Not only is Shakespeare In Love, apparently he’s in everything as Shakespeare Chic has once again reared its Elizabethan head at the box office. In 1999, nine films based on Shakespeare’s plays are slated for release, including a version of Othello set in a high school and starring Mekhi Phifer, yet another Hamlet with Ethan Hawke as the indecisive Prince of Denmark and a kung fu mobster Romeo and Juliet with Jet Li and jailbait rapper, Aaliyah. Not to mention, the already released, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the teen sex comedy bastardization of The Taming Of The Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You.
The recent wave of mass Shakespearia can be directly linked to Henry V (1989), the directorial debut of then-twenty-nine-old wunderkind Kenneth Branagh. Upon its initial splash, Branagh was immediately likened to a young Orson Welles. As the Bard, himself, said, “comparisons are odorous.” Whether Branagh ‘tis worthy of the likening remains to be seen -- although heralded as a genius at first, Welles was reviled for much of his career. It was only in hindsight that Welles was truly recognized for his contributions.
That being said, it is apparent that Branagh possesses a unique visionary approach to presenting the Bard cinematically. Intermittent with his appearances in Swing Kids and Celebrity, Branagh has paid homage to Shakespeare with Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Love’s Labour’s Lost (1999) and even a satire thumbing its nose at Shakespearean prima donnas, A Midwinter’s Tale (1995). What may have helped to spark the latest trend, however, is Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), which, aside from being updated to the 19th Century, is completely true to the original, presented word-for-word at four hours running time.
That same year, Branagh’s future squeeze, Helena Bonham Carter, starred in Tevor Nunn’s adaptation of the light comedy Twelfth Night, also coincidentally updated to the 19th Century. Simultaneously, on the histories side of things, Al Pacino played an actor -- himself -- looking for Richard III in the unconventional Looking for Richard. In the film, Pacino congregates several renowned actors -- none of whom are Shakespearean -- to explore the motivations behind the various characters of the play and then stage pivotal scenes. This not only gives the actors a deeper understanding, but also informs the audience. Looking for Richard is a refresher course, the perfect companion to Ian Mckellen’s Richard III (1995), a fascinating staging of the play, set in a fictitious England of the 1930, ruled by fascists.
Baz Luhrmann, the man who warns about sunscreen in that odd spoken word “song” that somehow became a hit, directed Romeo + Juliet (1996), an interesting but uneven MTV-ized update of the most tragic of tragedies. With casting straight from the pages of Seventeen magazine, Romeo + Juliet boasts Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes in the title roles, a phenomenal soundtrack and an inner city gang war between the automatic-weapons-toting Montagues and Capulets. Every why hath a wherefore, and here, I can only assume that the wherefore was “if it worked for Robert Wise, Leonard Bernstein, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer it would work for Laz Buhrman, the Butthole Surfers, Leo and the girl from My So-Called Life.”
And indeed, Romeo + Juliet worked. Perhaps that is Shakespeare’s true genius: while it’s difficult to improve on Shakespeare, it’s probably even more difficult to foul it up. No matter how you update, truncate or Kabuki them, his stories of murder and betrayal, love unrequited and cross-dressing soldiers are timeless. That’s why every decade or so, the Bard is all the rage again. That, and the fact that you don’t have to pay for story rights from a guy who’s been dead for four hundred years. And four hundred years ago, Shakespeare knew this. He “adapted” Plutarch’s timeless stories of murder and betrayal, love unrequited and cross-dressing soldiers. Shakespeare was the Kenneth Branagh of Elizabethan England.