Alumnae Bulletin August 2009

On Course - Multi-media Shakespeare

By Alicia Bessette

When a Renaissance scholar teaches film, students find themselves on the cutting edge of research

A popular English course blends tradition with new thinking, Renaissance texts with modern technology. Offered by Department Chair Katherine Rowe, Screening Shakespeare: English 324 is an interdisciplinary exploration in media studies and literary studies that asks how Shakespeare's plays have been recycled in different cultures over time.

Screening Shakespeare attracts students interested in the emerging field of Shakespeare in film, students who want to engage deeply and dynamically with Renaissance play-texts and their many adaptations by gifted filmmakers. But the course isn't limited to films; students examine materials including television, documentaries, videos, and computer games.

"The fields of literary studies and textual studies have caught up with Renaissance ideas about adaptation," Rowe says. "For a long time literary scholars held to a post-Romantic notion of genius and solitary inspiration—the idea that texts originate directly from a single creative mind, and that the authoritative text is whatever Shakespeare 'intended.' Modern editions sought to get as close as possible to that imagined, original intention. That's not a Renaissance view of poetic invention, however; Shakespeare's own works are rich mash-ups of adapted material. The Renaissance standard of excellence was how effectively a writer innovated with his inherited material, for specific purposes. Play-texts themselves were collaborative works, offering playing companies more material than was needed, so that those staging a play could adapt, pick and choose what they needed for a particular occasion."

Rowe's students approach screen adaptations from this Renaissance perspective, exploring how effectively recent films and videos use Shakespearean material for present-day purposes. Students develop research papers on specific aspects of adaptation as a cultural process, leading discussions and orally presenting their work to classmates throughout the semester. This practice gives them a chance to revisit their arguments as they develop and to test and deliberate their ideas. By semester's end they turn in one long essay of 3,000 to 4,000 words, and a 10-minute, formal oral presentation.

This emerging arena of scholarship, adaptation studies, gives students the opportunity to pursue cutting-edge research. Hannah Schofield '09, an English major and member of the Shakespeare Performance Troupe since her freshman year, developed a vocabulary for the way adaptations "repair" Shakespeare, finding ways to make his work conform to modern values without changing the play-texts themselves. The final scene of Michael Radford's 2004 film The Merchant of Venice offers a long, silent sequence in which Shylock's daughter Jessica is shown faithfully wearing the ring he assumed she'd traded away. Schofield argues that this dialogue-free conclusion attempts to repair the anti-Semitism long associated with this particular play-text, allowing us to "exit the film without blame."

Sarah Sheplock '10, an aspiring teacher who is studying Japanese and heads the Bryn Mawr Film Series, offers a way to re-think the idea of "fidelity to an original" through the lens of Japanese notions of "fidelity in translation." Her example is Akira Kurosawa's King Lear adaptation, Ran (1985). In one key scene, Sheplock explains, wind blows long grass into sea-like waves—a clear allusion to the passage in the play-text describing Lear's mad journey through the storm that "bids the wind blow the earth into the sea / Or swell the cold waters 'bove the main." Shakespeare offers this description of waves and seashore crashing together to suggest how profoundly Lear's inner world has been destabilized, and Kurosawa turns the image into a metaphor of even more profound uncertainty. By assimilating King Lear and giving it back to us through his own cultural lens, Sheplock explains, Kurosawa is like the benchi: narrators for silent films in Japan who stood near the screen to interpret and translate for the audience.

"Our own obsession with fidelity is a culturally specific one," Rowe comments. "Other cultures have different ideas of what an adaptation can be. In this case, Kurosawa is proposing that film interprets as it translates, that the goal of 'fidelity' is not to transcribe Shakespearean language into images but to provide a richer appreciation of the verbal possibilities of that language."

Students in Screening Shakespeare develop their ideas in short weekly film queries—pithy, critical engagements with some pressing question about adaptation, raised by texts and films, which are screened one evening a week. Students are encouraged to take notes during screenings, logging details of mise-en-scene, camera angles, and sound and editing choices, as well as how the film engages with the play-text. In discussion, students answer larger, interpretive questions: What cinematic world are we in? How is the Shakespearean material being used? Why is this film invested in Shakespeare?

Since the wealth of Shakespeare film adaptations can be challenging, Rowe offers specific principles to guide students through thoughtful exploration: mine, replay and rewind. For mine, students should mine the scholarship specific to their medium, format or genre. For example, students considering documentary adaptations (such as Looking for Richard, Al Pacino's 1996 rumination on Richard III's significance in the modern world) should be well-versed in the conventions of the documentary genre.

For replay, "take time to close-read a film just as you would a poem or story," Rowe says. "Movies, like all texts, generate conflicting interpretations. Careful interpretation means attending to patterns of story, image, editing, sound and other effects, and then analyzing those patterns."

And for rewind, students should ask themselves how the media invoked in a specific screen adaptation illuminates the Shakespearean material. As Rowe says, close study of adaptations across different media helps provide a vocabulary for thinking about Shakespeare's texts themselves—not just the ways they have been adapted to audio-visual formats for more than a century. For example, in Michael Almereyda's 2000 film, Hamlet, Old Hamlet's charge to his son to "remember me" takes on new technological context when we see young Hamlet repeatedly watching old home movie footage, and editing it on his workstation. Shakespeare's Hamlet, too, remembers in creative, medium-specific ways, using the "book and volume" of his brain and recycling an old play (The Murder of Gonzago). These different media have different strengths and limitations for Shakespeare's Hamlet, just as film and video do for Almereyda's Hamlet.

Rowe, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, teaches and writes about Renaissance drama and culture, media history, and adaptation. She has integrated studies of film and technology into her teaching and research. Her most recent book, New Wave Shakespeare on Screen (Polity Press 2007), grew out of a $250,000 2005 Mellon New Directions Grant to study at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Rowe serves on the editorial board of Shakespeare Quarterly and the Executive Council of the Association of Departments of English.

"Reading Shakespeare actively and comparatively enriches our understanding of both Renaissance and modern works," she says. "It also expands our collective prospects for creative remakes in the future."

Selected Reading

The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition, or any scholarly Shakespeare anthology that includes Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, King Lear, and The Winter's Tale

Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson

A Companion to Literature and Film, Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo

Shakespeare, the Movie II, Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt

Online resources: "Hamlet on the Ramparts"; "Writing with Film"; The Internet Shakespeare Editions

Timothy Leitch, "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory," Criticism, Vol. 45, No. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 149–171

Katherine Rowe, " 'Remember Me': Technologies of Memory in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet,"

Back to top »

Selected Visuals

Bardbox, a collection of original Shakespeare videos online:

Hamlet: 1920, dir. Svend Gade (Asta Nielsen); 1948, dir. Laurence Olivier; 1967, Gamlet, dir. Grigori Kozintsev; 1987, Hamlet Goes Business, dir. Aki Kaurismaki; 1990, dir. Franco Zeffirelli; 2000, Michael Almereyda

Othello: 1952, The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice, dir. Orson Welles; 1968, Che Cosa Sono Le Nuvole?, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini; 2001, dir. Geoffrey Sax

King Lear: 1971, King Lear, dir. Peter Brooks; 1985, Ran, dir. Akira Kurosawa; 2002, The King is Alive, dir. Kristian Levring Macbeth: 1957, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jô), dir. Akira Kurosawa; 2001, Scotland, PA, dir. Billy Morrisette

Titus Andronicus: 2000, Titus, dir. Julie Taymor

A Winter's Tale: 1992, Conte d'hiver, dir. Eric Rohmer

Back to top »