Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Revising for Shakespeare is a joy when you experience the Bard's works as movies, writes Toby.
April is upon us now, and from there it’s only a small leap to summer and the exam season it contains. Whether you are taking GCSEs or A Levels, English Literature has never been the easiest subject to revise for — it’s neither a matter of learning key facts (as you might for Biology, say, or History), nor is it about blitzing through a series of practice questions until you feel fighting-fit for the summer exams.
Compiling lists of quotations is important, of course, and it never hurts to reread the set texts in whole or in part. But another method of revision that might come as a welcome break from all that endless reading and reading of textbooks, is to watch a screen adaptation of a novel or play that you have studied. And Shakespeare — having been set to screen so many times in such contrasting ways — offers up more viewing material than just about anyone else.
I will begin by making a few suggestions as to what to do while watching the films and afterwards, and end with a list of recommendations of particular films.
How to get the most out of watching Shakespeare Films
The first thing to assert is that revision should never be passive. Having a film on in the background while texting your friends or chatting on the phone won’t do anybody any good. Not only must you give the film your full attention for the duration, you should also be making notes as you watch. Every single moment in a film demonstrates a number of different choices made by the creative team (the director, actors, script writers and director of photography) and so more or less anything that you see or hear might form the basis of an interpretation of the play. It is good to bear this in mind throughout. But in particular, you should look out for the following things and make notes accordingly:
1. Setting. When and where does the story in the film take place? These do not always correspond to what Shakespeare wrote. In Richard Loncraine’s adaptation of Richard III, starring Ian McKellen, the violent machinations of English Politics of the 15th Century are updated to 1930s, with Richard’s followers dressed to resemble Hitler’s Nazi party. Ask yourself how changes like this affect the way an audience responds to the story. It is sometimes said that although Richard is an obvious villain who commits atrocious crimes, the audience is encouraged to root for him. Is this still the case when he is visually compared to a modern tyrant?
2. Cuts/Additions. With the famous exception of Kenneth Brannagh’s four-hour film of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s scripts are rarely ever performed wholly uncut, especially not on film. Shorter films are cheaper to make, of course, and are generally considered more accessible. But the specific scenes and lines of dialogue that are cut can tell us a lot about a production’s interpretation of a play. Several film versions of Macbeth cut the scene with Hecate, the classical goddess of witchcraft, perhaps because it detracts from a psychological reading of the text, which sees the witches as an external representation of an aspect of Macbeth’s character. Orson Welles’s Othello begins with coffins containing the bodies of Othello and Desdemona being carried with much ceremony across the beaches of Cyprus under a portentous, overcast sky. What does this suggest about the inevitability of destiny? Perhaps Welles was picking up on Othello’s own suggestion that the tragic events of the play are preordained, and beyond human control: “It is the very error of the Moon, / She comes more nearer Earth than she was wont.”
3. Performances. Just as each production offers up an interpretation of Shakespeare’s text, each actor offers up his or her interpretation of a particular character. Comparing the ways that different actors approach the same character can be revealing. A related consideration is casting. In Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet he deliberately cast very young actors in the title roles; his Romeo was 17 and his Juliet only 16. This is much closer to the ages of Shakespeare’s characters (as he wrote it, Juliet is only 13!) than they are often played, and the pair look far more immature and vulnerable on screen than Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes do in Baz Lurhman’s more recent film.
The three points I’ve given above are only ideas to get you started. There are many more features of a film that are worth scrutinising, too many to discuss here in detail. But you might also pay attention to the Music, the Photography, and the Design of a film. How do each of these things impact the story being told? When you are watching a Shakespeare adaptation, ask yourself if it resembles a film genre you are familiar with such as thrillers, romances, or comedies. If so, how is this resemblance established?
A non-exhaustive list of Shakespeare Adaptations on Film
If you agree that films can be a useful way to spice up your revision, you may wish to check out our article on watching films for language learning.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.