Today, April 23, 2014, marks the birth of William Shakespeare, exactly 450 years ago. Shakespeare’s process of play writing began in 1591 with Henry the Sixth, Part One and ended with the The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613, three years before Shakespeare died, on his birthday, in 1616.
However, I would bet that at no point in his illustrious career did Will ever dream that over 400 years later, his plays would still be read, studied, performed, and brought into mediums that did not exist in his day, such as television and film.
I would like to focus a bit on the latter two, as well as music and songs inspired by Shakespeare. Each of Shakespeare’s plays was at one time filmed and shown on BBC, and these versions can sometimes be found on DVD. And of course, movies of Shakespeare’s films have made their appearance as well. Laurence Olivier did many Shakespeare films, and he did some stage acting as well. However, I think that Olivier’s version of Hamlet, may be one of the earliest filmed versions of the play.
More recently, Kenneth Branagh directed, and usually starred in, film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. These are the ones that I own and have watched countless times. His first one was Henry V, where Branagh played the title character, in 1989. These were followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006). Henry V, Much Ado, and Hamlet were film adaptations of the full play; and as Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, the movie is 242 minutes (4 hours and 2 minutes) long, and split onto two DVDs or two Blu-ray discs. However, it is the best and most comprehensive film version of Hamlet that I have seen yet, and it is well worth the time spent watching it.
Branagh’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost is in the style of a 1930s musical. The dialogue in between songs is strictly Shakespeare’s words, but included are song and dance numbers to famous musical songs such as “I’d Rather Charleston”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” among many others; not to mention that there is also some tap dancing in iambic pentameter. As I mentioned, the dialogue is Shakespeare’s, and so is the plot, it’s just set in a later time period with musical numbers that move the story along. Still a lot of fun to watch.
A 1966 play by Tom Stoppard called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a comedic play told from the viewpoint of the two title characters, who are of course, somewhat minor characters, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play was made into a movie in 1991 starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player, and Iain Glen as Hamlet. The play and the movie are both hilarious, and it is a brilliant retelling of Hamlet seen through the eyes of his two friends, who really don’t know what their doing in Elsinore to begin with.
And in 2012, Joss Whedon did a version of Much Ado About Nothing. The movie is in black and white, was filmed over a span of a few days at Whedon’s home, and takes place in the present day, but using Shakespeare’s language. The film includes Clark Gregg (Don Leonato), Nathan Fillion (Constable Dogberry), Sean Maher (Don John), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Acker (Beatrice), Fran Kranz (Claudio) and Jillian Morgese (Hero).
There was also a new version of Romeo and Juliet released last year with Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the title characters.
The Broadway musical “Kiss Me, Kate” was adapted from Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. This show had many wonderful songs, however my favorite one is a song called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. It’s a fun song, with many puns using the title of Shakespeare’s plays, and the song is enjoyable even if you’ve never seen the play, though it is a good show and I do recommend it. There is also a longer version of the song; the one in “Kiss Me, Kate” is shorter. It’s good too of course, but if one were going to look for this song, I would suggest finding the full version of it.
Speaking of musicals and songs, the musical “Hair” has a song called “What A Piece of Work Is Man”, which of course is from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. The song uses Hamlet’s entire speech from this scene and puts it to music, and even though it doesn’t rhyme as most songs do, it is done beautifully.
One more note on Shakespearean-themed songs: in the late 1990s, there was an animated television show called “Histeria!”, it aired on Kids’ WB and was a show about history and historical events that were told in a factual, yet humorous way. They did one episode on famous writers, and this of course, included Shakespeare. The cast then did an entire song where they told the plots of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t believe that show is on DVD, but one may be able to find the song somewhere, maybe on YouTube or something like that. Anyway, it’s a great song if you can find it.
I’m certain that there are some stage, film, television, and song adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that I did not mention here, and of course, any of them are worth checking out. And I encourage anyone, if you have never read one of Will’s plays, pick one up. If you think you won’t understand it, I have seen versions of his plays where they have the original text alongside modern English. Read the modern English, and then go back and read it the way it was originally written, and you’ll see that Shakespeare’s language isn’t too hard to grasp, and that in fact, many things that he said then, have the same meaning and translation today.
And if you, like me, have read Shakespeare’s plays, keep doing so, and continue to find ways to share his work.
Ben Jonson was a contemporary playwright of Shakespeare’s; Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, often performed Jonson’s plays at the Globe. Upon the death of Shakespeare, Jonson wrote a long, touching, and beautiful poem in memory of William Shakespeare. Just Google: Ben Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare–and you should be able to find it.
I will end here with a poem that I wrote about Shakespeare. However, I will preface this by saying that I am writer, but I am not a poet. So I know that this poem isn’t among the greatest, could have probably been a lot better, and certainly pales in comparison to Jonson’s poem. I have a deep level of respect for poets and their ability to take words and phrases and transform them into beautiful and visionary verses, rhyming or not. And I love to read poetry, but writing it is a whole other animal, and not something I excel in. Yet, I decided to give it a shot, so here it is:
Birthday Ballad for the Bard
In Stratford-Upon-Avon was a boy born,
on April twenty-third, fifteen sixty-four.
For John and Mary Shakespeare
having lost two daughters previously,
now had their first son to hold dear.
The oldest of six was he.
However, no one yet knew what treasures William Shakespeare would bring,
to the world on and off the stage.
For he was to teach us that ‘the play’s the thing’
and his wonderful wit would soon fill many a page.
He was married to Hathaway, first name Anne,
Susanna was their first child, then the twins Judith and Hamnet.
And so in order to support his clan,
William left to find trade in his talent.
In London, Will found the King’s Men
and joined their acting troupe.
Full plays he would write for them with ink and pen,
he was a well-respected member of their group.
His first play was Henry the Sixth, a history,
and from here would he write thirty-six more.
Will also composed a total of four works of poetry.
Not to mention his sonnets; all one-hundred and fifty-four.
Most noted for his dramatic works though,
Shakespeare presented us with some of today’s most well-known plays.
Many words and phrases to him do we owe.
We use them to these very days.
Amongst his famous histories
were Henry the Fifth and Richard the Third.
Characters like Falstaff gave us comic memories
and the past brought to life through Will’s every word.
His comedies include such celebrated titles as
Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
To make us laugh, these and many others written he has,
with frivolity as their collective theme.
Tragedies by him of course are well-noted,
giving us Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.
Darker plays, though often well-quoted,
of usurpation, ill-fated love, and death.
Will gave us lore as timeless as he is,
and as legendary too.
For his words and wit, ageless ‘tis,
Gentle Shakespeare, we owe much to you.
These characters, and these plays, all are Shakespeare’s,
and timeless, he will last much longer, than even another 450 years.
Happy birthday Mr. William Shakespeare! And now, to use my favorite stage direction by the Bard…
(Exit, pursued by a bear).