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- Author: R. S. White x
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This entertaining and scholarly book takes as its theme the original argument that Shakespeare’s generic innovations in dramatizing love stories have found their way, through various cultural channels, into the films of Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century and, more recently, Bollywood. It does not deal primarily with individual cinematic allusions to Shakespeare’s plays, nor ‘the Shakespeare film’ as a distinct, heritage genre, nor with ‘adaptation’ as a straightforward process, but rather the ways in which the film industry is implicitly indebted to the generic shapes of a number of Shakespearean forms based on comedy and romance dealing with love. Particular plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet all powerfully entered the genres of mainstream movies through their compelling emotional structures and underlying conceptualisations of love. Drawing on dozens of examples from films, both mainstream and less familiar, the book opens up rich, new ways of understanding the pervasive influence of Shakespeare on modern media and culture, and more generally on our conventions of romantic love. It is such connections that make Shakespeare a potent ‘brand’ and international influence in 2016, even 400 years after his death.
Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious example of a single play by Shakespeare influencing a myriad of movies, to the extent that we can recognize a ‘romeo-and-juliet’ genre film even when Shakespeare is not referenced. Although the tales of romantic tragedy go much further back than Shakespeare, it is his version which has proved the most durable in its specific conventions and the kind of love represented in it. There have been a series of watershed film adaptations of the play itself, such as those by Cukor, Zeffirelli, and Luhrman, but this chapter takes the occasion to trace the play’s more subtle and indirect influence into films made in a range of countries, the United States, the Czech Republic, Wales, and India.
This chapter shows how Shakespeare innovated his unique brand of romantic comedy under the influence of prose romance and Lyly’s dramatized romance. The resulting hybrid form was so successful that it is an underpinning structural formula for romantic comedy in many modern movies, even ones where Shakespeare is not a direct source. His most successful examples became conflated through the Western educational system into a recognisable and very flexible genre, tracing how ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ through successive stages involving centrally an exotic, transforming location such as a forest. Even twentieth century critics such as Northrop Frye played their part in popularising the genre and paving the way into movies, because of their strong influence on students in the twentieth century.
The introduction surveys theories of genre as they pertain to drama and to movies. Shakespeare, it is argued, innovated hybrid dramatic kinds by incorporating different traditions, in this context most pertinently, comedy and romance. Film history has generated its own repertoire of genres but the hybrid model of Shakespeare is at the heart of the process, and gave an initial model of genre development which early movie-makers tacitly adopted – scenes from his plays were among the first cinematic experiments, and continued to shape cinema history. The nature of influence is equally important. Shakespeare was influenced by earlier writers, a process which is examined here, and his indirect cultural influence (distinguished from sources and direct adaptation), especially on movies, is analogous and is traced here.
As a satirical or native English comedy, The Taming of the Shrew has been contentious in modern times for its inescapable patriarchal assumptions, but also extremely popular on stage and screen. However, there have been periodically ingenious solutions to the cultural problems which are visible in movies. During the 1930s strong, independent women were cast in ‘screwball comedies’ in which they were more than a match for the men, while later versions of the same kind of genre based on The Shrew made when feminism was developing present a different kind of antagonistic dynamic between a strong woman and strong man. This chapter traces these and other versions of ‘madly mated’ people who become marriage partners.
Shakespeare’s comedies of love are much more dependent on musical effects than nowadays meets the eye, since the texts make brief references to many popular songs that would, in the performances, have been rendered. This changes the tone of his romantic comedies significantly, as they come to depend as much on interpolated music as verbal exchanges. This was another facet of the structure of his genre that fed into the Hollywood musical, either in its ‘backstage’ version or musical comedy. A wide range of musicals are analysed to develop the argument of this influence.
Conscious disguise and mistaken identity run through most of Shakespeare’s comedies as a theme, and they are central defining aspects of his romantic comedy. Underlying the pattern is a version of love which sees through superficialities to an inner compatibility between characters. It also raises questions of role-playing and its significance in love relationships. All these elements, in some shape or another, also occur regularly in Hollywood romantic comedy, and the disguises may involve not so much gender as in Shakespeare, but social and professional status. The rich impersonate poverty to test love, the poor play roles of higher social status to attract love, but the basic metaphor is as in Shakespeare’s disguised women in As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
The Comedy of Errors led to specific movie adaptations such as the musical The Boys from Syracuse and more generally it inspired films based on mistaken identity through identical twins. This has been especially fertile in Indian movies, where such stories abound in filmed versions.
The Conclusion draws together some of the threads running through this book pertaining to love conventions evident in modern movies which, it is argued, are influenced by Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedy of love. Infatuation, romance, attachment, and loss, are all defined in his plays in ways which reappear in modern movies – not, it is argued, as a result of ‘universals’ but a specific line of cultural influence running from Shakespeare’s theatrical practice down to the love stories of modern movies which are in turn so pervasively influential over modern conceptualising of love, at least in the Western World.