The Bard Shakes Loose Shakespeare lives: The plays are as contemporary now as when they were written, which may be why they are being revised and reinterpreted in new movies.


To: Jane Austen, "Steventon," Hampshire, England.

L From: Morrie Greene, Creative Arts Agency, Hollywood, Calif.

Re: Career Moves

Jane, baby:

Sorry, princess, it's over, 15-minutewise. You may get an Oscar but we've stopped getting callbacks on your projects, plus "Mansfield Park" has just gone into turnaround at Metro. Have you thought of trying to crack the How-to Market? Ciao!

To: William Shakespeare, Stratford-on-Avon, England.

From: Morrie Greene, CAA, Hollywood, Calif.

Re: Career Moves

Willie, pal:

Welcome back to the bigs, baby. Get out here pronto. There's money lying around on the streets. Your only competition is idiots.

Well, all right, such wires probably would never have been sent, not even by CAA when Mike Ovitz was running the place. But it is true that after a year of Jane Austen, climaxing in the arrival of a ravishing "Pride and Prejudice" to cable TV and probably an Oscar or two for "Sense and Sensibility," another Englishman is being seen in the best places these days.

No, not Hugh Grant, with or without Divine intervention. The Bard, as in Shakespeare. In fact, it's raining Shakespeare, at least in Baltimore.

That's because not only has Oliver Parker's version of "Othello" just opened, but on Feb. 16 everybody's favorite villain, "Richard III," comes to town in a stunning new raiment starring Ian McKellen as the original Tricky Dick. On Feb. 8, Johns Hopkins University begins a four-film series of Shakespeare productions, chosen with an eye toward demonstrating the various possibilities of interpretation today.

The Hopkins' films are Laurence Olivier's "Henry V," a fairly conventional and rousing appeal to patriotic pieties in 1944, with Olivier starring both before and behind the camera (Feb. 8, 7 p.m. in the Baltimore Museum of Art); Franco Zeffirelli's romantic teen spin on "Romeo and Juliet" from 1968 (Feb. 22); Peter Brooks' "King Lear," from 1970, said to be a "Lear" as Beckett might have mounted it (March 14); and finally, Roman Polanski's "Macbeth," which was a mega-violent 1972 release with Lord and Lady Macbeth being played by young and attractive performers, rather than the usual doddering oldsters (April 18).

Is this a pattern or a random blip? Or is the world becoming more English Lit-friendly these days?

The answers are mixed. In the case of Jane Austen, I think the world is becoming English Lit-friendly. In the case of Shakespeare, however, another agenda prevails.

Jane Austen can still be Jane Austen. That is, the world of Jane Austen can unreel in reasonably straight-forward recapitulation, reasonably literal adaptations of novels into movies. No one would ever set "Sense and Sensibility" aboard a destroyer in the Pacific in 1944.

What compels Austen to our attention today -- more, of course, than the genius of the work itself -- is her consistent creation of powerfully imagined young female characters caught up in thorny moral dilemmas (usually involving young men), who must struggle for happiness but always find it after much travail. That plays as well in the late 20th century as it did in the early 19th century, possibly even a little better.

Thus it is that only one of the four Austen projects of 1995-1996 was revisionist in spirit, and that was "Clueless," based on Austen's early novel "Emma" -- and in an odd way it wasn't that divergent. Playing in Beverly Hills, amid wealthy yuppie children with pagers who drove Jeeps and beamers, it still retained Austen's values: The importance of truth and friendship, the necessity of loyalty and empathy, the fundamental belief that honesty to self was the foundation of survival in that cursed arena known as Society. The other three ("Persuasion" is the thus unnamed one, and it's still playing in Baltimore, at the Gordon in Owings Mills) were dead-on versions, not fanciful permutations.

By contrast, no such straightforward version of Shakespeare can exist. Shakespeare isn't enough, where Austen is enough. With Shakespeare, you gotta get a gimmick, some new twist that will empower the production for contemporary standards.

Obviously, there are some technical reasons for this. Austen, written in clear, bold English and plotted sometimes almost programatically for moral instruction, is much more accessible to 20th-century minds, particularly movie-culture minds. And she it is still read entirely for pleasure today. Shakespeare, in that blisteringly brilliant iambic pentameter that takes an educated ear to penetrate, is not as reader-friendly to 20th-century minds.


