To Weep Or Not To Weep?Shakespeare's Tragedies

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To Weep Or Not To Weep?Shakespeare's Tragedies

Shakespeare's Tragedies On Screen – Part II

On the 23rd of April 2016 we marked the 400th death anniversary of perhaps the greatest dramatist of all time, and certainly the most famous, William Shakespeare.

In Part I of "To Weep Or Not To Weep..?" we looked at some of the important screen adaptations of three of his best tragedies... Hamlet, King Lear and Antony & Cleopatra.

Here we look at the balance three major tragedies: Macbeth, Othello and Romeo & Juliet.

“Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No...”

Macbeth (written between 1599 and 1606)

Primarily based in Scotland, the play is about Macbeth, a general to the Scottish King, who is prophesied by the witches to become the king, and so decides to murder the existing one in order to quickly bring the divination to fruition. But it is this lust for power that ultimately results in his downfall.

The powerful story of blind ambition, betrayal, and how absolute power corrupts absolute, resonates even today and has been adapted for the screen several times with some of the best performers lusting for the lead role.

The first documented adaptation is “Macbeth” (1908), a silent movie by Stuart Blackton.

The auteur George Orson Welles made his version in 1948, and though the initial reception was overwhelmingly negative, today it is considered to be one of his most significant films.

One of the first adaptations to a contemporary setting was “Joe MacBeth” (1955) by Ken Hughes. Though the story-line closely followed the original plot, the setting is the American crime world during the 1930s.

But perhaps the most successful and well known adaptation is by none other than the Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa. “Throne of Blood” (1957) is set in ancient Japan, stars Toshiro Mifune as the lead character and has a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Macbeth also works fairly well for TV and one of the best versions is by George Schaefer. Made in 1960 as a part of an anthology, 'Hallmark Hall of Fame', the Macbeth production won five Emmys including Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Drama, The Program of the Year and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama.

An interesting modernized interpretation is “Scotland, PA” (2001) by William Morrissette. Starring Christopher Walken, the dark comedy is set in 1975 in a fast-food restaurant in a small town called Scotland (in Pennsylvania, USA).

The best known Indian adaptation is “Maqbool” (2004) by Vishal Bhardwaj. The story is transposed to the Mumbai underworld and stars Pankaj Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. The film won international acclaim while Kapoor won a National Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Two more noteworthies include Roman Polanski's “Macbeth” (1971) as a bleaker and more brutal retelling, and Jacob Koskoff's version in 2015 that was well received by critics and competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

Othello (written in 1603)

Based on the story Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain, 1565) by an Italian writer Cinthio, the play, known in its entirety as 'The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice', brims with love, hatred, jealousy, revenge, betrayal, racism, deceit and repentance.

The titular character, a Moorish general, passes over his friend Iago for a promotion, angering him enough to seek revenge. He uses his perceived friendship as well as the slights felt by others against Othello. The play is very popular because of its abiding themes and has seen several screen versions.

The first ever version was perhaps “Othello” (1922), a silent German film by Dimitri Buchowetzki, while Orson Welles directed and acted as “Othello” in 1946.

The 1965 version was directed by Stuart Burge, and received Academy nominations for all the lead actors: Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Joyce Redman, and Frank Finlay.

Some more interesting interpretations:


  • “A Double Life” (1947) by George Cukor is a darker version of the tale where Ronald Colman plays an actor who is playing Othello, and who starts having the space between his real life and the character blur. Colman won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actor. The movie was also nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay.
  • “All Night Long” (1962) by Basil Dearden is set in the Jazz scene of London during the 1960s and has performances by several popular American and British jazz artists.
  • Jayaraaj's Malayalam “Kaliyattam” (1997) is against the background of a Theyyam performance, which is a ritual form of worship. The lead actor Suresh Gopi received the National Film Award for Best Actor, while Jayaraaj won the award for Best Director.
  • But perhaps the most popular Indian adaptation is “Omkara” (2006) by Vishal Bhardwaj, which stars Naseeruddin Shah, Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Vivek Oberoi, Kareena Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma. The film received three National Film Awards, seven Filmfare Awards, as well as many other awards and nominations. It was a commercial success and continues to be critically acclaimed.
  • Considered to be one of the ten best adaptations of Shakespeare in Indian cinema and possibly the first movie based on Shakespeare's work in Bengali, “Hrid Majharey” (Live In My Heart, 2014) by début film-maker Ranjan Ghosh, is inspired by Othello as well as Macbeth and Julius Caesar. The film and the script are now included in cinema study courses and archives in India and the USA.


“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”

Romeo and Juliet (written between 1591 and 1595)

Perhaps Shakespeare's most well known and popular play, the tale of two young lovers belonging to feuding families is also perhaps the most performed and adapted for screen.

And although the concept of star-crossed lovers goes back centuries, Romeo and Juliet has become a catch-all phrase for such couples. The play itself is based on 'The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet' (1562) by Arthur Brooke as well as its prose rendition, 'Palace of Pleasure' (1567) by William Painter.

The first American version (short) was made in 1908 by Stuart Blackton, while the first European interpretation (short), “Romeo e Giulietta” was by Italian film-maker Mario Caserini, also in 1908.

And the first feature length adaptations were exactly a century back, i.e. during the 300th anniversary commemoration of Shakespeare's death in 1916. One was by John Noble and Francis Bushman while the other was by Gordon Edwards.

In 1936, George Cukor made a lavish production of “Romeo and Juliet”, which was nominated for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor and Art Direction at the Academy Awards.

Likely the most commercially successful interpretations during the first half of the 20th century was “Les amants de Vérone” (The Lovers Of Verona, 1949), by French film-maker André Cayatte. The Romeo here is a glass-blower while Juliet is the daughter of a right-wing judge.

And the first successful musical based on the play is “West Side Story” (1961). Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, it is based on a Broadway musical by the same name, which in turn is based upon Shakespeare's work. The film was critically and commercially acclaimed, won 10 academy awards including Best Picture as well as Director, and became the record holder for the most wins for a musical, which stands till today.

The 1968 released “Romeo and Juliet” by Franco Zeffirelli was a success amongst teenagers since this was the first screen adaptation with teen actors. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Costume Design, and was nominated for Best Director and Picture.

“Maro Charitra” (1978) by Telugu director K. Balachander, starring Kamal Haasan as a Tamil boy and Saritha as a Telugu girl, was a blockbuster and is now considered a classic. The film was remade in Hindi in 1981 as “Ek Duuje Ke Liye”, with Rati Agnihotri replacing Saritha. This too is now a classic.

But perhaps the most successful Indian adaptations is “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak” (1988) by Mansoor Khan, starring Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla. The success of the movie turned both the lead actors into superstars. The movie won a National Film Award and several Filmfares.

An interesting version, where the hostile families are Chinese and Black, is “Romeo Must Die” (2000) an action film by Andrzej Bartkowiak, starring Jet Li and R&B singer Aaliyah.

And Baz Luhrmann created a punk version of the tale with “Romeo + Juliet” (1996). Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the play is set in contemporary time but the characters speak old English, and the feuding families run mafia empires.

The most off beat interpretation however would be “Warm Bodies” (2013) by Jonathan Levine and based on Isaac Marion's novel by the same name. The story is told from the perspective of a Zombie, who falls in love with a woman who is not a zombie.

Last week we had a look at screen adaptations of Hamlet, King Lear as well as Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Tragedies On Screen – Part I.

So which is your favourite Shakespeare tragedy, and your favourite adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy... Share with us in the comments below.

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