In anticipation of Shakespeare celebrations next year, we asked Oxford University Press and Oxford University staff members to choose their favourite Shakespeare adaptation. From classic to contemporary, the obscure to the infamous, we’ve collected a whole range of faithful and quirky translations from play text to film. Did your favourite film or television programme make the list?
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“I’ve just rewatched with great pleasure Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966), which combines Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Merry Wives, bits of Henry V, and Holinshed’s chronicles. It reimagines the plays as the story of Falstaff rather than of Prince Hal, and a nostalgic Falstaff who represents a lost golden age of Merrie England. The montage of the Battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous, but I also loved the wideangle sequence of the forest in which the Gad’s Hill robbery takes place. Purists will find Welles’ reshapings annoying, but I enjoyed its intelligence. Making Falstaff the unnamed drunk who is pardoned by a magnanimous Henry V goes some way to healing the breach between the old man and his protégé.”
— Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, Hertford College Oxford and adviser for Illuminating Shakespeare
“One of my all-time favorite Shakespeare adaptations is Scotland, PA – a darkly comedic retelling of Macbeth that takes place in a 1970s suburb. Really all you need to know is that Macbeth is recast as a fast food worker with an overly ambitious wife, and Christopher Walken plays Macduff.”
— Lauren Hill, Assistant Marketing Manager, Trade Books
“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation would have to be The Lion King (based on the story of Hamlet). As soon as I saw it as a child I was in love with the music, the characters, and the story, and although the ending is a little ‘Disney-fied’ compared to Shakespeare’s original, which I fell in love with as an adult, it still remains a movie that will bring a smile to my face.”
— Hannah Charters, Associate Marketing Manager, Online Products
“I tend to love great films and terrible films fairly equally, and can’t decide where She’s The Man falls on this scale. It’s an adaptation of Twelfth Night so loose that Shakespeare’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere on the DVD, and the writers’ borrowings pretty much begin and end with naming people and things (Channing Tatum = Duke Orsino; a pet tarantula = Malvolio). Yet I can’t help loving the way it modernises Twelfth Night’s tropes into one woman’s stand against the chauvinism of college football. Ok, it’s terrible, but I still love it.”
— Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive, Oxford Dictionaries
“For me, nothing can really match Kenneth Branagh’s slightly bonkers adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Set in beautiful Italian countryside, Branagh’s Benedick and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice hold their battle of wits alongside a stellar and occasionally hilarious cast – Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as the brothers Don, a young Robert Sean Leonard, and Brian Blessed being Brian Blessed – and a couple of musical numbers, just because. It’s joyous, silly, and never fails to make me laugh out loud.”
— Helena Palmer, Marketing Assistant, Academic
“My favourite adaption has to be Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. It came out when I was 15 and, by chance, studying the play at school. I think I was the perfect age to enjoy the MTV-style fast-cut cinematography and I ended up going to see it about six times in a few weeks. I also had the posters, the soundtracks (both of them), and was just generally obsessed with it at the time. Watching it again now, I think it’s beginning to look a little bit ‘of its time,’ but I’ll always have an affection for it, for nostalgic reasons if nothing else.”
— Kirsty Doole, Senior Publicity Manager
“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation was Laurence Olivier’s King Lear, shown on the BBC in 1983. I was 12, and it marked the moment Shakespeare actually started to come to life for me. I had seen one or two productions in college gardens in Oxford, and had played Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, launching a brief school career of being routinely cast as sprites or wizened old men. But somehow the iambic pentameter and the ‘hey nonny nonny’ always stepped between me and the suspension of disbelief. This adaptation – and its wonderful cast – changed all that, in its terrible grandeur, surrendering the structure to rage and frustration, scheming and grief. While gore is terribly de rigueur these days, the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes truly haunted me awhile.”
— Sophie Goldsworthy, Editorial Director, Academic & Trade
“Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, relocates the story from Scotland to Japan, re-presenting Macbeth’s bloody ambition within the context of a feudal Japanese samurai society. Kurosawa’s famed skill for conveying power dynamics through choreography and framing made Macbeth a perfect match for the director. Through Macbeth’s relationship with his wife, an unforgettable take on Lady Macbeth, he also incorporated interesting consideration of gender. Kurosawa’s reimagining continues to be an influence on global cinema, as we will surely see when Justin Kurzel’s new version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is released later this year.”
