Shakespeare: Crossing Cultural Borders

Shakespeare’s plays express universal elements of humanity that cross cultural, historical, and artistic borders. This universality allows for Shakespeare’s plays to be presented in different settings and still convey the same human messages as his original plays. This helps viewers to realize that Shakespeare’s messages are timeless, and that the things that could be learned from Shakespeare in the 16th century are still applicable today. In the film interpretations of Shakespeare, artistic license has been taken by directors and producers — but one notices that the messages that Shakespeare intended to convey to the audience in his original works, are still relevant regardless of the setting. Many of Shakespeare’s plays concern power — the acquisition of power, the destructive nature of power, and the power of nations; this theme can be seen in all of the different adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.

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The Globe Theatre

One film that was a more authentic portrayal of Shakespeare was Laurence Olivier’s rendition of Henry V. The British pride that runs rampant throughout the plot of Henry V is brought out to an even more exaggerated extent in Olivier’s version. This is due to the fact that the film was released during the second World War, and it is evident that Olivier’s goal was to use the film to inspire patriotism in the people of England at a time where it was very much needed. Immediately, this asserts the timelessness of Shakespeare’s message of nationalism and British power. In order to do rally the population of 1940’s England against the Germans, Olivier takes every opportunity to characterize the English as noble heroes and the French (who serve as a stand-in for the Germans) as an unworthy enemy in order to evoke support of the war from his English audience. Olivier portrays the French King and his men as incompetent and feminine compared to King Henry, who, in the scene right before the audience meets the French king, speaks eloquently, boldly, and with much confidence. Henry comes off as strong and fearsome, saying “And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his/Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones; and his soul/Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance/That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows/Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;/Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…” (1.2.293-299). Almost all of Henry’s lines are of this nature, conveying the strength of England, a strength that Olivier wanted the British people to embrace in the context of Wold War II. Olivier in 1944 uses a play that was written in 1599 to rouse the British support of the war. While Olivier did not translate Shakespeare into an unorthodox setting, he still recognized the fact that Shakespearean messages from 1599 still had relevance in 1944 and could be used as an effective method of pro-war propaganda.

In 1957, Akira Kurosawa took Olivier’s actions a step further by inserting the plot of Macbeth into the setting of the Japanese Empire. While some minute details of the plot are changed, for example the three witches are replaced by one mysterious man/woman, the storyline is still clearly that of Macbeth, and as one watches the film one realizes that even though the film is in a non-English setting and is being acted out according to the traditions of the Japanese Noh theater, the same messages of Shakespeare’s original Macbeth are made clear in the new setting and in the new style of acting. Some of the characteristics of Noh theater are the emphasis on silence and noise, deliberate movements of each actor, and minimal blinking. As an example, one of the critical plot elements of Macbeth is the corruption and ultimate demise of  Lady Macbeth as her lust for power grows. In traditional British theater, this would be portrayed through dialogue, monologue, asides, and soliloquies, but in Noh theater the corruption of Asaji is revealed through the way she uses her eyes to convey her evil and bloodthirsty nature. Whenever she speaks to Washizu, she is usually looking off into the distance, seeming possessed. This makes it so much more powerful when her and Washizu do make eye contact, as it is clearly a very significant moment when that happens and we realize that she is the driving evil behind Washizu’s actions. The characteristic play of silence vs. noise also helps establish the evil nature of Asaji. In the murder scene, the  contrast of Washizu’s silence vs the light swishing of Asaji’s dress as it drags across the floor draws so much more attention to the wife, revealing that she is the not-so-silent force behind Washizu’s corruption. By inserting the plot of Macbeth into a Japanese setting and using Japanese theater rather than traditional English theater, Throne of Blood makes it clear that the corruptive nature of power that Shakespeare so often emphasizes in his plays is still applicable outside of his English context. And, while Akira Kurosawa did not take an Olivier-esque approach and try to put on a traditional Shakespearean play, he made it clear that Shakespeare’s ideals can still be conveyed through the Japanese methods of Noh theater.

Thus far it has been noted that Shakespeare’s plays in their original forms are relevant to modern life, that they can be translated into non-British settings, and that they can be acted out according to different forms of theater. Looking at Sir Ian McKellen’s rendition of Richard III, we can also see that Shakespearian plots and themes can transcend time, as the setting of Ian McKellen’s 1995 film is a fascist England in the 20th century. While the general plot of the play remains identical to Shakespeare’s original and the actors even speak in Shakespearean verse, essentially every visual aspect of the play and every aspect of the set is modified to fit the setting of a 20th century fascist England. Guns are used, tanks are seen, and the costumes are reminiscent of Stalinist Russia. Even beyond the physical setting and time period during which the film takes place, McKellen’s film also shows how Shakespeare’s plays can move past traditional forms of theater and be portrayed in a modern way. Comparing McKellen’s modern Richard III to Olivier’s more traditional rendition of the play, one example of Shakespeare’s translation into the style of modern acting can be seen in Act I, scene II. After Anne tells Richard that he is “unfit for any place but hell” (1.2.116), Richard replies, “Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it,” to which Anne responds “Some dungeoon.” Richard then fires back, “Your bedchamber” (1.2.117-119). Olivier, who simply translates the play from the stage to the screen, has Richard say this line as if Anne can hear it. The traditional text of the play does not note that the line should be an aside, so Olivier does not present it as an aside. McKellen, however, does present the line as an aside. Acting as Richard, McKellen looks back at the camera and talks directly to it when he delivers the bedchamber line. McKellan’s Richard seems like a sly and conniving snake who makes sexual jokes to himself about his ultimate desires to sleep with Anne. McKellan’s more modern take on filmmaking allows him to take more risks and step away from the exact way that Shakespeare wanted Richard III to be performed. He takes artistic license to develop his own image of the character, yet the same messages that Shakespeare intended to convey — the corruptive and destructive nature of power. This reveals that even in the modern style of acting, where the overall morals of a story may be a little harder to uncover than in the more traditional Shakespearean style, it is still possible for a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s work to convey the same themes that were being presented to audiences in the Globe Theater in the 1600s.

It is evident that Shakespeare’s works transcend, time, place, and culture; there are numerous examples of adaptations of his works that bring Shakespearean plays into all kinds of strange and unexpected settings and portray them in all different kinds of styles. From Olivier’s strict and traditional approach to making Shakespearean films, to Kurosawa’s Noh theater rendition, even to McKellen’s modern presentation of Richard III, it is impossible to find a context into which Shakespeare does not fit or a style of acting that can’t portray Shakespeare in a creative and effective way. Beyond stylistic boundaries, Shakespeare’s work clearly crosses cultural boundaries as well. The three aforementioned films are only a fraction of the magnitude of Shakespearean renditions that exist. There are Chinese, Japanese, Russian, versions of Shakespearean film from almost every country. Shakespeare has been established as the most filmed author of all time in any language. Why has he gained this level of fame and reverence in the world of theater and film? It is precisely because of his universality. Shakespeare knows no bounds, this is obvious when one simply looks at the number of movies that have been made out of his work and the immense variety that exists within that number. He knows no bounds because he touches on topics and conflicts that exist on a human level; any human in the world can relate to the problems that exist in his work. Whether it is the desire for power, respect, and the imminent fall from grace results as a byproduct of this desire, the obsessive nature of love, or the madness that is so easily sparked in the mind of men, Shakespeare writes about issues that have existed throughout the entire history of man, all across the globe, and will exist until the end of time. It is for this reason that his work has been translated into so many new settings, time periods, and forms of acting, and will continue to be for many years to come.

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