 100 years. What was it about that period of time that made it so rich in Shakespeare film adaptations?

SAMUEL CROWL: Well I think it’s a mingling of, as always, a work of art and a cultural moment. This young, brash British kid that nobody really had heard of, Kenneth Branagh, had the chutzpah, after giving one lead performance and two smaller ones at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to found his own little theater company and then to decide he wanted to make a film of Henry V.

[CLIP from Henry V, 1985:]

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

CROWL: And he produced a film that caught the world’s attention because it was surprisingly good, but at the same moment in America, in Hollywood, it was the beginning of the independent film movement. So, the independents took advantage of these Shakespeare films, of this new movement, as did a lot of other serious films. And as a result, in the 1990s we not only got 20 or more Shakespeare films, in the sense that they weren’t just spinoffs, they used Shakespeare’s language, but we also got remakes of all six Jane Austen novels and new films of about five Henry James novels.

SHEIR: You also seem to suggest that the creation of the multiplex is in part responsible for this proliferation of Shakespeare films. Can you talk about that?

CROWL: Sure. Suddenly you didn’t have one downtown theater with one screen where a movie would come and play for a month or so. Now we had places that had 10, 12, 24 screens and they needed material.

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing, 1993:]

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, but keep your way, i’ God’s name, I have done.

SHEIR: If we go back to the beginning of Shakespeare on film, do I understand correctly that there are more than 400 silent Shakespeare films?

CROWL: You do. A great scholar, Robert Hamilton Ball, wrote the first real work of scholarship about Shakespeare on film and it was on Shakespeare and the silent film.


And of course, these films, when we talk about 400 films, you’ve got to remember that early silents were one or two reelers. They last anywhere from 4 to 10 or 12 minutes. Only about 40 of those survive. What’s very interesting is that when you get up to a film that is maybe six, seven, eight reels long, so somewhere between 40 and 60 minutes, it’s considered a full-length film, and the oldest surviving American film is a Shakespeare film from 1912 and it’s of Richard III.

SHEIR: Why was Shakespeare so hot back then?

CROWL: Well, once again, I think there are aesthetic and cultural reasons, both. First of all, Shakespeare’s… many of his stories were familiar. Many of those stories also dealt with elements of the supernatural, things like fairies or sprites or ghosts that film and its ability to use trick photography seemed a natural medium to explore, giving the audience an experience that they could not have in the theater. So, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or bits of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were very popular in the early silent films. So were ghost scenes. So there was that element.

Then, I think, in terms of culture, film was obviously regarded as something at the bottom of the cultural totem pole. And so I think that producers got the wise idea that if you could link film with Shakespeare, that that was showing that film belonged, or film could be a part of, an artistic enterprise that also included Shakespeare.

SHEIR: Well, we’re talking about the silent era of film, of course, and so much of Shakespeare’s power comes from the language. So, when you’re reading reviews of Shakespeare’s films back from that time, what do you find that critics say about the fact that the films have no dialogue? Or does that not even come up? Was that a moot point?

CROWL: It’s a moot point, because it isn’t something that yet can be conjured, I mean, that is the form, that the film is silent. So you go in knowing that, and you go in without… It’s sort of interesting that it’s when sound does come along, that the sort of criticism that you’re thinking about erupts, in the sense of, they don’t know what to do with the language, or they don’t know how to speak it correctly. And, of course, the real trick is how you bring the words and the images together, and it took a while for film, once it learned to talk, to be able to do that.

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew, 1929:]

Oh, come, Kate, come. You must not look so sour.

It is my fashion when I see a crab.

Why, here’s no crab. Come, Kate, come, sit down.

SHEIR: I want to talk a little bit more about the early talkies. When talking pictures came along, like you said, the first big budget Shakespeare films were kind of, they were kind of flat, they were very classically styled. Men in drapey clothing standing around and declaiming, you know, that kind of thing. Can you talk more about that?

CROWL: The first experiments were in Hollywood. Hollywood went and tried to do him, and first it did it with a pair of famous leading actors, a husband and wife team, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew, 1929:]

Yourself and all the world
Have talked amiss of her.


And we have ‘greed so well together
That Sunday is our wedding day.

I’ll see thee hanged on Sunday first.

CROWL: And it has its moments, and then there was the great 1935 Warner Brothers concoction, it was actually put together by a great German director, Max Reinhardt, who actually wanted Fred Astaire to play Puck, that was his… [LAUGH]


CROWL: And that would have been wonderful, and he wanted Gable and Cooper for the two young lovers. Anyway, he didn’t get them. But it at least tries to tell the story cinematically, and it probably overdoes it because it wants to create spectacle.

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935:]

Set your heart at rest:
The Fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot’ress of my order.
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

CROWL: And then, I think what killed it was the MGM Romeo and Juliet, which was meant by Irving Thalberg, the great producer, meant as a bouquet for his wife, Norma Shearer, who was a fine Hollywood actress. But he wanted to give her this chance to do Shakespeare and she was 40 and her Romeo, Leslie Howard, was 42, and this didn’t work in close-up.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, 1936:]

What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.

