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August 1, 2011

Michelle Ray: FALLING FOR HAMLET/Falling for Shakespeare

Posted by jordana


FallingforHamlet.JPGMichelleRay_creditDanaKPelzman.jpgLet's face it --- reading Shakespeare can be pretty challenging. Sure, it's in English, but it's not the kind of English that we're used to. In many ways, it's like a different language. Today we have Michelle Ray, author of FALLING FOR HAMLET, writing about which screen versions she loves the most.

“I hate Shakespeare,” people tell me all the time.

I argue with them. Vigorously.

The thing is if you first experience Shakespeare by reading it in school, you might very well hate it. The words are huge. There’s that iambic pentameter bit. Your teacher might have talked about symbolism a lot. Even the names can be hard to pronounce.

And yet the stories are tremendous. Love. Lust. Revenge. Ghosts. Murder. Power plays. Epic battles. Witches. Slapstick. Word play. Shakespeare did it all. I’m not going to claim that all of his stories are equally great, but I am going to say that many are worth experiencing.

Note that I didn’t say “worth reading.” I teach Shakespeare every year and we do read the plays, but whenever I can, I show videos of shows. These plays were meant to be seen, not read, and a performance has two great advantages:

1) Even if you don’t understand a word or a speech, there’s no time to stop and figure it out. You move on to the next part, which you might understand or like better. In the beginning, it’s all about the big picture of story and emotion.

2) The way the actors deliver their lines will give clues as to their meaning. You might not know that “Sneck up!” is an insult if you read it, but you see it performed, you sure will.

I’ve been lucky to live in New York, DC, Boston, and LA, all of which have terrific theater. However, even if you can’t go see a live play, there are a ton of movie versions you can get on DVD or by streaming. Here are some of my favorites that use the original language of the plays:

Hamlet  [My top two]:

  • Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray, and Julia Stiles.  Modern day NYC setting and a fascinating adaptation
  • Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a completely uncut version (around 4 hours!).  Also has Kate Winslet. Gorgeous. A test of patience at times, but incredibly well acted.

Romeo and Juliet

  • I’m a huge fan of the latest Romeo + Juliet (1996) directed by Baz Lurman, who did Moulin Rouge. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Modern setting and very clever. It is not, however, for purists. (My mother hated it.)
  • Franco Zeffirelli’s film (my mother’s all time favorite movie) from the 1960s is very true to the original. Wonderful.
  • Bonus: Shakespeare in Love is the imagined story of Shakespeare writing R&J.  Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes star.

Much Ado About Nothing

  • Great fun.  Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson, and a cast of wonderful other, well-known American and English actors.  The English are far better than the Americans, in truth, but it’s entertaining. 

Twelfth Night

  • Parminder Nagra (who’s from Bend It Like Beckham), Chiwetel Ejiofor (from 2012.) Modern setting that seems to begin in India and end up somewhere in Africa.
  • A fairly good film version with Ben Kingsley, Helena Bonham Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, etc.           

Henry V

  • Fantastic Kenneth Branagh version. The war scenes are incredible.

Richard III

  • Ian McKellan, Robert Downy Jr., among others. Set during WWII.

Shakespeare tales that are retold, but not in the original language:

  • 10 Things I Hate About You = Taming of the Shrew
  • Kiss Me Kate = a musical version of Taming of the Shrew
  • O = Othello
  • She’s the Man = Twelfth Night

One more recommendation: The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) - All plays, sonnets, etc. done or referred to in 2 hours. Side-splittingly funny.

So those are my recommendations. Movies, like plays, books, and paintings, are art and very subjective -- one man’s masterpiece is another man’s bore. The key is to explore. Hey, you might learn to like Shakespeare (or learn to love it even more)!