Shadows Searching for What Cast Them: Five Shakespeare Movies

Shadows Searching for What Cast Them: Five Shakespeare Movies July 17, 2020

Some have the sublimity of Bottom’s dream… some are rudely mechanical.

10 Things I Hate About You: This is “The Taming of the Shrew” adapted for a modern high-school setting, which should be impossible and instead is somehow brilliant. Harold Bloom used to say that Katharina and Petruchio end the play as joint conspirators, united against the world which threw them against one another; it’s not as easy to wring that interpretation from the text as I’d like, but boy, this play wrings ’til its hands ache. Katharina (Julia Stiles) is a cynical teen, unhappily lashing out at those around her and discovering that this doesn’t relieve her unhappiness; Petruchio or “Patrick Verona” (Heath Ledger) has a mostly-undeserved bad reputation and is just as alienated as she is from those universal villains, The Popular Kids. From that characterization their romance makes sense, and Katharina’s eventual happiness seems like the only possible outcome.

The script is funny and mostly charming. Really the whole thing is a fractal: I had every reason to hate this movie, and yet I found myself loving it against my will! Movie 1, Shrew 0.

The Taming of the Shrew: Meanwhile this lush Zeffirelli production is a screechy, brutal tale of a completely isolated and friendless woman who surrenders self-respect, and its diadem conscience, in the hope of winning a reprieve from her abusive husband. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton supposedly smolder but actually screech and mock each other, seeming extremely emotionally involved but not in a good way. The setting and costumes and music are all delicious and the story is–to use another Bloomism–rancid.

Look, there are moments–fleeting glimpses of something in Burton’s gaze, which suggests that something in Katharina startles him and makes him want to court her rather than destroying her. But she herself never sees these glimpses. The script emphasizes the way everyone around her treats her as obstacle and chattel. It’s painful to watch and her capitulation is sunless. You can watch this as a tragedy, but why would you?

Were the World Mine: Another high-school adaptation. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” instead of “Shrew,” 2008 instead of 1999, and extra double super gay instead of a small piece of light period-typical homophobia. This movie has a camp edge, and I wanted very badly to like it, but it commits the one unforgiveable sin: making Shakespeare didactic. “Midsummer” is about the helplessness of love, the caprice of Eros the blind god; it’s about mystery and ecstasy, and also how funny people are when they have donkeys’ ears on their heads. “Midsummer” is a Mobius strip where sublimity and ridiculousness are always the same side of the page. This movie, by contrast, is about how homophobia is bad. It’s a Very Special Episode, not a Shakespearean comedy.

“Midsummer” is not wholesome! In general we need less wholesome entertainment, not more, but specifically I can’t accept wholesome Shakespeare. I fling this film from my presence like a theater gift-shop pillow stitched with To thine own self be true. –Hamlet.

The Chimes at Midnight: Oh, this is a rewatch of course, and it’s still so perfect. The Falstaff Movie lets Falstaff be horrible–it doesn’t make excuses for him, it doesn’t excise the awful scenes of choosing men for slaughter on the battlefield, and yet it makes you love him, which is the central (and unwholesome) Falstaff trick. Margaret Rutherford is wonderful as Mistress Quickly. Orson Welles is a burbling delight, and then a shipwreck. The stark framing gives the film an existential weight, while the Holinshed narration keeps it historical-enough. I would say there’s maybe too many shots from extreme low angles, always the bluntest way of showing a character’s social power, but aside from that small tug on Superman’s cape I have only grateful praise for this thing.

Romeo + Juliet: And we end with Baz Luhrmann. Bless him. This movie is a blast. It’s aggressively modernized along the lines of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, only flashier, glitzier, sillier, and thoroughly given over to the audience’s pleasure. Sun-soaked idiot teenagers with guns make mortal and sometimes beautiful decisions. You really feel that everyone’s trapped in the political violence–even the adults, who are awful here but also often helpless. The constant Catholic bling in every scene gives the marriage plot an ecstasy which goes beyond sex; violence isn’t the only way these teens can touch eternity. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are both callow and beautiful and wonderful.

This isn’t the kind of adaptation that cares about or knows how to handle Mercutio, and especially the Queen Mab speech, and that’s too bad since he and it are my favorite parts of the play. Here, Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, doing a valiant job with an imo mishandled role) never has that experience of being startled by his own sudden flight into sublimity. He never feels like he’s entered a private dreamworld. I would have liked to keep sublime Mercutio–he gives you yet another perspective on ecstasy and escaping the terrifying political world. But it’s a sign of how much I loved everything else about this deliberately trashy flick that I forgive it for reducing Mercutio to drug trips and prick jokes.

Post title via Thylias Moss. Eduard von Grutzner’s Falstaff via Wikimedia Commons.

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