Tag Archives: Shakespeare

My Thoughts on: The Hollow Crown ‘Richard II’ (2012)

There are many film adaptations of Shakespeare that I enjoy, but my favorite would have to be The Hollow Crown, a BBC production of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays. The story begins with the reign and downfall of Richard II (grandson of Edward III) and concludes with the reign of Henry V as he attempts to conquer France. The series features an all-star cast and is a must see for fans of Shakespeare’s history plays.

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Richard II stars Ben Whishaw (the new Q in the James Bond films) as the titular king in the last few years of his reign. Richard, in my opinion, believes that he is a good king, but his actions are so ruled by his whims that it eventually drives the kingdom into rebellion against him. This rebellion is led by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), the future Henry IV, who is incensed that, after his father John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) died, King Richard ransacked his estate to pay for a war in Ireland. Henry returns from exile ostensibly to claim his birthright as Duke of Lancaster, but it quickly turns into an outright war for the throne of England itself. Stewart’s role as John of Gaunt (a younger son of Edward III) is well-played but ends rather quickly. It’s a shame, because it’s a pleasure to see Patrick Stewart performing Shakespeare.

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The contrast between Whishaw’s Richard and Kinnear’s Henry could not be more striking. Richard is presented as preening, elegant, almost effeminate. For most of the play he wears immaculate white robes, and on the one occasion that he does wear armor, it’s gold-plated (not exactly practical for fighting). Henry, by contrast, is burly and muscular, not afraid to get dirty if the job requires it. It is emphasized that Henry does not want to hurt Richard (who is his cousin after all), but is only doing what he believes is best for the kingdom. In the course of a monologue, Richard finally concedes the crown to his cousin and Henry is crowned Henry IV of England.

There are several liberties taken with the depiction of certain characters, most notably with Richard’s queen. Presented here as a grown woman, in truth she was only 10 years old at the time of Richard’s death (they got married when she was 7). There is also an appearance by David Bradley (Walder Frey in Game of Thrones) in the small role of a gardener.

In conclusion, Richard II is a good start to The Hollow Crown, one that I highly recommend. If you’ve seen Richard II, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day 🙂

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My thoughts on: The Merchant of Venice (2004)

When you hear about Shakespeare being adapted to film, you generally think of three plays: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth. And to be fair, there have been several outstanding film adaptations of all three plays over the years. But allow me to draw your attention to one of Shakespeare’s comedies that was brought to the big screen in 2004: The Merchant of Venice.

The story is lesser known today compared to some of the other plays (this is the first time the play has ever been adapted specifically for film) but the story is no less powerful. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is an impoverished nobleman in love with the wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). Portia is bound by her late father’s will to marry whoever chooses which of three caskets contains her picture. To get the money necessary to woo her, Bassanio uses the credit of his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to borrow money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s great villains and in this film he is played to perfection by Pacino as not only a villain, but also a tragic figure.

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The first part of the film revolves around Bassanio as he plans to woo Portia and several suitors who attempt to win the heiress for themselves only to choose the wrong casket. As this is a comedy, naturally when Bassanio arrives he chooses the correctly and Portia is his. It all seems too easy, but I think it’s meant to be that way to provide the audience with some happy, romantic moments before the drama unfolds. The latter part of the film deals with Antonio’s trial before the Duke of Venice. When Shylock lent the money to Bassanio, it was under the condition that, if Antonio could not pay it back, he would have to give up a pound of his flesh in recompense (hence the phrase “He took his pound of flesh.”) I don’t think Shylock actually intended to follow through…at first. But after his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) runs away to elope with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), the moneylender has turned very bitter and is determined to have revenge on Antonio no matter the cost.

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Al Pacino really brings his acting skills to bear in the trial scene, where he (as Shylock) persists in demanding the letter of the law be fulfilled, even when Bassanio returns with twice the money necessary to repay the loan. Shylock firmly believes that the law is on his side (even if his actions are morally reprehensible). Underneath his bitterness however, you can see that Shylock is deeply hurt that his daughter has left him. Unable to accept that his daughter is happy with a Christian man, Shylock firmly sticks to his demand of a pound of flesh from Antonio (I have to point out that Jeremy Irons delivers an excellent performance in this scene as a man who is trying very hard to steel himself for the inevitable but who deep down is terrified of the painful manner in which he will die).

