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Filming Shakespeare's Plays: Reduction or Enlargement?

Filming Shakespeare's Plays: Reduction or Enlargement?

Does film hold Shakespeare captive or provide a means of dramatic emancipation? While each submitted paper will no doubt concentrate on one chosen film, or perhaps, on two or three film adaptations of one play, a general orientation from each participant along the lines of the seminar's underlying question is invited. The broad theme of the conference, covering interpretation by directors, actors, teachers, editors and critics affords an ideal opportunity for a consideration of cinematic adaptation and for the nature and degree of control which a film director will impose.

This seminar was chaired by Dr. Tony Davies ( ) and Dr. Jose Ramon Diaz-Fernandez ( ). For more information about specific papers, please contact the participants individually. Contact details are listed at the bottom of each abstract.

Magdalena Cieslak and Agnieszka Rasmus : Shakespeare and Film Genre

Hollywood operates within genre boundaries with their set of “regulations.” Although the system permits variables, stretches its boundaries and merges various genre markers to prevent boredom and satisfy the media-savvy generation of viewers, it is still regulated by one absolute: the need to give the viewer an impression of fullness. While advertising a film, conventional classifications into thrillers, action-adventure movies, horror films, film noir, musicals, comedies, or science fiction help shape the audience’s responses and expectations of a film. Genres can be seen as a code facilitating communication.

When it comes to Shakespeare films, there is a tendency to discuss them in connection with each other as if they formed a distinct category or genre. But this practice does not take into account that they are produced in the context of pre-existing film conventions and traditions. It usually becomes more evident when one looks at Shakespeare cinematic offshoots, where genre division is even more clear-cut, with, for example, Macbeth often adapted into a mafia or gangster movie, or The Tempest into science-fiction.

It does not mean, however, that there have not been attempts to discuss Shakespeare and cinematic genre. Already Jack J. Jorgens in his book Shakespeare and Film attempts to acknowledge cinematic forms in his analyses. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Screen (2000) devotes an entire section to the discussion of cinematic and theatrical genres. Still, the examples are rather scarce and too often unable to avoid literary fidelity, which points to the need for further investigation informed by the understanding of the operations of the movie industry. The present paper looks at directors adapting Shakespeare within the Hollywood aesthetics to show to what degree the so called “Shakespearean film” follows the genre markers of mainstream cinema.

Magdalena Cieslak
Agnieszka Rasmus
University of Lodz, Poland


Saviour Catania : "Darkness Rumbling": Kozintsev's Karòl Lier and the Visual Acoustics of Nothing

This paper analyses how Kozintsev, by appropriating Le Corbusier’s concept of his Rondchamps Chapel as a “visual acoustic”, transcribes what Danson terms “the nothings of King Lear” into the soundscape of an insubstantial Shakespearean realm. True to his belief that “Lear’s thoughts and feelings must sound like an arrow in the mist”, Kozintsev visualises what Shakespeare’s Fool labels a “nothing” through the elemental threats that the latter hollowly hurls. Hence Karòl Lier’s storm scene where what Shostakovich musicalises is Lear’s existential eclipse whose “rumbling darkness” Kozintsev evidently conceives from Kent’s ominous warning to his king: “Things that love night/Love not such nights as these”. For Kozintsev’s Lear liquifies into a musical hurricane whose tonal nihility his Shakespearean counterpart analogously humanises in terms of his own inhuman offspring: “this tempest in my mind/Doth from my senses take all feeling else, /Save what beats there, filial ingratitude”. Ravaging both Lears is the pain of emptiness, for theirs is a heart throbbing lovelessly apart. Hence Kozintsev’s piping Fool whose flute lament, just like the “sorrow songs” of his Shakespearean equivalent, celebrates Lear’s cathartic birth from his stormy nothingness. What Kozintsev’s visual acoustics poignantly convey is that something comes of nothing in King Lear.