— Rachel Brook, Marketing Assistant, Institutional Marketing
“Given that decent high school dramedies have always been a rarity, the loose Shakespeare adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You comes across as a real flash in the pan. Adapting the plot of The Taming of the Shrew to a high school in Tacoma, Washington? Casting two Hollywood newcomers as the leads (Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, for the uninitiated)? Discarding even a whiff of a Shakespeare allusion in the title? Heath Ledger’s bravura performance of Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’? A date with white suits and water balloons filled with paint? It’s all so oddball, and yet it works.”
— Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator, Oxford Dictionaries
“Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus (1999) was a standout for me. A rarely performed and certainly not much lauded play due to its perceived failure as a tragedy and textual inconsistencies, it knocked me for six when studying it at university. There is an unbelievable level of violence and hatred, with warring families tearing themselves apart by seeking revenge. It could give The Godfather trilogy a run for its money. Taymor’s adaptation was bold, intertwining the traditional and the modern to make it accessible to a twenty-first century audience, and perhaps most memorably it employed toys and tomato ketchup in one of the most interesting openers to a film that I’ve seen for some time.”
— Hannah McGuffie, Senior Marketing Manager, Academic
“I adore Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), an epic adaptation of King Lear set in the Sengoku (warring states) period of feudal Japan. King Lear, or in this version the warlord Hidetora Ichimonji, intends to divide his kingdom among his three sons, explaining his decision through the artful symbolism of three bound arrows—stronger together than apart. His youngest son, Saburo, the Cordelia of the film, breaks the arrows across his knee and bluntly protests the folly of this vision. Hidetora banishes him for his insolence, and thus Ran (chaos) begins. Its incredible performances, vibrant costumes, and lavish set design are forever seared in my memory.”
— Megan McPherson, Marketing Associate, Institutional Marketing
“I think Rupert Goold’s telefilm version of Richard II screened by the BBC as part of the Hollow Crown season stands as one of the most revelatory adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve seen. I’ve seen Fiona Shaw, Eddie Redmayne, and David Tennant, play the role on stage, but seeing Ben Whishaw actually sit down on a beach to ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ really brings the story alive. Here is a king more concerned with pomp than justice, and symbolism than ruling, and that the struggle we are seeing is as much about what it takes to be a good king, as between Richard and his cousin Bollingbroke. David Suchet and Patrick Stewart are fantastic as the King’s uncles, two of the most humane parts to be found in the history plays.”
— Joseph Kennedy, OUP Bookshop
“I like the BBC’s Shakespeare ReTold adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing because it retains a lot of the original dialogue while still managing to modernize and update the story, even changing the plot and the ending. I thought that really demonstrated how although modern culture means that stories often end a bit differently, Shakespeare’s characters and language are still relevant today.”
— Celine Aenlle-Rocha, Marketing Assistant, Music
“My favourite Shakespeare film adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. This is because it’s set in the wonderful grounds of Blenheim Palace (so if you live around Oxford it’s easy to visit and then pretend you’re in Elsinore), the late Robin Williams is hilarious as Osric, as is Billy Crystal as a Gravedigger, and Charlton Heston delivers a thundering speech as the Player King. It also contains some scary looking eyes from Brian Blessed and Jack Lemmon slavishly reciting blank verse. At over 4 hours long includes pretty much the whole play so is excellent value for money!”
— Chris Wogan, Marketing Manager, Commercial Law
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What’s your favourite film or television adaptation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
From baristas preparing pumpkin spiced lattes to grocery store aisles lined with bags of candy, the season has arrived for all things sweet-toothed and scary. Still, centuries after the holiday known as “Halloween” became cultural phenomenon, little is known to popular culture about its religious, artistic, and linguistic dimensions. For instance, who were the first trick or treaters? What are the origins of zombies? What makes creepy music…well, creepy?
From the birth of film, Shakespeare’s plays have been a constant source of inspiration for many screenwriters, directors, and producers. As a result, hundreds of film and television adaptations have been made, each featuring either a Shakespearean plot, theme, character, or all three.