SHEIR: You’ve said that it really took Laurence Olivier to break that code, to crack that code of how to successfully do Shakespeare on the screen. What do you find different in his version of Shakespeare versus what Hollywood was doing?

CROWL: Well, for one thing, as you know if you’ve seen the film, it all starts in the Globe theater.

[CLIP from Henry V, 1944:]

O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

CROWL: And it uses many different forms of representation. So we start in the theater, and then we move out from the theater, not into location shooting, but into representational sets. And then we move from those representational sets, finally, at the Battle of Agincourt, into on-location landscape shooting. So he begins to play with cinema the way Shakespeare plays with theater, and while Shakespeare is always willing to be meta-theatric, Olivier is being meta-cinematic here.

[CLIP from Henry V, 1944:]

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:

CROWL: And the film comes out at a time, and is bright, and he made it in Technicolor, because he wants to make a film that is a present to the English at this moment, and it was. So I think the cultural moment is important here, too, because it was a film that said Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Age is part of what we’re fighting for.

SHEIR:  Now Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles are seen as the two greatest craftsmen when it comes to adapting Shakespeare to film. I’m curious, where do you come down on Olivier versus Welles? Who do you think does it better?

CROWL: Well, I’m an American, and so I cast my lot with Welles. They are a remarkable pair because they are so uniquely different. Olivier is a man of the theater. Welles ultimately is a man of the cinema. Welles is a true master of film. An Olivier film, to be quite honest, will never be taught in a film history course. A film history course probably cannot ignore two or three, at least, of Welles’s films. So if you come at this from the cinema side of things, Welles is your man.

SHEIR:  If we’re talking about these new cinematic directions that Welles is taking, can you give examples from some of his Shakespeare films?

CROWL: Sure, he’s always after how the image is evoking images that are significant in the text

[CLIP from Othello, 1951:]

And yet, how nature erring from itself—

Ay, there’s the point. As, to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Foh! One may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion

CROWL: Well, in his Othello he is always in half light, he’s always in the shadows, moving in and out of it with Iago on the other side of it, that is the whole issue of black and white, the whole issue of innocence and evil, are brilliantly expressed, just in the quality of the way in which Welles uses light and shadow.

And there is a terrific moment in the film when Iago has been pouring his poison in Othello’s ear, and they come in from the battlements, and Welles gives us a great mirror shot, and once again, in the mirror they’re in half shadow and you get Othello in the shot in the mirror with Iago in the background, and then quickly we move to a shot of Desdemona, then back to the shot of the two of them reflected in the mirror.

[CLIP from Othello, 1951:]

I would I might entreat your Honor
To scan this thing no farther. Leave it to time.

Farewell. Leave me, Iago.

SHEIR:  It sounds like they’re doing a lot of the work.


SHEIR: Now there’s such an enormous gap in time between the 1930s and the 1970s, there’s little or no Shakespeare produced during that time period. Obviously, World War II would partly explain that, but why was there so little in the 1950s and most of the 1960s?

CROWL: Well, actually the films are being made in that period, it’s when we get to the end of sort of the beginning of the 60s that they begin to dwindle away, partly because they haven’t made any money. We taper off because the word is, Shakespeare is box office poison.

And then Zeffirelli comes along in 1968 and makes a blockbuster, the first blockbuster Shakespeare film, and so because that film made a lot of money, it allowed Hollywood to put up some money for a film of Macbeth that was directed by Roman Polanski, and when that turned out to be box office poison, they just dropped it.

And they dropped it, too, because the BBC had come along and, starting in about 1975, had a 10-year plan of producing all of Shakespeare’s plays in television versions and those were all going to be shown in America on PBS. And so the studio heads said, What’s the point of our investing any money in Shakespeare? Those people who want to watch him can see him for free on television.

SHEIR: While we’re talking about this dry spell in America, though, I guess we should point out that, globally, there was some Shakespeare going on, on film.

CROWL: Indeed. And that becomes sort of that post-war period, where you get Akira Kurosawa making his three great Shakespeare films, the most famous being Throne of Blood, his version of Macbeth, but also one of his last two films is a great film based on the King Lear story called Ran.

[CLIP from Ran, 1985]

CROWL: And we get Grigori Kozintsev in Russia making his two great Shakespeare films, Hamlet in 1964 and King Lear in 1971.

[CLIP from King Lear, 1971]

CROWL: We get a couple of films in Germany, we get one in France.

SHEIR: And if we fast-forward to the end of the 20th century, you include films like 10 Things I Hate About You and the stretch of Shakespeare-related spinoffs that came up. And I’m wondering, in your opinion, what is it that makes these films Shakespeare films? I mean, if someone makes a movie about a guy who’s trying to make another guy take out a girl so that he can date the girl’s sister, why is that considered a Shakespeare spinoff, just because Shakespeare wrote a play with more or less the same plot 400 years ago? How much of this is Shakespeare, would you say, and how much of this is marketing?

CROWL: Oh no, it’s some director who wants to do this—a director’s program. It’s like Clueless and Emma.

SHEIR: Right, right.

