On 21st February, I led a class on Shakespeare for Leicester University’s International Office to a number of international visitors. Perhaps, in this case, it was to my fortune that Leicester are relatively thin on the ground when it comes to early-modernists at postgraduate level (although there is plenty to be said for the diversity that the department offers). It was my first university teaching role for two years, and there were some audio-visual treats in store.
The class was built around a potent combination that I have discussed before: Shakespeare in Love, and the 2009 Hamlet (feat. David Tennant), which gave me an opportunity to reignite my flame for film, play and performance respectively.
For a group of international visitors romanced by fashion and retail in today’s metropolis, the opening of Shakespeare in Love sets a gripping picture of Elizabethan London: debts, torture, the plague (and its impact on theatre), illiteracy, cobbled streets, chamber-pots, preachers… Being factually perfect is not important. It needs to be convincing, and visually memorable. Humour helps, of course. It starts with a theatre manager’s boots in the fire for his debts.
Fennyman: “Where will you find… sixteen pounds, five shillings and ninepence… including interest, in three weeks?”
Henslowe: “I have a wonderful new play!”
Fennyman: “Put them back in”
Henslowe: “It’s a comedy!”
Fennyman: “Cut off his nose.”
Henslowe: “It’s a new comedy by William Shakespeare!”
Fennyman: “… and his ears”
It’s also well pronounced in the film that theatre was a powerful social occasion, often commanded by royalty. The presence of royalty was itself internal theatre. The first half of the class was an enjoyable spell of identifying differences in the capital of ‘1593’.
Tackling Hamlet and its splendour in 45 minutes is thankless, not least for a group weak in English. But the visitors are to see a performance in Stratford at the weekend. A snippet from each act would have to suffice.
- Act I. The ghost’s declaration of murder to Hamlet, and his call for revenge.
- Act II. Polonius’ interference leads to a surveillance operation.
- Act III. Claudius confesses in prayer, and Hamlet cannot exact his revenge.
- Act IV. Claudius and attendants interrogate Hamlet about Polonius’ body.
- Act V. Hamlet and Laertes fight in Ophelia’s grave.
This filmic interpretation is wonderfully clever, not least for the layers of private observation at play. For example, in Act II, a CCTV camera zooms in on Hamlet as he is ‘tested’ for madness. The line “where is your father?” said in this scenario implies that Hamlet knows he is being watched. That offers a good explanation as to why he becomes a trickster himself.
As a side-show of revenge, Hamlet, setting up a play for royal entertainment to ‘capture the conscience of the King’, secretly films Claudius with a hand-held camera, savouring the reaction of the guilty rogue.
It is an adaptation that works so well in a multi-visual culture. The director of Shakespeare in Love, John Madden, spoke about his film having one foot in the 16th century, and one in the late 20th century. This adaptation of Hamlet has a stronger foot in the 21st century than the one it casts back, and benefits enormously from it.
Leonardo Da Vinci commented in his Paragone that painting ruled above its sister-art, writing, because the visual transcended language. It was universally recognisable and understandable. The class was an attempt, successful or otherwise, to bring to life something about Shakespeare that is inherently understandable. He can be appreciated beyond his native language.
What I hoped to get across, past the difficult Shakespearean language, is the power of words to create an atmosphere – the duality of the visual with the verbal. In early modernity, the same stages had to host comedy and tragedy. Only words could truly create the vastly different settings. Cinema today has the opportunity to build around what is there. Yet it all starts with the author. That is why Shakespeare continues to truly mean something, even to those not proficient in English.
That aside, I thrust myself back into the enthusiasm for charming and willing participants. We created groups with names that others had to hail with actions. They were collectively fans of Harry Potter. My gadgetry became magic. Everyone laughs. I play the fool well; it just remains to be seen whether or not I emerge as one behind the costume. Maybe not. Today, after the class, I re-watched Shakespeare in Love in full, and it made me lachrymal.
But that a joy past joy calls out on me,
It were a grief so brief to part with thee.