Although the most frequently-produced and well-known adaptations are filmed and directed in the United Kingdom and the United States, Shakespeare’s work has traveled all around the world. From Mexico to Australia, Tibet to Russia, and Italy to Japan, Shakespeare has been translated into many languages and adapted onto screens in many ways. Take a look at these various films from around the world, all of which provide unique insight into their individual cultures by their respective filmmakers.
It’s fun to read Shakespearean plays, but watching our most beloved scenes on stage or screen makes the characters and the plots even more engaging. Reading the scene in which Juliet wakes up to find her Romeo dead is indeed tragic, but watching Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio lock eyes right before he dies is heart-wrenching. Gazing, unable to reach through the screen and offer help, as Ralph Fiennes is outnumbered and murdered in his directorial debut, Coriolanus, is unparalleled.
Movie and television adaptations of Shakespearean plays are numerous, and in many languages other than English, but how many of them do you know? Test your knowledge of Shakespeare film in this quiz, from the early 20th century to the present day.
When some one says to you – and I’ve heard this comment in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian – “that’s just a fairy tale,” it generally means that what you have just said is untrue or unreal. It is a polite but deprecating way of saying that your words form a lie or gossip. Your story is make-believe and unreliable. It has nothing to do with reality and experience. Fairy tale is thus turned into some kind of trivial story – silly, infantile, not to be believed. Moreover, fairy tales are allegedly for children, amusing stories to pass the time away and to be dismissed. If children believe in them, read them and listen to them, they cannot be taken seriously.
Yet, we all know that the opposite is true. We all know we believe or want to believe in fairy tales. We are all ready to answer Peter Pan’s monumental question whether we believe in fairy tales with a resounding “yes!” We all know that fairy tales are tied to real life experiences more than we pretend they aren’t. We ward off fairy tales and pretend that they are intended mainly for children because they tell more truth than we want to know, and we absorb fairy tales because they tell us more truth than we want to know. They are filled with desire and optimism. They drip with brutality, bluntness, violence, and perversity. They expose untruth, and the best are bare, brusque, and concise. They stamp our minds and perhaps our souls. They form another world, a counter world, in which social justice is more readily attained than in our actual world where hypocrisy, corruption, hyping, exploitation, and competition determine the outcome of social and political interactions and the quality of social relations.
Though it is impossible to trace the historical origins and evolution of fairy tales to a particular time and place, we do know that humans began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity of speech. They may have even used sign language before speech originated to communicate vital information for adapting to their environment. Units of this information gradually formed the basis of narratives that enabled humans to learn about themselves and the worlds that they inhabited. Informative tales were not given titles. They were simply told to mark an occasion, to set an example, to warn about danger, to procure food, to explain what seemed inexplicable. People told stories to communicate knowledge and experience in social contexts. Though many ancient tales might seem to us to be magical, miraculous, fanciful, superstitious, or unreal, people believed them, and they were and are not much different from people today who believe in religions, miracles, cults, nations, and notions such as “free” democracies that have little basis in reality. In fact, religious and patriotic stories have more in common with fairy tales than we realize except that fairy tales tend to be secular and are not based on a prescriptive belief system or religious codes. Fairy tales are informed by a human disposition to action – to transform the world and make it more adaptable to human needs while we try to change and make ourselves fit for the world. Therefore, the focus of fairy tales, whether oral, written, or cinematic, has always been on finding magical instruments, extraordinary technologies, or powerful people and animals that will enable protagonists to transform themselves and their environment and make it more suitable for living in peace and contentment. Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy and resolve conflicting desires and instincts.
Fairy tales are rooted in oral traditions, and they were never given titles, nor did they exist in the forms in which they are told, printed, painted, recorded, performed, and filmed today. They were never specifically intended for children. Folklorists generally make a distinction between wonder folk tales, which originated in oral traditions throughout the world and still exist, and literary fairy tales, which emanated from the oral traditions through the mediation of manuscripts and print and continue to be created today in various mediated forms throughout the world. In both the oral and literary traditions the tale types influenced by cultural patterns are so numerous and diverse that it is almost impossible to define a wonder folk tale or a fairy tale or explain the relationship between the two modes of communication. In fact, together, oral and literary tales form one immense and complex genre because they are inextricably dependent on one another.
One thing is clear: this genre that we call a fairy tale is utterly relevant in its vast and diverse forms, glimmers with truth, and keeps challenging us to definite it.
Featured image credit: Classics for Summer Reading, by David Masters. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.