Archive for the ‘Shakespeare on Film’ Category

~by Josh Cabat

It is a trope with which we have become extremely familiar, from endless reality shows higher quality fare like Modern Family and The Office. A scene is played out, only to be interrupted by what in the business is known as a cutaway. Here, the character breaks the fourth wall, addresses the audience directly and describes what was going through his or her head while the action of the scene was happening. Perhaps they might offer some analysis of their own actions or comment upon the actions of others; perhaps they will reveal their deepest fears and wishes. Perhaps they will offer predictions and hopes for what is to come, and maybe even reveal plans for how they intend to accomplish those ends. Does this sound familiar?

Yes, it could be The Situation in Jersey Shore, or a conniving member of this season’s cast of Survivor. But this also describes the opening of Richard III or Macbeth’s dagger fantasia. It is a small stretch to say that today’s ubiquitous cutaways have their roots in the kind of intimate revelation to an audience that was essentially perfected, if not invented, by Shakespeare in his use of the soliloquy. So while I may not be entirely comfortable having Rosalind and Snooki this close together in a sentence, it is certain that our students’ familiarity with the cutaway is an easy path towards approaching the subtext of the plays and the rich interior life of Shakespeare’s characters.

To put this to the test, try this simple exercise, as I did with my 9th graders in our reading of Romeo and Juliet. You can begin in one of two ways; either have the students perform the scene themselves and film it, or rip a pre-existing scene (no longer than 3 minutes’ worth, if you please). We chose the latter approach in addressing the meeting of the play’s doomed lovers in Act I, scene v. Students in each group chose the roles they wanted to play, and as a group came up with the questions that they wanted each character to respond to. For example, the students wanted to know how Tybalt felt when he saw a Montague at his family party but was restrained by Capulet from doing anything about it, or what Romeo was planning to do once he realized the identity of his newfound love. The students playing the respective roles had to come up with answers, in modern English but supported by Shakespeare’s text.

Finally, the students filmed their answers to the questions. After editing them down, they loaded them onto iMovie and intercut them at the appropriate moments of the original clip they had downloaded. They added simple titles, such as the character’s name as their cutaways play out, and that was it. The beauty of this activity was that the students were forced, as any actor or close reader would be, to comb through the text to find support for their character’s responses. I invite you to check out the result, “Modern Families (Both Alike in Dignity)” on YouTube here. As a way inside their characters’ heads, using this trope with which they are so familiar was both intuitive and fun.

Josh Cabat is the Chair of English of the Roslyn, NY Public Schools. He was the co-founder of the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a Teaching Artist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is an alumnus of the Folger TSI from 1993, and earned his MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and his BA in English Literature from Columbia University.

Josh has previously written for Folger Education in his post Vindication: Coriolanus and the Modern Audience.

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During this month’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, some of our Summer Scholars have chosen to blog their experiences on their own sites, and have given permission to share some of them here. Today we’ll look back on yesterday’s very full day of activities with Greta Brasgalla:

And we are back for another week!  Today was a bit strange because we had lectures all day including an extra one in the evening.

Morning Lecture:  David Schalkwyk on The Sonnets

David is the epitome of the Shakespearean professor–suit, tie, errant hair, and British accent.  In short, completely charming to listen to.  He discussed the sonnets and some of the themes that are present.  He framed his lecture by saying his son was getting married and he wanted to read a sonnet at the wedding.  He soon discovered that none of them are appropriate.

Helen Vendler says that unlike a play, the lyric is empty of any particular voice.  Any person who speaks them, becomes them.

We learned the importance of pronouns in the sonnets.  For those of you who have no idea about this (as I did), here is a summary

  • thee and thou are used for close family, for God, and from Master to servant
  • you is more formal
  • this is similar to the use of tu and usted in Spanish

As one looks through the sonnets ( we looked at 13, 57, 58, 121, 135, 126) you see Shakespeare making use of these pronouns to emphasize his intimacy with the subject and his displeasure with their relationship.

Interesting fact:  The phrase “Do you love me?” is only used once in Shakespeare (the Tempest). “Dost thou love me?” is used many times.

Independent Research and Lunchtime Colloquium on LUNA database

We had some time after lecture to go into the Reading Room and begin research, or work with Stephen [Dickey] and Margaret [Maurer, two of TSI’s resident instructing scholars] on EEBO (Early English Books Online).  Both of them really helped me find some items on my research topic:  Venice as another  “other” in Merchant and Othello.