But that only explains the phenomenon to a certain degree. Can it possibly be that Shakespeare is obsolete? Well, no. In fact, the range of Shakespeare's characters and his plots sound as contemporary as anything in Quentin Tarantino. In "Othello," for example, we have a motivelessly malign sociopath who, for reasons that never make much sense save his own black nihilism, sets out to destroy the man in whose service he labors. He does so with such chilling relish it's an astonishment -- particularly in the way that Shakespeare, predating Jim Thompson by centuries, makes us privy to the killer inside Iago, through the medium of direct observations to the audience.

Then there's Richard III himself, far more fascinating and hypnotic than Oliver Stone's lame Nixon, a twisted viper of a man who yearns for power for its own sake and overturns the constitution in a bloody -- to get it -- again for no reason that anyone can quite fathom.

If those aren't modern stories, what are they?

The answer may have more to do with Shakespeare's greatness than with his narrowness. His stories play anywhere, even on the planet Altair-4 (see "The Forbidden Planet," 1956). And it is almost out of love for him rather than anything else that he is so continually updated and made to play on new stages.

"Richard III" is surely the weirdest, which even Sir Ian McKellen, who plays the demented monster-king and was in some sense auteur of its relocations, acknowledges.

"But you see," he says, "you must do Shakespeare in modern dress today, because you can't tell the characters apart if they're all in costume." Does this sound like saving Shakespeare by destroying him?

Whatever. On its own terms, which have nothing to do with Shakespeare, "Richard III" works in odd ways. In his "Richard III," Olivier disguised himself; in McKellen's version (directed by slick Richard Loncraine), the actor wears no disguise -- but the entire world does!

The movie has been wrenched from the 15th century and deposited in a fictitious 1930s, into what appears to be a fantasy in Oswald Mosely's head, into a brownshirt, fascist Britain. The movie has been Art Deco-ized to an astonishing and provoking degree. No moment is more dislocating than the first, when the soon-to-be-deposed king prays in his chambers before execution, and then the wall is smashed into a torrent of rubble, a tank grinds in, and from its turret in a gas mask with a Mauser automatic in his hand jumps McKellen's Richard. I can just see kids asking after this movie, "What was your favorite machine gun in 'Richard III'?"

Alternate universe

The movie then plays out in a totally imagined alternate universe, and you are almost completely removed from the text of the play, for good or ill. Yes, he does scream. "A horse, my kingdom for a horse!" but he's sitting in a wrecked jeep at the time, and it's clear his meaning is metaphorical, not literal as it would be traditionally. Whether this "relevance" adds to the whole or detracts from it, I leave to others to decide -- it certainly does change it in ways that take some sorting out. I thought it was much better as a movie than as an adaptation of Shakespeare. But one astonishment is textual -- that a text written 400 years ago remains as alive and flexible as this, and that it can be twisted pretzel-like to acquire new meanings and remain viable as drama.

"Othello" is a slightly different kettle of fish. Its revision comes in the form of a casting "trick," which acknowledges the shameful fact that, unbelievably, the most famous black role in literature has never been played on the screen by an authentic black man. Along comes the powerful American actor Laurence Fishburne to change that.

Those who've seen Olivier's bellowing Calypso hauteur in the role (it was recorded on film in 1967) will be amazed at Fishburne's contrary interpretation. He doesn't feel compelled to exult in his blackness as Olivier (and Orson Welles before him) had to, with a West Indian lilt and an almost athletic gait in bare feet, as if to suggest he was somehow closer to barbarism than the Venetians who surround him.

There's no need to represent "blackness" because he is blackness, legitimately. Thus Fishburne is restrained and dignified, less a bellower than a far more contemplative personality. His seduction into evil by the crafty Iago seems somehow infinitely more tragic because he seems far more human and flawed than Olivier's boomer.

Human scale

This also frees Iago to be less demonstrative, and Kenneth Branagh's bad boy is another modulated performance. His Iago is sly and seductive, but keeps a sergeant's hearty bluster; he never seems epicene or cold. And it's amazing the way in which Branagh also keeps his performance on a human scale. These are less towering figures than we are used to seeing in Shakespeare.

But the true meaning of this "Othello" is that casting an African-American in the role confers upon the film an aspect of racial tension unfelt in either of the preceding editions. Now, in naked color, we see an evil white man conspiring to bring down a virtuous black one, and even if evidence in the text for a purely racial interpretation is scanty, the fact of color gives this version a power and an ability to disturb that no one before has had.

And possibly that gets at what keeps Shakespeare in the game: Like any good movie hack, he can move from genre to genre. He'll always get his phone calls returned.

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