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Watch: Shakespeare on the Silver Screen

Watch: Shakespeare on the Silver Screen

In high school, I was, admittedly, usually on the verge of rolling my eyes at the thought of reading Shakespeare in my English classes; this must’ve quietly pissed off my English teachers, considering that these were AP (Advanced Placement) English courses intended for gaining college credits. It’s not that I didn’t respect Shakespeare’s glorious body of work—I just wasn’t interested in fetishizing every pentameter of his slippery sonnets.  I preferred to adore the urgent, contemporary voices found in works like Crime and Punishment and The Catcher in the Rye.

It wasn’t until a high school field trip to the Goodman Theatre in the Theater District of downtown Chicago, where I saw Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon, that I began to develop a different attitude toward Shakespeare. Freed’s amusing play told the story of how Shakespeare didn’t author his own plays, in fact being just a front man. Sure, the premise is devilishly fun, and it sure annoyed the loyal literary folk on the faculty, but what it did was it made me hone in on the language of these plays, and how it mirrored the temperaments of the society where it was spoken. My interest became less about swooning over the preciseness and clinical breakdowns of his poems than about why these works even materialized in the first place. 

So by the time I was in college, I was very deliberate in relating several real life political current events to musings from Shakespeare’s works. I remember a celebrated paper I wrote in one of my college English classes (I took several of these, since my minor was in Writing) during my Freshman year was supposed to be on Marc Antony’s speech from ‘Julius Caesar.’ Our professor had played clips from ‘Julius Caesar’ (starring Marlon Brando) during class to give us supplemental inspiration. When I got back to my dorm room and turned on my TV, I watched Howard Dean’s now infamous “scream” speech following his coming in third place in Iowa caucuses in early 2004. So I wrote about Marc Antony’s speech by fusing my observations of Dean’s body language with Antony’s rabbling of the crowd. Again, it became less about the words, and more about the feeling—more about the temperature of the moment.

In the years since college, I’ve revisited some of the major film adaptations of Shakespeare. I was always surprised to see so many movie stars (e.g. Denzel Washington, Bill Murray, Leonard DiCaprio, etc.) try to Laurence-Olivier their way through a soliloquy, some to better ends than others. But what these prolific screen adaptations show is how vital Shakespeare’s work (or whoever wrote these plays) is for the present. Sure, the language may be airy and fleeting, but they touch upon on universal themes of guilt, corruption, love, and foolish abandon. From groundlings at the Globe Theatre to patrons at the movie theatre, we come back, time and time again, to see these plays, to learn lessons as old as time itself. It’s drama at its earliest; it’s comedy at its most earnest; it’s viewers looking at themselves at their most exposed vantage point—stage front and center.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

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