All The World's A Laugh...
Shakespeare's Comedies On Screen – Part I
We marked the 400th death anniversary of The Bard by featuring some of the best screen adaptations of his tragedies in “To Weep Or Not To Weep... Shakespeare's Tragedies On Screen” (Part I and Part II).
And in this – as well as next week's post – we will look at screen adaptations of his finest comedies.
“Sit by my side, and let the world slip: we shall ne'er be younger.”
The Taming Of The Shrew (written between 1590 and 1592)
The story is about an obstinate and hot headed girl (Katherina), who nobody wishes to marry, and her younger sister (Bianca) with numerous suitors who conspire to get the elder one married off to Petruchio so that they can then try and win Bianca over along with her wealth. In the end however it is Katherina who is tamed, and hence the title.
The play has been criticized for its misogyny although it is not clear that Shakespeare was being sexist with the play as there are many subtle undercurrents and some of the screen versions have played on the fact that women can control men by appearing to obey them.
The first screen performance is documented as D.W. Griffith's eleven-minute “The Taming of the Shrew” (1908), while the first sound film version was by Sam Taylor in 1929 starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and where towards the end Pickford (playing Katherina) winks at her sister as she lists the reasons why a woman should obey her husband, telling the audience that she is pretending.
And one of the earliest interpretations was “Kiss Me Kate” (1953), which was based on a Broadway musical by the same name. Directed by George Sidney, the plot is about two musical theatre actors who were once married but cannot stand each other any more and only work together because they are being forced to by gangsters.
A 1967 version of the play by Franco Zeffirelli stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and where Katherina (Taylor) storms off at the end, leaving Petruchio (Burton) embarrassed as he runs behind her.
The creator of the famous TV series “Moonlighting” (1985-89) Glenn Gordon Caron said in an interview that the he was inspired by a production of the play. The series, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as detective partners, was listed by Time magazine as one of the '100 Best TV Shows of All-Time'.
Set in a high school, “10 Things I Hate about You” (1999) by Gil Junger, and written by Karen McCullah Lutz along with Kirsten Smith, stars Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A contemporary version of the play, the movie was widely acclaimed for not being yet another teen romance.
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Midsummer Night's Dream (written between 1590 and 1597)
One of his most popular works and performed widely, the play is set in the woodlands as well as the domain of the fairies, and is based around the wedding of the Duke of Athens to to the Queen of Amazon. The story is about four young Athenians as well as six actors who are manipulated by the fairies.
Perhaps the earliest full length adaptations is “Wood Love” (1925) by German film-maker Hans Neumann while an American version named “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1935) by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle won two Academy Awards (Best Cinematography and Film Editing) and was also nominated for Best Picture. And in 1959 Czech animator Jiri Trnka made a stop-motion puppet version called “Sen noci svatojánské”.
While there were a few more versions post that but the only one worth mentioning came four decades later, in 1999, and which is written as well as directed by Michael Hoffman and stars Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart etc. And a surreal interpretation in the same year by James Kerwin was set against the background of dance clubs.
Film-maker Christine Edzard came up with an interesting concept of working with an all children's troupe and shot “The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream” (2001) with 350 untrained school students from age eight to eleven. The sets and costumes were scaled down and made on the sets itself.
Another out of the box concept was to change the setting to a rave party. “A Midsummer Night's Rave” (2002) by Gil Cates Jr has Puck playing a drug dealer.
An Indian adaptation made in 2010 is called “10ml Love” and is directed by Sharat Katariya. And “Strange Magic” (2015) is a computer-animated 3D movie by Gary Rydstrom and has goblins, elves, fairies and imps that fight over a powerful potion.
“We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another.”
Comedy of Errors (written around 1594)
One of Shakespeare's earliest plays, it is the shortest and filled with slapstick humour and word play. The story is about two identical twins separated at birth and the hilarity through the confusion that results out of the mistaken identities, as well as charges of infidelity, thievery and lunacy, etc.
This is the only Shakespearean play that has perhaps no known film adaptations in the first few decades of the 20th century, the earliest recorded version is “The Boys from Syracuse” (1940) which is a musical by Edward Sutherland.
The first Indian film on the play is possibly a Bengali movie “Bhrantibilas” (1963) by Manu Sen, starring Uttam Kumar. It is based on an old play of the same name by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, which in turn is based on Comedy of Errors. The story is about a merchant and his servant who go to a small town and are mistaken for a pair of locals.
“Do Dooni Char” (1968) by Debu Sen starring Kishore Kumar as well as “Angoor” (1982) by Gulzar starring Sanjeev Kumar, and “Ulta Palta” (1997) by N.S. Shankar are all inspired by the Bengali film and thus by the Bard's play.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
Merchant of Venice (written between 1596 and 1598)
A nobleman with monetary troubles borrows from a Jewish moneylender who lends without interest on the agreement that the nobleman's best friend will pay with a pound of his flesh if the loan is not returned within the stipulated period.
The play has inspired several films including A 1914 silent version, which has the unique distinction of possibly being the first feature based on the play and definitely being the first feature by an American woman film-maker, Lois Weber.
From thereon several silent, feature and TV versions were made over the years, including one in 1969 directed by and starring Orson Welles but which could not release as the first reel was stolen
And three interesting adaptations include: “The Maori Merchant of Venice” (2002) a Māori language film by Don Selwyn; “Shakespeare's Merchant” (2003) a darker and more tragic interpretation by Paul Wagar; and “The Merchant of Venice” (2004) by Michael Radford starring Al Pacino as the merchant.
So which is your favourite Shakespeare comedy, and your favourite screen adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy..? Share with us in the comments below.