At lunch, we learned about the LUNA database which is accessible to the public.  It hold digital images of everything the Folger has photographed over the years.  You can search “Hamlet” and find pics of costumes and renderings of productions as well as pics of the Folio.  Really great for showing your students different ways of staging a play.  Click on the link and check it out!

Curriculum Presentation:  Mary Ellen Dakin “Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults”

MaryEllen had us doing some video projects today using her idea of the relationship between the Literary/Theatrical/Cinematic connection.  MaryEllen calls this “transmediation.”

Our assignment was to film a scene, but add in scenes of us planning, expert advice, and other tidbits.  MaryEllen used the sample of Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard” for this.  We filmed our scene and my friend Melanie did some speed editing on Moviemaker.

After dinner, we went back to the Folger for a great lecture by Ralph Cohen about the Blackfriars Theater.  Interesting that the seating in the BF was exactly the opposite of the Globe:  rich people were onstage and in the front of the theater to be seen.

A great day today made even better by the mild weather over here!

Greta heads the English Department at El Dorado Ninth Grade Academy in El Paso, TX.  She holds a Master of Arts degree in English and American Literature and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Theatre Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso, and now has 20 years of classroom experience.

Check back during the month of July for more “TSI Experiences” from participants and staff!

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When he wrote  “Home Thoughts from Abroad” in April 1845, Robert Browning yearned to be back home in England. But in the spring and summer of 2012, Shakespeare lovers might yearn to be in England  because Shakespeare is blooming everywhere.

As part of the Cultural Olympiad, the London 2012 Festival features more Shakespeare than has ever been assembled anywhere.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is hosting the World Shakespeare Festival which features a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright with over 50 arts organizations and thousands of UK and international artists,  thousands of teachers and young people, seventy productions and exhibitions, plus events and activities, right across the UK and online. The RSC estimates that one million tickets will be on sale, so if you get to England, you’re sure to see tons of Shakespeare.

The Folger will be represented at the RSC’s Worlds Together, an international conference exploring the value of Shakespeare and the arts in young people’s lives. The conference, held at London’s Tate Modern, runs from Thursday September 6 to Saturday September 8.

Meanwhile at Shakespeare’s Globe, one can see 37 plays in 37 languages in six weeks. Their Globe to Globe program began in April and runs until June 9. Some of the more unusual choices are Romeo and Juliet in Brazilian Portuguese,  The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew, and The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu. According to the Globe, if you’re prepared to stand, you can see every play of Shakespeare’s, each in a different language, for only £100.

Shakespeare: Staging the World is on at the British Museum from July 19  to  November 25. According to the museum, “the exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. It also explores the pivotal role of the playhouse as a window to the world outside London, and the playwright’s importance in shaping a new sense of national identity.” Find out more about the exhibition and book your tickets here.

But what about those of us who can’t get to England?

Well, summertime is always outdoor Shakespeare time, so check out those productions in your local area.

Starting in June, BBC television will air new versions of four history plays — Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V. All four were directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes and feature Jeremy Irons, Julie Walters, Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey) and John Hurt. Those of us in the US may eventually get them via PBS, though no date has yet been set.

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A new version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Alan Brown, and featuring an all-male cast,  is sure to become an important film adaptation of this play. Private Romeo will be shown in New York City at the Cinema Village Theatre on E. 12th Street on Friday, February 10th.  If you’re in New York City on the 10th, you should get to the theatre and see it.  The film is suitable for high school students.  It is sure to provoke intense discussion of the play as well as the age-old motifs of love at first sight and all of the implications that come with it.

The film features Matt Doyle and Seth Numrich (War Horse, Lincoln Center run) as two military school students restricted to base, along with a few of their comrades, on a weekend when their fellow cadets go away on a training exercise.  The cadets who remain on base are assigned to continue reading Romeo and Juliet, and the film unfolds from there, with Doyle and Numrich taking on the title roles.  Director Brown has edited the text to a tight 92 minutes, and keeps the vitality of Shakespeare’s language intact. 

Private Romeo (Trailer) from The Film Collaborative on Vimeo.

The film will provide teachers with a number of teachable moments, not only about the language of Shakespeare’s play, but also about his observation that “the course of true love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.136).  The film’s conclusion is sure to prompt debate among viewers.

What films of Shakespeare’s plays have you seen that have generated discussion in class? What’s been the focus of that conversation?