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As this is a comedy, the story ends well for everyone except Shylock. Due to a careful reading of the law, not only does he not get his pound of flesh, but he also loses his wealth and his place in the Jewish community. Despite being the nominal villain of the story, you can’t help but feel bad for Shylock at the end. He pursued vengeance and lost everything in the process.

The film uses Shakespeare’s flowery language but please don’t let that put you off. The play contains two of the best monologues ever written (“The quality of mercy” during the trial scene and “Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and if you give the story a chance I believe you’ll fall in love with the story as I have. I also want to highlight the music of the film, there are several examples of late Renaissance music throughout the film, with lutes, guitars and singing. I really hope you give this film a try, you won’t regret it.

And those are my thoughts on The Merchant of Venice. If you’ve seen it, what did you think of the film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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My thoughts on: Richard III (1955)

Of all of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, my absolute favorite remains Richard III (1955), one of the best (if not entirely complete) film renditions of the story. The play, as the title indicates, follows the titular Richard, brother of Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as he rises in power to become Richard III, last king of the Plantagenet dynasty. The cast is full of talent, the principal players are as follows:

  • Richard III: Laurence Olivier
  • Edward IV: Sir Cedric Hardwicke
  • Clarence (brother of Edward and Richard): Sir John Gielgud
  • Duke of Buckingham: Sir Ralph Richardson
  • The Lady Anne (Richard’s wife): Claire Bloom
  • Henry, Earl of Richmond (Henry VII): Stanley Baker

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From start to finish, Olivier’s Richard dominates the story. Similar to Iago in Othello, the future king hides his true motives from all but a few (namely the Duke of Buckingham his confidante) and to most of the court appears to be brusque, awkward, but a gentleman regardless. Nothing could be further from the truth: Richard more than anything wants the crown of England, but his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence (not to mention Edward’s sons) stand in his way. To achieve this goal, Richard resorts to murder, threats and outright playacting to get what he wants.

Olivier’s acting is so versatile, it’s a delight to watch him at work. When he talks directly to the audience, as in the “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, he speaks as if he’s talking to a fellow conspirator. When he woos the Lady Anne, he lays the charm on so unbelievably thick that you almost believe he’s sincere…until Anne leaves and Richard reveals that this was all part of the plan. The only time Richard lets his ‘mask’ slip is when young Richard of York, his nephew, taunts him by saying that his uncle Richard should carry him on his humpbacked shoulder. This invokes one of the oldest storytelling tropes: no villain can stand to be mocked. Olivier created this moment from scratch, there’s no precedent for it in previous adaptations. In that moment, he turns and stares at young Richard with an absolute death glare, sending the young prince stumbling backward in fright. Oddly, no one else (except for maybe Buckingham) seems to catch this moment.

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Another scene I like comes late in the story when Richard (with Buckingham’s help) has finally convinced the people to have him proclaimed king. As the people leave to prepare for the coronation, Buckingham walks up to congratulate his friend, only to be stopped short as Richard thrusts his hand out, signalling that Buckingham should instead kneel before him. It’s an abrupt moment, one that clearly shows that things are not as they were between the two.

I said at the beginning that this adaptation was not entirely complete and that’s because a lot of material is cut out. This is one of Shakespeare’s longer works, a complete performance would last upward of four hours, so for a film naturally some parts had to be cut out. One of the biggest changes is the removal of Queen Margaret (the widow of Henry VI) from the story. This is huge because Margaret’s ‘curses’ play a crucial role in the story. Also, the roles of the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother) and Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife) are severely reduced as well (you can see more of their performances in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses).

If you like Shakespeare on film, you will love Richard III. A fully restored copy can be bought from the Criterion Collection (in fact this was the first Criterion film I ever owned) and is well worth the price. Let me know what you think of Richard III in the comments below and have a great day 🙂

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My thoughts on: Othello (1965)

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When I was in high school, I had to read several of Shakespeare’s plays for class. We read Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Macbeth; Julius Caesar and my favorite was Othello. This is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and follows the ill-fated story of the titular character, a Moorish general serving the Duke of Venice who elopes with the beautiful Desdemona. Iago, a soldier who is bitter that Othello did not name him as his lieutenant, conspires to bring about the general’s downfall.

