ISP: MFM: Teacher's Guide: Shakespeare and the Visual Text: Using Video in the Classroom  
Main Menu - HomePage - Teacher's Guide

Shakespeare and the Visual Text: Using Video in the Classroom

by Steve Vineberg

Training students to become complex readers of Shakespearean texts implies taking them beyond the word. It is always a revelation to students that in Shakespeare, even the silences can speak eloquently ~ that, to pick a famous example, the depth of Macduff's grief over the news of his slaughtered family is conveyed by the length of time it takes him to respond as well as by the anguished terseness of his reply when Malcolm urges him to take revenge on Macbeth: "He has no children." What video adds to the teaching of Shakespeare is, chiefly, a tool for understanding him as a man of the theatre, for placing the written word in a theatrical context. But, as all directors know, the theatrical context is elastic. A text means how it plays, and no two directors will play a text in the same way. So to introduce video into the teaching of Shakespeare affirms the open-endedness of Shakespeare study ~ to suggest that a lifetime of seeing productions of Hamlet or Measure for Measure assures us that we will never discover the ultimate truth about the meaning of either play, and that the quest will be a rich and exciting one.

Since the initial impulse of students of Shakespeare is to read with their ears, the first step in using video in the classroom should be to show them how to read with their eyes. A piece of film (always assuming it is made by a director of some skill) is a text to be decoded just as piece of writing is, illuminating visual choices ~ the placement of the camera, the quality of the light, the sets and costumes ~ that are as definite and carefully worked out as word choices. In all my film classes, I begin with five basic questions, which are as applicable to the study of Shakespeare on film and video as they are to a film survey course:

Direction: What is the camera showing us? How much and what kind of information do we take in in a shot or sequence of shots?

This is the essential question that cues students to the idea that a filmmaker has elected to show us everything we see. In Chimes of Midnight, his 1967 adaptation of the Henry IV plays, Orson Welles contrasts the court world and the tavern world ~ everyday and holiday, in Northrop Frye's terms ~ as a screening of the opening ten minutes or so will make clear. Welles shoots the court largely in long shot, to underscore its coldness and formality, and in a baroque, geometric style, with a great deal of shadow (especially on the aging King Henry, played by John Gielgud); the human figures tend to be dwarfed by the enormous Gothic rooms of the palace. On the other hand, his version of the tavern world is full of random, un-geometric shapes and low ceilings (Hal, played by Keith Baxter, hits his head on one ~ he is getting too old for this life), and the camera leaps around, approaching the actors at close quarters. The editing is quicker, more sudden, and the staging is wilder in these scenes, e.g., at one point Hal is pulled backwards through a group of whores. Moreover, in these scenes Welles takes us outside, into a beautiful, wintry landscape, whereas in the court we're confined inside the palace walls.

Editing: How are shots juxtaposed? What is the purpose of this juxtaposition, i.e., why does this scene follow the one before it and precede the one after it?

Roman Polanski's heavily political Macbeth (1971) furnishes several significant examples. Polanski wants to emphasize the idea that the cycle of betrayal and murder initiated by the Macbeths is self-perpetuating and that, for the foreseeable future, unstoppable. To this end he inserts a brief scene, following the Murderers' report to Macbeth on the death of Banquo and Fleance's escape, where, leaving their secret meeting with their king, they're assaulted and murdered in their turn. At the Macduffs' castle, Ross's words of sympathetic solicitation to his cousin, Lady Macduff, are undercut when we see him leave the gate open for the approaching killers as he rides out of the courtyard. Polanski cuts to Ross (John Stride) repeatedly in the course of the film, using him as an emblem of betrayal and self-serving; we see, for instance, that his defection from Macbeth's side back to Macduff's is prompted by his assumption that he can rise no farther in Macbeth's camp. Finally, Polanski ends the film by cutting from Malcolm's (implied) ascension to the throne to a shot of his brother Donalbain, whom the play has long since forgotten, limping to a lonely campfire outside the environs of the castle, and we understand that this new king is no safer from assailants with an eye on his crown than his father was.

Motifs: Do we see the same kind of shot (the same image) over and over, with variations? What does this mean?

In Orson Welles's amazingly compact 1952 Othello, much of the imagery is derived from Iago's promise that he will ensnare Cassio (Michael Lawrence), and out of Desdemona's virtue make the net that shall emesh them all. Bars are crosshatched at nearly every window and every gate in the Moor's palace, their shadows playing across the faces of the actors (especially Welles's ~ he plays Othello ~ and especially in the scenes just before and just after he murders his wife, played by Suzanne Cloutier). Desdemona's abundant blonde tresses are encased in a fishnet snood, and in one scene where she talks to Emilia (Fay Compton), she sits behind a pattern of bars with spiked points. Welles also shoots a number of key scenes from an unusual height ~ when Othello demands of Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir) that he "prove my love a whore," the two men are standing at the edge of a cliff, pitched precariously over the roaring ocean ~ and the buildings are seem uneven, tipped, so that we never feel we're on secure ground. That's because Welles has cast Shakespeare's tragedy as a visual and emotional portrait of a man who tumbles into chaos.

Direction/screenplay: How does what we see relate to what we hear?

