Shakespeare on Stage and Screen

{Ed. Note: This is a guest article from Books and Vines reader Scholasticus. I took his advice on a couple recommendations below and agree the productions are spectacular! These are highly recommended.}

William Shakespeare (This image is in the public domain; PD-ART)
William Shakespeare National Portrait Gallery (PD-ART)


Shakespeare is one of the most popular English authors: many studies and surveys reiterate the fact that his works are among the most frequently printed and read after the Bible. To read Shakespeare is to have a conversation with oneself about the nature of the human condition, and this conversation is never the same, no matter how often one reads – and rereads – Shakespeare’s works.

But reading Shakespeare’s plays, even in their fine press incarnations, is never quite the same as seeing his plays being performed. To watch Shakespeare is to be reminded that

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…. (As You Like It, II.7)

Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate this is to visit the Globe Theatre in London, a reconstruction of the Elizabethean playhouse built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Standing in the centre of what feels an inordinately small theatre, where people must have (and do!) stand cheek to jowl in order to watch modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays brings to mind the apology for the pale imitation of the stage to Henry V:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The chorus goes on to beg pardon for causing the audience to use their powers of imagination to flesh out the undermanned scenes that are about to follow: to see great armies clashing on the stage, not a handful of actors in costume, to hear in their mind’s eye the deafening thundering of hooves as the cavalry thunders across the bloodstained fields of France, and, above all, to suspend disbelief and give themselves the power of omniscience so that they may find themselves flying through England and France before finding themselves in the midst of Henry’s great victory at Agincourt.

This is the power of the Globe as well: the Globe prides itself upon putting on productions of Shakespeare while remaining as faithful to the production materials and values of his era. This does not mean spartan productions. The actors and actresses are outfitted in splendid costumes, and turn the small wooden stage into a gigantic canvas upon which the words of Shakespeare come alive; indeed, while watching Henry V, one might be forgiven for feeling as if “the very casques / that did affright the air at Agincourt” managed to be fitted onto the stage. One of the Globe’s great strengths is stressing just how bawdy Shakespeare really was to his contemporary audiences: watching Roger Allam play Falstaff in the Globe’s 2010 production of Henry IV is nothing short of a comic tour de force. (Anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the richness of Shakespeare’s bawdy would be well-served by Eric Partridge‘s magisterial Shakespeare’s Bawdy, and, for those of us who prefer a more direct analysis of Shakespeare’s bawdy, Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Klernan.)

One doesn’t have to fly to London to watch Shakespeare at the Globe: DVDs of Globe productions are regularly available via the Globe’s online shop. These DVDs can also be purchased through sites like Amazon and eBay. Currently, plays from the 2009 through 2013 seasons are available for purchase. (Please note that if you want copies of these DVDs with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, you must buy them directly from the Globe. Amazon sells Globe DVDs, but these editions are produced by the company KULTUR, which does not include subtitles in their DVDs. The DVDs in the Globe shop have English subtitles and, usually, German subtitles as well.)

I can recommend all of the DVDs, but if you can only get one, I would, oddly, recommend a non-Shakespearean production: the 2011 production of Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus is utterly brilliant.

Still want more Shakespeare?

You can look up the productions put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC): the RSC’s new artistic director, Gregory Doran, is currently undertaking the ambitious goal of putting on all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays within six years, beginning with his production of Richard II. The RSC tends to differ from the Globe in that the RSC’s productions are decidedly contemporary productions, so if you prefer contemporary to Elizabethan, the RSC is for you.

Like Shakespeare, but prefer big cinematic productions? Look no further than the wonderful Hollow Crown series, which was initially produced as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which ran during the 2012 Olympics in London. The series currently consists of what’s commonly known as the Henriad: Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. This series adapted these four plays for cinematic productions and drew upon many brilliant actors, both established – such as Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and Jeremy Irons – and up-and-coming actors like Ben Whitelaw (who put on the best Richard II I have yet seen thus far). Happily for fans of Shakespeare, this production has proven so popular that a second cycle based on the Wars of the Roses is being produced, comprising the three parts of Henry VI (compressed into two parts) and Richard III, which will star Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role alongside Judi Dench as the Duchess of York.

Prefer something more vintage, but not quite as vintage as the Globe? Well, you can’t go wrong with the BBC’s magisterial fifteen-episode adaptation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays in sequence from 1960, which is apty titled An Age of Kings. The eight plays are:

– Richard II
– Henry IV [parts 1 and 2]
– Henry V
– Henry VI [parts 1-3]
– Richard III

Even though this is a black-and-white production that is beginning to show its age, particularly when compared against the Globe and RSC productions, An Age of Kings is a wonderful homage to the UK’s long tradition of Shakespearean actors, including then-young Sean Connery (Richard II) and Judi Dench (Henry V).

Whether you like scepter’d isles, musing about whether to be or not to be, or just can’t help but thinking et tu? when someone tells you that Shakespeare’s boring, these DVDs will complement your fine press editions of Shakespeare admirably.

Leave a Reply