And the Oscar goes to…William Shakespeare

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday I wrote this little piece on how the Bard can save Hollywood. You can find more Shakespeare birthday posts at Happy Birthday Shakespeare.

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I’m not the first person to suggest that if he lived today William Shakespeare would be one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Shakespeare acted, he wrote scripts, and the company he co-founded owned two theaters and had a royal patent – in other words, he was a studio head/producer. He was also adept at politics. His company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men as the Tutor dynasty ended and the Stewart dynasty began. Shakespeare was The Man. And by that I mean, he was at the center of both the cultural and political establishment of his day.

Shakespeare didn’t just do these things. He did them very well. His dialogue is beautifully crafted. His characters are a mess of emotions and contradictions. I vacillate from feeling sorry for Hamlet to wanting to tell him to “man up” and kill Claudius already. His plays are filled with – I can’t help but use the phrase – cinematic action. It’s really not surprising that I like Shakespeare and action movies.

Moreover, he wasn’t above pandering to the crowd with crude and sophomoric humor, or portraying Queen Elizabeth’s father and grandfather in a complementary light. He played to his audience and endeavored to bring them along with him. He did not expect his audience to come to him high atop the mountain of pure art – wherever that is.

This raises the question, does the fact that Richard III ends with Henry Tutor saving the day and bringing peace and prosperity to England reduce the art of the play? Let me put it another way. If Shakespeare was that Hollywood heavy weight I described above, would his plays be popcorn movies, released as potential summer blockbusters? Or would they be given a limited art house released? This is a trick question, of course, because Shakespeare was both popular and high brow. Today we divide movies into Hollywood/mainstream/commercial on the one hand and art on the other.

But why do we divide movies in this way? This is actually a big question that deserves its own post. For the moment, let me merely say this division is a shame because it is possible for a movie to be both. One of the best recent examples is Gladiator which was an art movie disguised as an action movie. Or an action movie disguised as art movie depending on your perspective.

In the past few years there has been a lot of hand wringing in the film industry about declining and/or stagnant movie ticket sales. But today, on his birthday, William Shakespeare can provide the solution. All filmmakers have to do is this: Go watch some of Shakespeare’s plays, learn from them, and start making action movies that are also art movies, or art movies that are also action movies. Then the multi-plexes would be as full today as the Globe was in its day.

Happy Birthday Will!

When I am lucky, I get to teach Shakespeare to high school students during the day to feed my stomach, and write stories with his ghost hovering over my shoulder at night to feed my soul. When I teach, I research the assigned texts far more deeply than I need to for high school freshmen. In the process of getting ready to teach Romeo & Juliet, I read that Shakespeare had written Paris’ lines in the then “old-fashioned” Petrarchan verse, and the lines spoken by Romeo and Juliet to each other using the meter and rhyme scheme of what we now call a Shakespearean Sonnet.

This is pretty esoteric stuff. The groundlings and many others at The Globe would not know the rules of Petrarchan verse, even if they sensed the difference in how Paris spoke to Juliet, and how Romeo talked with her. However, I’m sure the likes of Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, or Thomas Dekker would have known what Shakespeare was up to, and probably nodded in admiration, or perhaps shook their heads in jealousy. And yet Romeo & Juliet is a crowd-pleaser 400 years later: In my darkened classroom, when – in Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic version – Romeo lifted the vial of poison to his lips, one of my students yelled out, “Don’t drink it! She’s alive!” But Romeo didn’t hear my student, and the classroom gasped as he drank it down and Juliet awakened. Now, I had slowly and carefully gone over the prologue with these same students. Some had even seen the movie before. On an intellectual level, my students knew what was coming, but Shakespeare swept them along in the story as the characters were swept along, and at that moment my students wanted to stop this impending tragedy from happening when the players themselves were completely oblivious to it. Romeo & Juliet was an old story even in Shakespeare’s day. But, the way he put the words words together and constructed his version made something new, something we still use as the basis for big-budget movies.

How can one not be awed by that power, that mastery of words? And to make it worse he was popular in his own lifetime and made lots of money. He was not a starving artist scorned and ignored by his contemporaries, dying alone and penniless, only to be discovered after his death. No, no. He was a genius, and was recognized and paid handsomely for it! As someone who would love to feed his stomach and not just his soul, with his writing, it would be easy to shake my fist and curse Shakespeare in a jealous rage. Or to be passive-aggressive and dismiss him as just another stuffy and irrelevant writer from the past. However, his success fills me with admiration. His career is the best argument that art and commerce can (should?) be intertwined. One can (should?) create stories that ask deeply human questions, and simultaneously keep the audience on the edge of their seats. One can (should?) play with language, writing heady, lyrical prose about base jealousy, unrestrained greed, and raging-teenage hormones. He proved these things possible by doing them – more than once.

Taking this (some would say idolatrous) view inspires me. While I doubt anyone will be reading my stories 400 years from now, my goal is always to write stories that are well written, if not lyrical, and at the same time cause the groundlings to cheer the hero and hiss at the villain. After all, if this standard was good enough for Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

Happy Birthday, Will.

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For more blogs dedicated to William Shakespeare on his birthday visit: Happy Birthday Shakespeare