Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare Across Time and Media

author: Diana E. Henderson, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: July 18, 2011,   recorded: November 2006,   views: 3413

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Shakespeare has powerfully influenced generations of artists in all fields. His works, in spite of their formidable iconic force, invite interpretive play, and Diana Henderson construes Shakespeare’s connection with his artistic descendants as collaboration. Artists use his plays “as a kaleidoscope,” and “shake up Shakespeare…. We remake him in our own image, often with spectacular results,” says Henderson.

Using film and novels to illustrate this point, Henderson’s new book explores several intriguing instances of Shakespeare “shifting.” Sir Walter Scott recast “Othello” in his novel, Kenilworth, and Virginia Woolf used “Cymbeline” in Mrs. Dalloway. Henderson’s talk takes up Franco Zeffirelli’s “Taming of the Shrew,” starring the dueling celeb couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film takes the Shakespeare story “over the top,” says Henderson. Zeffirelli uses comedic film touches, such as horror film shots, to frame the story. The soundtrack “saves it from farce,” she says, and “body gestures add to the text,” to help demonstrate the shift in power relationships.

Henderson also discusses Kenneth Branagh’s movie of “Henry V,” which brings Welsh characters to the fore, but deletes the Queen of France (assigning her lines to his own role of Henry). There’s a mix of ideas on nationalism and gender relations here that encourages readers (or film viewers) to puzzle at and rework the play, assigning it new meanings. She notes that one of the fashioners of the Iraq invasion, Kenneth Adelman, read “Henry V” “as an instruction manual for George Bush in Iraq.”

Henderson offers, like David Lettermen, the Top 10 Reasons why Shakespeare remains Top Dog. At number one: “Shakespeare wrote in a multimedia form in a way that can be reshaped across media.”

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