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Shakespeare the Filmmaker

On this day, one of the world’s great filmmakers was born. He died almost exactly fifty-two years later on the same date. The most remarkable thing about him was that he died nearly three hundred years before the invention of the cinema. So in the strictest sense of the word, William Shakespeare was not a filmmaker. Nevertheless, his plays have inspired many classic films in the hundred and twenty-one years since the first public exhibition of motion pictures. These films have featured the talents of actors from Laurence Olivier to Leonardo DiCaprio and even Mickey Rooney. (Yes, that Mickey Rooney. Didn’t you know he played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935?)

It has been said by many people that if Shakespeare had been alive today, he would be writing for the movies. Some people, thinking that the Shakespeare they believe they know – the romantic idealist whose plays supposedly exist over and above the times when they were written or presented – could never be such a sellout. Shakespeare, however, was as much a showman as an artist (the two are not mutually incompatible). He was as famous in his own time as an actor as a playwright and poet. Not only that, he was a shareholder in the acting companies he wrote for and part owner of the Globe Theater where they played. Which means that, for all his superior artistry, as someone who was trying to earn a living in the theater, he had an interest in making sure the plays he was writing were plays which an audience would pay to see.

That’s how it is in filmmaking as well. Some people consider that mass popularity is a sign of mediocrity. That’s looking at the subject through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, making what is large and close look small and distant. Shakespeare must have figured that there was a way for art and commerce to intersect; otherwise he couldn’t have afforded to pay the rent on the land his theater stood on or the wages of his actors.

On the other hand, mass popularity is no more of an argument for artistic greatness than a small, rarefied audience would be. Most of the plays written in Shakespeare’s time have been lost. (People who aren’t English majors might be able to name Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson as fellow playwrights in Shakespeare’s time, but only if they were among the lucky few to study them in high school or college amid the great heaps of dear old Billy that get dumped every semester on the world’s teenagers.) Look up a listing of the ten most popular films of a given year from the 1920s to today. How many classics can you count among them? (If you don’t mind, leave out the fabled year of 1939, despite the exceptional number of classics it produced. It has an unfair advantage: no other year has come near it.)

To sum up, don’t colour your opinion of the artistic success of a play or film based on how popular or unpopular it is. If that had been a criterion, Shakespeare would have been forgotten long ago and we wouldn’t be seeing movies of his plays. A film (or play) should be judged on its merits alone; besides, if there hadn’t been an economic incentive to acting and publishing Shakespeare’s plays, even Shakespeare’s genius would have been lost to us three hundred years ago.

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