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Shakespeare in Less Than 10 Minutes
Jonathan Bate
New York Times
February 13, 2000

SILENT SHAKESPEARE 1899-1911. Milestone Film and Video. 88 minutes. $29.95. This video offers remarkably high-quality restorations of the earliest surviving Shakespeare films. It begins with a fragment of a single scene from a "King John" of 1899, showing the noted Victorian actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree writhing on his throne. It ends with a 1911 "Richard III," complete with live horse, elaborate designs and scores of extras. In British "Tempest," a "Twelfth Night" and a "Midsummer Night's Dream" from the United States and -- the pick of the bunch -- Italian productions of "King Lear" and "The Merchant of Venice," which are brought to life with extraordinary hand-stenciled color.

The average length of each film is just over 10 minutes, so the plots are boiled down to their bare essentials. At times the results bear an unfortunate resemblance to the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a San Francisco comedy group that has perfected the art of performing the complete works of the Bard in less than an hour. But the simplification of structure offers the potential of taking the viewer to the core of each play, revealing the primal quality of Shakespeare's stories. The combination of brevity and exaggerated acting style makes one see how the tragedy of King Lear is built on the model of a fairy tale gone wrong (two ugly sisters and a Cinderella who ends up being hanged.) "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest" gave the filmmakers an opportunity to use visual illusion as a way of representing Shakespearean magic: Ariel can disappear and Puck swoop into the air. Generally, though, the settings are in the style of elaborate realism that characterized 19th-century theatrical productions of the plays. The "Richard III," in particular, looks like a series of stage scenes with painted backdrops. The sense of theatrical spectatorship is heightened by the immobility of the camera, which is fixed in a steady medium shot. Richard is played with gusto by Sir Frank Benson in full Elizabethan garb. Modern-dress Shakespeare, pioneered by Benson later in his career, was not yet on the agenda.

"Silent Shakespeare" does sound like a contradiction in terms: isn't the sound of Shakespeare -- the glory of his poetry and his linguistic invention -- essential to his genius? Yet there is a long theatrical tradition of adapting the plays into such nonverbal modes of performance as pantomime and ballet. These crude but strangely compelling films are in that venerable tradition. They belong simultaneously to the history of the popularization of Shakespeare and the early movie industry's attempts to dignify itself by engaging with the classics.

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Favorite Shakespeare on film?

If you had to pick five of your favorite Shakespeare films, what would they be? When asked in 1999 to choose five of his favorite Shakespeare Films, here are the films Kenneth Branagh picked, with his comments.

Richard III (1955) "Olivier's is the most compelling, sexy, audacious Shakespearean performance ever."

Romeo & Juliet (1996) "For the bravado and energy of its radical interpretation. Provocative and revolutionary."

Looking for Richard (1996) "Brilliantly captures the divine madness of a great actor [Al Pacino] and his genuine enthusiasm for Shakespeare."

The Tempest (1979) "Derek Jarman's film is full of eerie power and authentic Shakespearean melancholy."

Forbidden Planet (1956) "Star Trek meets Shakespeare. Nymphs in nylon. More than just a B-picture classic."

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