CROWL: I mean, you can go see Clueless and not have any idea what the resonance is with Jane Austen’s Emma, but, believe me, the woman who made that film sure does. And so that’s where this comes from.

It’s a form of how can we meld Shakespeare, minus the language, into film form and so you get Shakespeare films that are sci-fi films, you get Shakespeare films that are Westerns. Now part of this, it’s always a director where this kind of project starts, because they’re interested in doing it, but then they’re also trying to find an audience.

SHEIR: We were talking about Kenneth Branagh earlier, and I’m wondering why was he so much more successful than Trevor Nunn or someone like Julie Taymor in bringing Shakespeare to the screen?

CROWL: Well, people might quarrel with that assessment, but I think he was, in the sense that, particularly in Much Ado About Nothing, he was willing to go all the way to appeal to that 12- to 24-year -old audience. He was willing to be, as my own students say, cheesy.

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing, 1993:]

Come hither, Leonato. What was it you told me of today, that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signior Benedick?

I did never think that lady would have loved any man.

CROWL: The film had energy, it had life, it had a kind of an appeal. Now the appeal was not meant to be to a 55-year-old distinguished Shakespeare scholar. As a great young French scholar, who became attracted to Shakespeare because of Branagh’s Henry V, said about Much Ado About Nothing, in that early scene when the boys are all jumping in the bath and the girls were taking a shower as they get ready to meet for a big house party, Branagh says he was clearly shaking the dust out of Shakespeare.

Probably the fact that Trevor Nunn had spent his life directing Shakespeare in the theater held him back from going at Twelfth Night, let’s say, in a similar vein. I think what he does in Twelfth Night is very nice, but he turns it into something out of Chekhov, which is great for me, but that isn’t going to appeal to the 17- or 18-year-old kid moviegoer.

SHEIR: And Julie Taymor, what’s your take on that?

CROWL: Yeah, Taymor. I like her work, but, boy, Titus Andronicus would be a hard sell anywhere. I can’t tell you why The Tempest didn’t get a better response. I’ve just been talking about it at a Shakespeare conference and I was surprised how many Shakespeareans in the room were not pleased with the translation of Prospero into Prospera, although many of them were women, or with Mirren’s performance. I find it stunning and I was much more humanly involved in Prospera’s struggle with her new-found freedom than I ever have been by a Prospero in the theater, but we all have, we all go to the movies, and we all have our own opinions, I guess. [LAUGH]

SHEIR: Going back to Much Ado About Nothing, what would you say is worth talking about with regard to the most recent production, the one done by Joss Whedon?

CROWL: Here’s an example of somebody taking the 500 million dollars that The Avengers made and taking a piece of it and wanting to make a Shakespeare film. It’s the director who wants to do this. What I did respond to, because I’m not a part of that generation, is that the audiences that I first watched the film with were laughing early on, because they knew all of the characters, all the actors in that film are a part of Whedon’s television empire.

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing, 2012:]

O God, sir, I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.

There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.

CROWL: So they knew them all and they were taking a great delight in seeing them do Shakespeare. That just wasn’t available for me because in many cases, I’d never seen any of them before and, in some cases, I was not as initially drawn to their performances as I have, I must confess, been on subsequent viewings.

SHEIR: But, what I’m taking away from this, is this movie might not be in your top ten of Shakespeare films?

CROWL: No, no, you got it. [LAUGH]

SHEIR:  Do you think film adaptations of Shakespeare have had an impact on stage productions and, if so, how, what kind of impact?

CROWL: When a director, a stage director, comes to do a Shakespeare, he or she has almost never seen the other stage productions that have been significant in the past 20 or 25 years, unless you got just a lucky chance to see them in your locale at a time when you were free, but you can revisit films.

And so a director who comes to make a stage production of, let’s say, Macbeth has got a whole series of Macbeth films he or she can go look at to try to get ideas or steal things, in the way they don’t have available to them, the last staging of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the last time it was done in Japan. So I think I can trace liftings, not completely, not the whole deal, but a little detail here and there, and so I like that conversation.

After Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, where, as you know, Benedick splashes in a fountain and Beatrice swings in a swing, as an expression of their ecstasy once they’ve opened their hearts to understanding that each is loved by the other, the next three stage productions of Much Ado About Nothing I saw had either a swing, a fountain, both, or finally, at the Royal National Theater, the National Theater in London, a swimming pool. [LAUGH] So we could do the fountain stuff one better, we could douse them both in the swimming pool. So, yes, they talk to one another.

SHEIR: Now that I think about, the most recent production I saw here in Washington, DC, it definitely had a fountain.

CROWL: There you are.

SHEIR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

CROWL: Rebecca, it’s just been a great pleasure and good luck.

SHEIR: Thank you.


WITMORE: Sam Crowl is a Professor of English at Ohio University. He is also the author of A Norton Guide to Shakespeare and Film, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, and Shakespeare Observed. He was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“See What I See” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Toby Schreiner at Public Radio Station WAMU FM in Washington and Stephen Skidmore at WOUB Public Radio in Athens, Ohio.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.