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~by Josh Cabat


That’s the word that kept going through my mind as I sat and watched Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of Coriolanus. It’s not so much that the movie will stand among the greatest attempts to put Shakespeare on film, which it surely will. For me, it went much deeper. This is an unloved play, and with good reason; it is a play with no clear moral center, a political tragedy in which all sides are unattractive and which features the most unlikable “hero” in all of Shakespeare. No less an authority than Stephen Booth summed up the general feeling when he said to me, “I don’t know how anybody could love that play.”

But I do, because it’s the play that made me a Shakespeare person. Like many, I didn’t particularly care for Shakespeare in high school. Perhaps it was being forced to sit through an audio recording of Burton’s Hamlet for four days. When I was asked to read it in college, I had never even heard of it. I was immediately and deeply struck by the sheer modernity of the play; aside from the language, and the antiquity of the setting, it felt as though it had been written yesterday. My high school teachers had tried to tell me that Shakespeare was relevant, but I wasn’t buying; Coriolanus finally showed me that this was so, and changed the direction of my career.

Fiennes’ adaptation, a remarkable directorial debut, confirms what I first felt in college. It was almost redundant of him to update the setting of the play, since the connections to modern times are plain to see in the text. That said, the contemporary setting presses the point home most effectively. In the end, I’ve always believed that there was a reason that Shakespeare essentially abandoned tragedy after this play. In playing out these personal and political difficulties to their logical conclusions, it’s as though he realized that these were knots so complex that they could never be untied. Is it any wonder, then, that he subsequently moved on to a genre where the thorniest of problems could be solved with a simple wave of a magic wand?

I have great hope that this brilliant film will deservedly bring the play more into the mainstream. Coriolanus is indeed unlovable; that what makes it such a crucial work.

Josh Cabat is the Chair of English of the Roslyn, NY Public Schools. He was the co-founder of the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a Teaching Artist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is an alumnus of the Folger TSI from 1993, and earned his MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and his BA in English Literature from Columbia University.

Coriolanus is currently playing in NY and LA, and will release for a wider run on January 20th. Will you and/or your students see it? Do you think there are more modern politics or references in Shakespeare’s canon? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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Students perform a scene from MACBETH during the 2011 Children's Festival

Some recent posts on this blog have noted that introducing Shakespeare’s plays to young students can be a very successful experience for the students and their teachers.  In addition to the Folger’s program for students in grades 3-6, Shakespeare Steps Out (SSO), the RSC has been creating shorter versions of the plays for youngsters.  Last year, for example, the RSC presented 70-minute versions of The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet.  The results were interesting.  Rather than finding the comedy to be more successful with students, the tragedy was the play students connected with because they were able to relate to the family issues within the play.  Now, the RSC is planning to film and make available for free to students in NYC a 70-minute version of King Lear.  Last year’s efforts were not filmed.  If students respond to family issues in a tragedy more than they do to a comedy, what other Shakespeare plays ought to be presented to students? Why? What’s the family-related issue(s) in the play?

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Coriolanus Poster

I was fortunate recently to see 10 scenes from Coriolanus, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes. The presentation at the NY-based Shakespeare Society was part of an informative discussion by David Scott Kasten.

 The film doesn’t officially open until January, but here is the trailer.  In addition to Fiennes, the film stars Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia and Jessica Chastain as his wife, Virgilia. Also in the cast are Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and John Kani.

Also coming soon to a theater near you according to IMDB are a host of Shakespeare-related titles. Here they are:

  •  Much Ado About Nothingdirected by Joss Whedon  was “filmed in just 12 days entirely on location in exotic Santa Monica.”  on the film’s site, director Whedan says, “The text is to me a deconstruction of the idea of love, which is ironic, since the entire production is a love letter – to the text, to the cast, even to the house it’s shot in.” Shot in black & white, the film stars Amy Acker  and Alexis Denisof  as Beatrice and Benedick, features Castle star Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.
  • Messina High also based on Much Ado About Nothing.  It seems that Beatrice and Benedick’s  names have been changed to Bernice and Benny and the “teen comedy” is set in Marin County, California, but not many more details are available yet.
  • Hamlet A.D.D. is probably the strangest film to watch for. According to the film’s Website, “Hamlet is an easily distracted prince who is not quite ready to do the task at hand. Challenged to kill his uncle Claudius by the ghost of his recently dead dad, Hamlet enthusiastically proceeds to do everything but. From practicing stage acting in the 1800s to producing a television drama in the 1950s, from dancing at the discotheque in the 1970s to culinary prankery in the distant future, Hamlet always manages to find something to distract himself from taking revenge for his father’s murder. Shot entirely in front of a green screen, HAMLET A.D.D. features live-action characters in a colorful cartoon world.

