Adapting Shakespeare's plays to celluloid is a craft as old as moviemaking itself. Since the days of the short, silent King John (1899), close to four hundred films have credited Shakespeare, making him the most prolific writer in film history--an impressive achievement for one who has been dead for such a good long time.
While filmmakers have been adapting Shakespeare for a full century, it is only in the last two decades that any of these films were expected to be commercial successes. Since the splash of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and the reaffirmation of his Much Ado About Nothing, movies of the Bard's work have been more common and more commercial than ever before. Witness: Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Pacino's Looking for Richard, Richard III with McKellan, Nunn's Twelfth Night, Othello with Fishburne. No less than four high-profile versions of Hamlet were completed this decade: one with Kevin Kline (1990), one with Mel Gibson (also 1990), one with Kenneth Branagh (1996) and one with Ethan Hawke (to be released in 1999). And let us not forget the Shakespeare-based Shakespeare in Love.
So what changed? Did the theatre owners begin distributing ShakespEar, an Elizabethan hearing aid? Did Tim Leary organize a grass-roots campaign to revitalize interest in the Bard? While I fully believe that both these events occurred, the root cause is probably simpler: the films are simply directed with a popular audience in mind. I do not mean to say by this that they are dumbed down; rather, they are jazzed up. Instead of relying on the words to move the audience, there is raucous physical comedy, intricate costumes, vibrant cinematography--just about anything they can think of to keep us interested. Shakespeare films these days often keep the audience awake with their energy while delivering their lines of complex poetry as lucidly as dialogue may be.
You know, at the end of Shakespeare in Love, I found myself wondering what was fact and what fiction. The actors and the writers represented herein (Ned Alleyn, Philip Henslowe, Christopher Marlowe, etc.) were real people who knew each other and worked together. However, it is an open question whether this Shakespeare was anything like the real man--the facts of the Bard's life are patchy in the extreme. Other than his place of birth and a few personal details, we know nothing about this man other than his plays, the supreme quality of which make him all the more mysterious.
This mystery has stirred a great debate about who truly wrote the works which are credited to "William Shakespeare". The three front-runners are Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford in the late 1500s, William Shakspere (as he spelled his name) of Stratford-on-Avon, and Christopher Marlowe. The argument is an interesting but ugly one--tidbits of fascinating information are surrounded by copious mud-slinging and name-calling. Still, it is interesting to hear the theories; as such, I recommend the two websites on the topic:
All sides seem to have a good deal of holes. For instance, the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before the events which The Tempest seem to be based on took place. On the other side, there are only six known signatures by Shakespeare, and all look messy and completely different, like they were penned by a grade-schooler. Of course, the creators of Shakespeare in Love were well aware of this controversy--remember the scene when Will signs his name over and over again and all look like meaningless scribbles? The film is chock full of such references to Shakespeare's life and work. Are they believable? Not really. Are they fun? You better believe it.