When I studied Shakespeare in college, one of the requirements of the class was to watch each of the plays we were studying. Before that year, other than the couple of times I had seen live performances of a Shakespeare play, I had only read the plays, never watched a video.
However, since it was an assignment for class, I made my way over to the audio/visual library on campus and checked out my first Shakespeare video, Richard II*. It was marvelous. I had already read the play and watching it helped me to understand even more what was occurring in the play. With facial expressions, props, costumes, and even the way the actors said their parts, I was drawn into the action of the play even more than when I had read them.
Since that time, I have watched many of Shakespeare’s plays. Sometimes it was to go along with whatever play we were studying at the time and sometimes just for the fun of it.
I am listing the plays I have watched below with a brief idea of why I liked it (or not). I hope to continue watching Shakespeare on video. In fact, I am eagerly awaiting my turn for our library’s copy of BBC’s The Hollow Crown series.
Much Ado About Nothing – Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, and Emma Thompson. This is my favorite of Branagh’s Shakespeare films. It is just so fun to watch. Also, I love Michael Keaton as Dogberry.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I’ve seen the BBC production and the 1999 film. I liked both. The BBC production has Helen Mirren as Titania, , Peter McEnery, and Geoffrey Palmer. My favorite is the 1999 film. It is delightful with Rupert Everett as Oberon, Stanley Tucci is a fantastic Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer as a beautiful, slightly dim Titania, and Kevin Kline as Bottom. They use Mendelssohn’s music and it is simply magical. I have yet to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play with Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, and Sebastian Shaw.
The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, Joseph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons and Lynn Collins. While I liked this movie, there were things about it that I didn’t like. I enjoyed Lynn Collins but I didn’t care for Jeremy Irons as much as I had hoped I would. Al Pacino is very good although I’m not sure I completely agree with the way he interpreted the role. I long to see the 1973 version with Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright if I can find a copy.
The Taming of the Shrew – I have seen two versions of this play: the famous Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor version and the BBC production with John Cleese. Both have their issues and while it is interesting to watch one of the Monty Python cast playing Shakespeare, the Burton/Taylor version is just so fun and what chemistry between them!
The Tempest – I have only seen the version with Helen Mirren as Prospera. I had never seen Prospero played by a woman and Helen Mirren is always good, but I’d like to find another version to watch.
Love’s Labour’s Lost with Kenneth Branagh and Alicia Silverstone. It’s Shakespeare as a musical and while not perfect, an enjoyable way to spend the evening.
MacBeth – The version with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench was good but not so compelling that I have wanted to see it again.
Hamlet – Kenneth Branagh’s version is the entire play and over four hours long. Excellent and well worth the time spent.
Romeo and Juliet – I have seen both the Franco Zeffirelli and the Claire Danes/Leo Dicaprio versions. I prefer the Zeffirelli version. It is beautifully filmed and catches the tragedy of the play so, so well.
Richard II with Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, and Jon Finch – Excellent production
Henry IV, Parts I and II with Jon Finch, Anthony Quayle, and David Gwillim – Good productions
Henry V – Laurence Olivier is wonderful as Henry V, Kenneth Branagh’s music score makes his Henry V one of the best Shakespeare films to watch (I cry every time I watch the scene after the St. Crispin’s Day battle when they sing Non Nobis), and David Gwillim does a great job of playing Henry in the BBC. Watch all three and decide which you like best.
Richard III with Laurence Olivier is a classic. Although I don’t agree with Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard, no one can deny that Olivier does a fantastic job playing the evil hunchback who wanted England’s throne so much that he would kill children.
*BBC’s productions of the plays: These are a good place to start. Some of England’s great character actors play in these and many of them are excellent; most are very good. They are often more like a stage production than a film though.