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Of the Shakespeare works I’ve read, Othello is one of my favorites. Iago is a truly despicable villain, made more so by the fact that up until the final moments of the play, nobody realizes what he’s done and calls him “honest Iago.” The play has been adapted to film in English several times, but I think the best example is the 1965 film starring Laurence Olivier in the title role. The main cast is as follows:

  • Othello: Laurence Olivier
  • Desdemona: Maggie Smith (aka Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter)
  • Iago: Frank Finlay
  • Emilia (Iago’s wife): Joyce Redman
  • Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant: Derek Jacobi (in his screen debut)
  • Robert Lang: Roderigo, a Venetian nobleman who wants to marry Desdemona even though her father already said no several times.

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The first thing we must talk about in this version of the play is Olivier’s portrayal of the character. Controversially, remember this was the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights era was in full swing in the United States, Olivier plays the character in blackface from head to toe and also adopts a deep, booming voice. It seems shocking that an actor as well regarded as Laurence Olivier would do this, but in truth no offense was intended (though it would certainly not happen if the film were being made today). Actually, up until the 1990s, there was a long tradition (going back to the 1600s) of actors “blacking up” in order to play the Moorish general (this is because most interpreted “Moorish” to mean African and therefore dark skinned). This is not like some blackface that mocks Africans; Olivier plays it completely straight. Please don’t let this turn you off from watching this version of the play, Olivier’s performance is one for the ages (he earned an Oscar nomination for it).

In the story, after it’s revealed that Othello and Desdemona have eloped (to the shame and outrage of her father Brabantio), the Duke sends the general to Cyprus in order to deal with a Turkish fleet that is threatening the area. Desdemona accompanies him, as does Iago, Emilia and Michael Cassio, whom the aforementioned Iago is determined to ruin so that he might be lieutenant instead.

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Manipulation is a big part of the story, particularly how Iago manipulates Othello to believe things that the audience knows are simply not true. For example, Iago begins by getting Cassio drunk and then has him purposefully provoked, knowing how the lieutenant will retaliate. He then spreads a lie that Cassio is like this often, and given the spectacle Cassio makes, Othello dismisses him from his service. But it gets worse: Iago then contrives to have his wife steal one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs (one that her husband gave her) and ensures that it finds its way to Cassio’s hands. He ends up giving it to his mistress Bianca, but Iago tells Othello that it came straight from Desdemona’s hands, leading the general to believe that his faithful wife is sleeping with Cassio!

Iago is completely sure of himself for most of the story; he actually reminds me of Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. He manipulates everyone so well that no one realizes his connection to what has happened until the very end, when his wife puts two and two together and realizes Iago started everything. You will love Frank Finlay’s performance as Iago, he seems to be everywhere throughout the story (only Olivier has more screen time than he does).

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This being a tragedy, it is no surprise when I say that Othello, Desdemona and Emilia end up dead. Having been whipped into a jealous frenzy, Othello smothers his wife and later commits suicide when the truth has been revealed to him. Emilia on the other hand, is murdered by Iago when she blurts out the truth to several witnesses (Iago tried to have Cassio murdered, but he survived albeit with a bad leg injury). Othello’s last scene is mesmerizing: this is a man who knows he’s killed a woman who was nothing but faithful to him and the guilt is eating him alive. Olivier pours all of his ethos into this performance.

The film is shot with minimal sets which are expanded from the sets used for a 1964 stage version of the play staged by the National Theatre Company. This is the first English-language version of the play to be filmed in color and also, of all Olivier’s Shakespeare films, the one with the least music. Except for one scene where the soldiers sing some drinking songs and some instruments are played, there is no music at all (contrast this with Richard III (1955) which has a HUGE score).

To conclude, if you want to see a masterful rendition of Othello, please check out this film. I don’t think anyone has done the story more justice than Laurence Olivier. If you’ve seen Olivier’s Othello, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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