Saviour Catania
University of Malta
Saviour Catania <


Anne-Marie Cornede: Romeo and Juliet on Screen: Cukor, Zeffirelli, Luhrmann, From Wise Shakespeare to Shakespeare Unbound

Philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1936 saw mass reproduction of works of art as leading to a “loss of aura.” This seems to have anticipated the issue at stake here. What does cinema do to Shakespeare’s plays? Does adaptation mean deconstruction, renewal or both? Gain or loss? Reduction or enlargement? Christian Metz (1970s) saw two types of films, narrative representative fictional films aiming at narrative continuity and clarity, and non fictional or non diegetic films using deceptive, reflexive effects and breaking the illusion of reality. Gilles Deleuze, in the 1980s, opposed the dynamics of Movement-Image or Action-Image film (typical of Hollywood style) to the conceptual Brechtian Time-Image. Jack Jorgens (1977) saw in Shakespearean films three modes of cinematic representation, the theatrical, the realistic and the filmic or visionary mode. It seems there are different trends in Shakespearean adaptations, from the most classical and wise, mainly relying on and showing Shakespeare’s material in a plain and straightforward way, to the conceptual, meta-artistic or postmodern films deconstructing the play to work out and reconstruct its essential meaning in a personal way. The three adaptations of Romeo and Juliet produced in 1936 (Cukor), 1968 (Zeffirelli) and 1996 (Luhrmann) powerfully illustrate this tension between self-containment and unbound originality. Yet one should be careful to avoid stereotypes as the different trends may well co-exist in the same film, internal contradictions being precisely part and parcel of the playful process of adaptation, sometimes even the rule of the game.

Anne Marie Cornede


Lindsey Scott: “There’s no such thing”: ‘Nothing’ and Nakedness in Macbeth and Roman Polanski’s Adaptation.

Given the ‘double’ nature of the Witches in leading Macbeth towards a prophesised future that will both ‘scorn / The power of man’ (4.1.79-80) and bring about his own downfall, the most immediate explanation for Macbeth’s signified ‘nothing’ lies with the Witches themselves, or more specifically, with the ambiguous territory of the female body. For the male, to look on the naked female body and its external lack may provoke a sense of absence within the male himself, as the power of the incomprehensible female ‘nothing’ subsequently threatens to become everything. It is the non-existent space of the Witches’ prophecy that seems to render Macbeth himself as a ‘false creation’ (2.1.38), ‘signifying nothing’ (5.5.28); after his wife’s death, and once ‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’ (5.3.25) have disappeared, all that remains for Macbeth is the relentless pursuit of ‘to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ (5.5.19), a bloody passage to an absence that eventually succeeds in destroying the potency of his own bodily form. The ‘whole space that’s in the tyrant’s grasp’ (4.3.36) is, in fact, a ‘no-where’. This destructive potential of the female ‘no-thing’ that lingers behind the play’s concept of the prophetic space would seem to explain the exclusion of the female body in the play’s literary references to ‘naked frailties’ (2.3.124).

While remaining rooted in Shakespearean conceptions of nothing and nakedness, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) transforms Shakespeare’s play-text through the visual presence of the naked female body, and its images of the prophetic space that contextualise the play’s violence. By re-reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth through the representations of Polanski’s film, this paper looks at how the play’s signified ‘nothing’ shifts from the chaotic absence of the female that overthrows ‘Even till destruction sicken’ (4.1.60), to the destructive nature of man’s own ‘vaulting ambition’ (1.7.27).

Lindsey Scott
University of Chester / University of Liverpool.

Maurizio Calbi: Macbeth’s Kitchen. Carno-phallocentrism, Waste, and Hospitality in Peter Moffat’s adaptation of Macbeth.

“Bones and guts, fish-heads, knob ends of the black pudding, skins of haggis”: In Peter Moffat’s intriguing adaptation of Macbeth, which was first shown as part of the BBC Shakespeare Retold series in 2005, these are some of the food debris the witches-turned-binmen scoop up after the “hurly-burly” of a day in Joe Macbeth’s kitchen is “done”. These leftovers are also what allow them to “look into the seeds of time” and predict—in an inescapably equivocal way—a bright future for the ambitious Scottish head-chef, whose fundamental contribution to the success of Duncan Docherty’s renowned Irish restaurant is not properly acknowledged.

