Tomorrow, April 23, will mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who wrote -- or did not write, according to some curmudgeons -- the greatest plays in the English language. Shakespeare was clearly an efficient man: note his skill at re-purposing plot devices, many of them stolen from the writings of others. That’s why it makes a weird sort of sense that he was also apparently born on April 23. So the day is cause for a double celebration. But, no, I don’t plan to serve cake.
Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know from movies. But I suspect he would have enjoyed their ability to capture spectacle in a way that the stage of the Globe Theater could not. Some of the greatest movies made from his plays (and there have been many) have reveled in the visual possibilities of the medium. I’m thinking particularly of Laurence Olivier’s stirring production of Henry V, a tale of military heroism which raised the spirits of the British people in the dark days of World War II. (By contrast there was Kenneth Branagh’s equally impressive 1989 film adaptation of the same play, which saw war in a much darker light.)
I see before me not a dagger (English majors will note the Macbeth reference) but a fancy program booklet my mother bought for 25 cents when she attended a screening of MGM’s Romeo and Juliet on November 15, 1936. (She was nice enough to write the date on the cover.) Clearly, the film’s debut was a very big deal. It was, as the booklet makes quite clear, the first Romeo and Juliet ever to be put on film. The prestige production, directed by George Cukor and overseen by MGM’s Irving Thalberg, starred Leslie Howard along with Thalberg’s lovely wife, Norma Shearer, supported by such well-known thespians as John Barrymore (Mercutio), Edna May Oliver (Juliet’s Nurse), and Basil Rathbone (Tybalt). Andy Devine’s there too, in the comic role of the Nurse’s manservant. I first saw this Romeo and Juliet when I was college-age. What immediately struck me is how stiff and prim everyone is . . . and how mature. Leslie Howard, the ardent “young” Romeo, was 43 when the film came out. His Juliet was in her early 30s. It’s a good film, very well-spoken, but it certainly lacks the rough-and-tumble that mark more modern adaptations.
Fortunately, in 1968, along came a Romeo and Juliet for the Baby Boom generation, directed by Italy’s Franco Zeffirelli. His depiction of old Verona is a visual treat, and he had the good sense to cast actors who were age appropriate: his Romeo (Leonard Whiting) was 18 years old, and Juliet (Olivia Hussey) a mere 15. Those of us in the throes of our own youthful romances (myself included) never quite got over the beauty and the ardor we saw on screen in this film.
Almost twenty years later, in 1996, the irrepressible Baz Luhrman had his way with Shakespeare, producing and directing a Generation X Romeo and Juliet that kept the Bard’s language but featured guns, speeding cars, and two lovers embracing in a swimming pool. Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet featured a young and gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio opposite the exquisite teen-aged Claire Danes. Personally, I loved the idea of seeing Shakespearean visuals updated for young hipsters while keeping the spirit of the work intact.
Then of course there is West Side Story (1961), which turns feuding families into rival street gangs whose hatred of one another stems from their ethnic differences. Whatever the era, Shakespeare seems to have something to say.