I strongly encourage students to see performances of Shakespeare’s plays when possible — either in live performance or on film. Though there is a lot to be learned from quiet study of his plays, Shakespeare was a working playwright who wrote for the stage, and his lines come alive when spoken. They were not written for the page.
Finding a good local performance of a Shakespeare play is often a matter of the luck of the draw — some are good, some are dreadful; most are somewhere in between. In some localities one can almost always find some Shakespeare being produced; in others, live theater is a rarity. Film presentations have the advantage of being repeatable and widely available in home media.
It probably goes without saying that filmed versions have disadvantages as well. No film, no matter how successfully produced, can capture the electricity and energy that comes from a good troupe of players performing superior material before a live audience. The “feedback ” the audience provides to the players is an integral part of the experience. It’s also the case that Hollywood is somewhat freer than most local producers of plays, with the result that some filmmakers have rewritten, discarded, or imported massive sections of scripts for their own purposes. It’s also much likelier for a film version to contain material that is unsuitable for some audiences, and some of the avant-garde versions seem to revel in deliberate inappropriateness.
All the same, movies of Shakespeare’s plays are probably here to stay, and at their best they can be remarkable. Cinema is capable of achieving much greater degrees of realism and spectacle, where those things are relevant, and the use of music and close-up shots of speakers can change the dynamics of the plays considerably. On the pages linked below, I have attempted to present, in as uniform and even-handed a format as I can, my own assessment of the currently available versions of the plays we are studying. They don’t pretend to be unbiased, though I try to say what I like about most of them, even when I’m not particularly enthusiastic for them.
I am pleased to report that within the last few years the complete set of the BBC Shakespeare Plays series has been made available to the general public at last. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only systematic attempt to put the whole of Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus on film. These aired on PBS during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then became extremely difficult to find. At their best they are quite remarkable; at worst, rather tedious. Still they allow us to see some plays that are otherwise rarely seen at all. The set even includes a few plays that are normally at the edge of the corpus — either collaborations or works of dubious authenticity, like Henry VIII and King John. They are still not inexpensive — but they are a good deal less expensive than they used to be ($100 apiece), and they are also available in reasonably clean digital transfers to DVD. More than half of the plays have been packaged in “gift box ” collections — two of tragedy, one of comedy, and one of histories, and these collections are sold through Amazon. All the plays are available individually from
Some will also have seen the recent PBS series “In Search of Shakespeare ”, with Michael Wood. I have seen the DVD version of the series, which is somewhat more complete than what was originally aired, and it advances a number of intriguing hypotheses about Shakespeare’s background and the identity of several of the people mentioned in the sonnets. It’s presented in a somewhat melodramatic but generally entertaining and engaging way, and incorporates small pieces of footage from a number of live performances of various plays.
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