The paper focuses on the “sound and fury” of the all-male hierarchical world of Joe Macbeth’s kitchen. It argues that this world implicitly implements what Jacques Derrida calls the “carno-phallocentric” structure of the subject of power. In Macbeth’s kitchen the keyword is “respect”. It primarily applies to the animal being sliced. It anthropomorphizes the animal but, by the same token, brings the “human” disquietingly closer to the incorporated “animal”, in that it re-constitutes the “human” as the carnivorous “subject who eats well” and is thus more likely to become the human / animal who kills. Moffat’s adaptation thus shows that “the chef must be an eater of flesh, with a view to being ‘symbolically’ eaten himself” (Derrida, “Eating Well”, 114), and that incorporation of the “other” (i.e, Joe Macbeth’s “incorporation” of the carnivorous “totemic” father / chef Duncan as well as former vegetarian Malcom’s “incorporation” of Macbeth) does not come to pass without waste and remainders. (The witches / binmen who haunt the alleyway just outside Macbeth’s kitchen bear witness to this). To engage with the theoretical question the seminar raises, the paper argues that Moffat’s adaptation allegorises the “mangling” of the body of a Shakespearean text. This “sectioning” is undoubtedly a “reduction” but is also the conditio sine qua non for the text’s survival / enlargement.

University of Salerno (Italy)



Yoko Odawara: “Macbeth and Kurosawa”

Kenneth Rothwell writes “‘Throne of Blood’ has been aptly described as a transformation rather than an adaptation of Macbeth.”1 Kurosawa has changed some points of the original in his film by reduction, enlargement and invention. The purpose of this essay is to clarify what are the inventions and changes and how and why they have occurred in his film. Clues are his own words, and cultural and historical differences between Shakespeare and Kurosawa. The greatest difference between Macbeth and “Kumonosu-Jo/Throne of Blood” is that Macbeth is a sort of dynastic play and “Throne of Blood” is not.

Soon after the accession of James I in 1603, the king took over the Chamberlain’s Men as the King’s Men. Shakespeare was among the King’s Men, who were given royal patronage. Macbeth reflects in some ways the accession of James I. It is known that Macbeth was performed at Hampton Court for James I with Christian IV of Denmark as his guest on 7 August in 1606. His claim of descent from Banquo is explicitly imaged in Macbeth where the witches show Macbeth the line of Banquo’s descendants stretching towards James himself. It was no doubt to please James I that the descendants of Banquo are shown as future kings of Scotland in the play. It is quite natural that Shakespeare did not write a play as his own interest led him, but wrote it with consideration for a particular family. He lived in his time. It is a sort of dynastic play.

Historical Macbeth was either nephew or grandson of King Malcolm II, and had certain claim to the throne. However, later chroniclers changed his title to thane, and invented honest, reliable and courageous Banquo, and Shakespeare followed these attributions, and depicted a thane whose ambition drove him to commit treason and murder both of the king and of his friend and ally whose descendants were predicted to be kings. Macbeth is a story of a usurper of the throne, and the revenge on him by the son of the murdered king, written with particular consideration for the dynastic lineage.

On the other hand, “Throne of Blood” is not a dynastic film. Kurosawa did not have any particular family to praise, and he could use his imagination as he liked. Kurosawa does not think Macbeth is Richard III. At an interview before shooting “Throne of Blood”, he says “Macbeth is not Richard III. Macbeth is the tragedy of a man who has got a status which is beyond his calibre. He has certain weaknesses. So does Lady Macbeth.”2

He did not present Washizu (Macbeth), Asaji (Lady Macbeth) or Miki (Banquo) as historical figures, but presented them as figures in the Sengoku jidai (the Warring States period) when the weak fell prey to the strong. He depicted a man’s ambition and his evil deeds incited by a weird hag and his wife as one of many examples in the past, in the world of mist, wood, and wooden architecture. He used Noh style, natural environment, and cultural and historical background to present his story indirectly and symbolically, conveying a sense of mutability.

His characteristics will become clearer when we compare the film with other film adaptations by the BBC, Orson Welles or Roman Polanski.

1 Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge U.P., (1999) 2004) p.191.
2 Tadao Sato, A Bibliographical Introduction to the Works by Akira Kurosawa (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2002), p.206. Translation by the present writer.

Yoko Odawara