In most cases the answer is simple: we see exactly what we hear, i.e., we see the speakers converse. But not always. The simplest variation on this one-to-one relationship of text and image comes through the use of the voice-over. In Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet, Gertrude's description of Ophelia's watery suicide is mostly confined to the soundtrack, so that Olivier can show us Ophelia (Jean Simmons) in the act. And since he opted, famously, to relay Hamlet's soliloquies as voice-overs, suggesting the prince's tormented thoughts, "To be or not to be," where Olivier tosses his dagger from a foggy cliff into the water below, is a kind of Classics Illustrated version of the ideas in the speech (as Olivier interprets them). What Kenneth Branagh does in his 1996 uncut Hamlet is more complicated, more conceptual. As both actor and director, he plays the soliloquy not as a reverie on suicide but as a moral debate on how to be in the world (just as Eleanor Prosser reads the speech in her book Hamlet and Revenge), and his setting is a large room circled with mirrored doors. Behind one of them ~ a two-way mirror ~ Claudius (Derek Jacobi) hides, spying on his nephew. When Ophelia (Kate Winslet) enters, she's so nervous that Hamlet eventually catches on that they're being watched, and that's when he locates Claudius. He talks right to the two-way mirror, so his line about allowing all married couples to live but one is a direct threat to his uncle. Much of Branagh's film deals with the issue of private and public spaces and roles; his use of both true and false mirror images in this scene alludes to that theme and links it to the moral content of the soliloquy: Claudius's choice of how to be in the world ~ a politician, a spy, a traitor and a king-killer ~ is presented as a gross, negative model for Hamlet.

Point of view: From whose point of view are we seeing this? When does the point of view change?

This is as important question for film students as it is for literature students, and directors of Shakespeare have made fascinating use of the device of point of view. We discover one by returning to Welles's Othello. Welles shoots the Moor's epileptic fit from his point of view as he hits the ground, so the whole world turns upside down. When Othello learns the truth from Emilia that her husband has lied about Desdemona, that she has been chaste and faithful all along, again the camera admits us directly into the turmoil in the Moor's mind. These point of view shots are linked to the high and low angles and the vertiginous feel of many of the scenes; they help Welles to make Shakespeare's argument that, as Othello says of his wife, "When I love thee not, / Chaos is come again." In Henry V (1989), Kenneth Branagh inserts a flashback from the point of view of the young warrior king (played, once again, by Branagh himself). When Bardolph (Richard Briers), the companion of his youth, is caught stealing during the campaign against France, Henry has no choice but to order him hanged as any other soldier would be in the same situation. But here Branagh interpolates a brief scene from Henry IV, Part 1, recalling Henry cavorting happily as Prince Hal with his tavern friends, so that we see how difficult it is for the king to condemn one of them to death.

These five questions help to bring students into the larger conceptual ones that an examination of an entire production ~ or, better yet, the juxtaposition of two productions ~ can focus. Why does Polanski eliminate the supernatural in his Macbeth, turning Macbeth's second encounter with the Witches into a kind of acid-trip sequence, while Kurosawa, in his wildly altered 1957 samurai version, Throne of Blood, not only retains the references to otherworldly forces but enhances them? The fairy scenes in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle's 1935 movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream and those in the recent version by Michael Hoffman are both magical, but they serve two vastly different visions of the fairy kingdom; Hoffmann's is clearly the realm of Eros. The comparison of the two Henry Vs, Olivier's 1944 version and Branagh's 1989 revisiting of the material, is an endlessly fruitful one, since Branagh restored many of the cuts Olivier made when he produced a movie about a great English warrior in a wartime era. ~ and since Branagh is clearly working in response to Olivier's famous and extraordinary model. (You get the sense, especially if you watch the two movies back to back, that Branagh ~ like Olivier an actor stage director making his debut as a filmmaker with this material ~ is playing chess with the master.)

The use of video as a teaching tool emphasizes the importance of acting choices as well. Examining a dramatic text always implies an intimate focus on the development of character, and following the arc of Judi Dench̀ss Lady Macbeth in Trevor Nunn's 1978 BBC production (a transcription of his mounting of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company two years earlier) or of Olivier's Lear in the 1984 TV version widens any discussion of these figures. For an analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I might show a class the way in which James Cagney in 1935 and Kevin Kline in 1999 deliver the Bottom's dream soliloquy ~ both vivid, poetic readings, but Kline's crowns a more melancholic portrayal. And since Shakespeare is vague about Iago's motivations, every actor who plays the role has to gather together his own justification for the destruction of the Moor: Micheal MacLiammoir, Frank Finlay (playing opposite Olivier in the 1965 film) and Kenneth Branagh (in the otherwise undistinguished 1995 version) suggest three reasons ~ pure, demonic evil, racial hatred, and jealousy.

My colleagues at Holy Cross have encouraged me to build up our Shakespeare video library indiscriminately, since even a bad production can be instructive, and I see the value in that argument. However, my own bias is for teaching from the best models available, because then, in addition to exposing students to a Shakespearean text, I've exposed them to a marvelous film (like Chimes at Midnight) or television version (like Trevor Nunn's Macbeth) they might not have found on their own. Approaching Shakespeare in this way increases our students' level of literacy: they become aware of the collaboration of director and actors (and, by implication, designers and cinematographers) in determining the meaning of a play.

Main Menu - HomePage - Teacher's Guide