Also in pre-production are a new version of Romeo and Juliet starring Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet and Douglas Booth as Romeo and a film simply called Rosaline also starring Steinfeld. According to IMDB, the latter film, based on a novel by Rebecca Searle,  tells the story of a young girl  who is dumped by a guy who immediately falls for another girl with whom he forms a suicide pact. Sound familiar?

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Recently the internet was abuzz with excitement over a secretly produced film of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon. Mostly, probably, because it’s one of the most well-loved nerds ever directing a cast of a few more of the most well-loved nerds.

I excitedly shared this information with my High School Fellowship mentees the day the news broke. I bounced in my seat, my eyes wide with excitement as I told them that Whedon had directed, and would release (eventually), a new setting for Much Ado on film.

Their blank looks knocked the wind right out of me. They had read Much Ado, they had had animated discussions about the play, and even more heated discussions about a local production they’d seen. They had written essays, become attached to characters, drawn out their own themes and morals from it. Nothing.

Maybe I had focused too much on the aspect that Whedon was directing. After all, they were far to young for Buffy or Angel when it was out, and hardly anyone’s seen Firefly unless you were told about it first. “A new adaptation of Much Ado on film, though, guys! That’s got to be cool,” I pressed, hoping that they’d get interested. Still nada.

Now, HSFP students have – as we like to say – drunk the Shakespeare kool-aid. If they can’t get excited about a new film version of a play, will students who’ve never seen it?

So I suppose that’s my question for you, educators. What gets your students excited about Shakespeare outside of the classroom? New film versions by well-loved directors? Shakespeare lines set to hip hop? Novels (or graphic novels) inspired by Shakespeare? Local live performances? There’s a plethora of ways Shakespeare is presented in the modern world, but who is it reaching?

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After the highly anticipated opening of ANONYMOUS last weekend (well, there were a few people I’m sure who almost had to wait on line to see it), the excitement has diminished significantly.  Two people I know were underwhelmed by the experience of seeing it.  My sense is that this is the reaction the vast majority of those who venture to the movies will have regarding the film.  A good number of movie critics, not to mention an impressive list of scholars, have panned the movie and its premise. I am reluctant to join the group in piling on more negative commentary considering that the film is likely to fade into oblivion soon.  However,  the concern I have is that some teachers will use the film and the promotional materials sent to them by SONY Pictures in the guise of  lesson plans in their classrooms. Doing so would be a big mistake, in my book, and might influence students not to question the authorship of Shakespeare, but to ask why his work even matters at all.

The first activity (“Mistaken Identity”) invites students to “join the debate,” and then seems to lead the reader to conclude that the search for the “true” author of Shakespeare’s plays has merit:  “Shakespeare supporters remind us that doubts about his authorship did not arise until more than 200 years after his death.” And then the question, ” What social and intellectual developments during that time might ahve prompted the search for the true author?” To be sure, a slanted question perhaps designed to get students thinking that there is an issue to be debated.

The second activity (“The Soul of the Age”) claims that the film presents a “compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.” Remember, de Vere was dead for many years before a number of Shakespeare’s plays appeared on the scene (and there is no “compelling” explanation about how de Vere could have managed to write from the grave).

And the third activity (“A Kingdom for a Stage”)  notes that the film has “all the elements of a Shakespeare play.”  Perhaps it does, but does that mean anything?  For those of you who have viewed the suggested activities associated with the film, you have undoubtedly found that they are based on lots of misinformation that will lead students far afield. This is one film that teachers should avoid.

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Ralph Fiennes is taking on the role of Prospero in The Tempest.  As you may remember, Fiennes plays the role of Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies.  According to an interview he did for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row,  “He hopes young Potter fans, who are not usually interested in Shakespeare, could be drawn to the play based on his past experience of moving between film and theatre.” He wants young people to understand that there is “an expressiveness, an extraordinary elasticity of expression in Shakespeare which is thrilling to me and I hope other people find it thrilling.”  Fiennes isn’t the only actor who has appeared in popular films and then done a Shakespeare play. And he may not be your favorite.  For me, Sir Laurence Olivier’s King Lear  (1984) was among the most moving I have ever seen on film.  For live performance, I would have to say that Sir Derek Jacobi’s recent portrayal of King Lear was heart-wrenching.  So, what actor have you seen in a Shakespeare play who gave a memorable performance?  What play and what role did he or she perform?  What was so memorable about the performance?

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