Although we may experience an ease in lockdown restrictions, everyone will still be spending inordinate amounts of time at home. There are a few advantages to this new way of life. Reading more is one, but why do we read? Francis Bacon once wrote that the human mind yearns to read for three simple reasons: an empty space requires furnishing and the senses invite us to furnish our minds; to learn from what we read for the sake of enhancing our chances of making the right choices in life; and delight.
In these introspective times we all crave some increase in understanding, an improvement of our intellects or just mere entertainment. Nothing ameliorates literacy and cognition like the greatest bodies of literature and nothing eats the hours away so delightfully as a good film. The cheat code to having both at once is to watch a cinematic version of one of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Francis Ford Coppola once queried whether Goethe would write plays and novels and exercise his polymathic abilities in the way he did had he lived today. He suggested that if Goethe grew up in an age of cinema he would most likely be an auteur and spend his creative resources making motion pictures. From what we know of Shakespeare, he basked in the collaborative atmosphere that pervades theatrical productions and he fulfilled the roles of writer, actor, producer and director to the highest professional standards of his day. We can only wonder what sort of spectacles he would have produced had he our devices and contraptions at his disposal. Luckily we don’t need to imagine too much. He remains the most filmed author of all time, with 1,371 writing credits to his name. Here are the top six Shakespeare films to start off with.
Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) by Orson Welles (1965)
This is an adaptation of an abridged version of Shakespeare’s histories Henry IV Part I & II. WH Auden once wrote that Shakespeare had failed to truly divulge the monumental mirth and mysteriousness that constitutes the character of Falstaff (played in the film by its director Orson Welles), claiming he had exhumed a native archetype too tall and deep in the English imagination to be revealed in so few plays. But Welles affords Falstaff the fullest attention he has yet received and adorns Sir John’s spiritual largesse with the charm and charisma he gained so much fame for. He considered this his greatest film, surpassing in his opinion other masterpieces like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It is a tale of kings and kingship, sons and fathers, amity and enmity and the inestimable value of good friendship.
Macbeth by Roman Polanski (1971)
One of the darkest stories of destiny ever told. Polanski made this film not long after the murder of his wife and unborn child at the hands of Charles Manson, making its most violent scenes all the more nightmarish. There are enough swords and horses in this medieval epic to maintain curiosity and it subtly and skilfully unveils the tragic and ruminating verse of Shakespeare without interrupting its action-based rhythm. It is a tenebrous and violent retelling of the Scottish play, one worth watching if duelling knights and courtly intrigue take your fancy.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Michael Hoffman (1999)
Hoffman sets this comedy about enchantment, marriage, sex, perception and the nocturnal realm in Italy in the 1800s. Bicycles and boaters make up the movie’s props and costumes. He has a huge Hollywood cast to direct, including Kevin Klein, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci and Christian Bale. This film emanates from the tradition of romantic dreaminess in 19th century Italian opera, making it an extremely charming and easy spectacle to watch.
King Lear by Peter Brook (1971)
Peter Brook’s 1962 stage production of King Lear was considered radical and definitive by critics and he successfully translates those extraordinary accomplishments into cinema. He decided to use the wintry landscape of Denmark as a substitute for Lear’s vanished Albion and as a result the film resembles the northern locations of HBO’s Game of Thrones and has much of the same air of that wild and primeval world. The cantankerous and foul-mouthed King is played by Paul Schofield who is often described as the greatest Shakespearean actor of all time. His bewitching performance in this dark and experimental film is evidence enough to secure that accolade. It must still set a daunting standard for today’s most adept actors.
Much Ado About Nothing by Kenneth Branagh (1993)
Shot in a Tuscan village, Branagh directs a cast of veteran Shakespearean actors alongside some Hollywood stars like Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves. Reeves’s rendition of the villain Don Jon is absurd and awful but a bad singer can’t kill a good song and the film survives his assault on the language of Elizabethan England.
Henry V by Kenneth Branagh (1989)
Branagh’s first feature film success as a director is a definitive masterpiece which eclipses Olivier’s patriotic wartime classic. Not only did the 29-year-old Branagh direct the film but he also starred as its eponymous hero and made the role entirely his own. Leading one of the most accomplished casts of Shakespearean actors ever filmed, he had the enormous advantage of having ten to fifteen former Henry Vs to turn to for advice and guidance throughout its production. Relying more on the language of the play rather than on the action of the film, this is sure to convert a humble fan of cinema into a proud worshipper of Shakespeare’s work.