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Shakespeare in Hollywood

Francis Akpata argues that Shakespeare would be a film director not a playwright in today’s high-media world.

I aim to show that dramatists like William Shakespeare and Euripedes find their continuation in the modern popular film industry. Their works of art, like all great works, represent the great achievements of the human will. Shakespeare’s plays fall into the class of art Nietzsche described as the “highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life.” (The Birth of Tragedy) But if Shakespeare was alive today he would be a screenwriter/director in Hollywood, not a playwright writing drama for Broadway or the West End.

He has more in common with modern filmmakers than with modern playwrights. They both direct their work to the mass audience. Although William Shakespeare was highly talented, he was not producing his work for the same audience as Seneca, Francis Bacon or Dante. (That’s also why Shakespeare’s plays were not written in Latin or printed during his lifetime.) Shakespeare intended to entertain the masses, inform them and reflect on past and present events. As actor and playwright, William Shakespeare’s audience were not the pundits, intellectuals or men of literary knowledge; his works were produced for the popular audience.

In spite of their popularity (or maybe because of it), his educated contemporaries did not hold his works in high regard. The literati considered the English plays of their day as vulgar entertainment. But as masterpieces, Shakespeare’s plays are not just beautiful, the themes are universal; they are accessible and possess elemental power. Shakespeare’s plays, like David Lean’s films, have different layers of meaning: you see them and contemplate some aspect of the play that identifies with your experience. Both courtiers and illiterates enjoyed his plays because he was able to be popular yet retain his artistic merit. This is the type of combination filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Copolla have also been able to maintain.

In every epoch there is a new state of affairs. This often manifests itself in the work of the artists of the time, and involves political, social, economic, religious and ethical issues. That’s why Shakespeare wrote about kings, plebeians, falling in love in adverse conditions, and questioning human destiny. Modern filmmakers make films about politicians, business moghuls, racism, homosexual love and the vanity of fame. At present the popular audience is free from many of the old constraints and conventions, and are instead aware of the manifold nature and depths of human personality. Where the theme of Shakespeare’s plays used to be religion and taboos, we now have sexual orientation and psychological problems.

Artists usually respond to such cultural changes. During the Cold War many films portrayed the ideological divide. The spy genre became very popular. The point here is that an artist is always caught in his or her historical stream. The historical dimension in which he exists percolates every aspect of his or her work, from the subject matter to the style and method of rendition: but they all try to tell the story of humanity. Aristotle shed some light on this endeavour in his Poetics. According to him, drama is not culture. In his theory of catharsis, he stated that through the pity and terror the audience feel, these passions are purged from them. Although this theory has been given credence through psychoanalysis, its fundamental value lies in the fact that it sought to address the relationship between the audience and a work of art. The audience to which Aristotle referred was the democratic Athenian audience, not the monarchs, elite or philosophers.

Shakespeare had a rather uncanny knowledge of the wellspring of human behaviour, and he gave rendition to his profound understanding through poetic and dramatic means. He utilised poetry, soliloquy, flashback or a play within a play to reveal the deepest levels of human motivation. If Shakespeare was in our own society, he would no doubt use technologies and techniques suited to the Twenty-First Century: techniques like flashback, cross-cutting and special effects. Such techniques were used by David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia to present biting social criticism and to investigate the psychology of heroism.

Filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee carry the baton that Shakespeare carried during the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare often explored the intricacies of a heroic figure who expects mandatory reverence from the masses because of the deeds he is supposed to have carried out for their benefit. The people then show him that in spite of all his victories he is still a citizen like them. David Lean did the same in Lawrence of Arabia. We see an enigmatic and eccentric hero, T.E Lawrence, who achieves a great deal. As the film proceeds we penetrate the veneer, and discover a man caught between two worlds and desires. Lawrence was an Englishman who embodied the norms and conventions of British society, but also had a desire to identify with the wildness and theatricality of the Arabs.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays the tragedy of a man whose ambition and lust for power turns him into a megalomaniac. In the film Nixon, Oliver Stone depicts a similar character. Richard Nixon triumphed over many adverse conditions to become President of the United States of America. While in office his unscrupulousness and naked ambition brought about his downfall. Othello is another character worthy of mention. In spite of the fact that he was a Moor, he was able to become a general in the Venetian army. However, a man like this was unable to withstand a simple subterfuge contrived by his lieutenant, Iago. Spike Lee similarily showed us the naivety and bravery of Malcolm X. At the end of the eponymous film we see Malcolm X’s life as a journey of self-discovery. The difference between these filmmakers and Shakespeare is only that they use the cinematic medium to tell their story while Shakespeare used the stage. The similarity is that they both used the medium which would reach the widest audiences.

Some critics and literary pundits give the impression that Shakespeare regarded his labour as creating works of art; some even believe that he was concerned with aesthetics. They argue that Shakespeare wrote his plays with the idea that artistic intricacies or aesthetics were more important than public acceptance. This is not the case. Shakespeare had to please and attract a mass audience with a good work of art the way Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg have to nowadays. This is entirely different from, say, Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard, who primarily write for the cultural elite.

Shakespeare, like most modern filmmakers with independent film companies, had a financial investment in his acting company, called the Chamberlain’s Men (later changed to the King’s Men). He also shared profits with two theatre companies, the Globe and Blackfriars. Like any business venture, they had to recoup the dividends from their investments, and the only way they could do this was to attract as many people as possible. This does not mean that literary and aesthetic qualities were not important; but like good modern filmmakers, Shakespeare was able to produce art of the highest quality and retain the attention of the popular audience. One can clearly produce a work of the highest merit that is not exclusive.

Critics should refrain from despising art just because it has utilitarian value, ie gives pleasure to the masses. We should rather give credit to those who can produce works of art which embody the highest quality, but which can appeal to people from different stratas of society. If Shakespeare were alive today he would not be writing literary plays for the West End, he would be writing and directing films in Hollywood.

© Francis Akpata 2007

Francis Akpata works in investor relations for a hedge fund in London. He studied philosophy and theology at King’s College London. His creative endeavours include writing essays, drama, poetry and painting.

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