What Shakespeare Taught Me: In Text and Film

Before the commencement of my undergraduate career, the name Shakespeare conjured thoughts of archaic language and complicated plotlines.  Four years later, I am preparing to write my thesis on this playwright and am waiting for a free moment to read Will of the World:  How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  Obviously this is not to say that I find every work of Shakespeare brilliant but there are a select few plays that admittedly impacted my life and worldview in various ways.  I cannot deny however that as much as I appreciate the text, the film versions of the plays only enhanced my understanding and love of this playwright’s work.  If you’re at all hesitant to embrace Shakespeare, I have included my favorite film versions—all of which highlight Shakespeare’s talent as not only a playwright, but as a philosopher and intellect.

1.  Hamlet 

Love, betrayal, death, power struggles…this play has it all.  For all of you who are doubting the appeal of this late 16th century play, Hamlet and Ophelia are pretty much the Elizabethan Chuck and Blair.   If the whole ‘revenge’ plotline is over your head, look at the play from a romantic perspective.  In fact, Ophelia is the best example I have found of the pain brought upon by unrequited love or a lover’s betrayal (she arguably experiences both).  Iris from The Holiday tells us about the misery of this type of love but her momentary lapse in judgment, which leads her to put her nose up to the unlit gas stove is nothing compared to Ophelia’s reaction. Helena Bonham Carter stars as Ophelia in Franco Zeffirelli’s film and all I can say is you have not seen distraught until you have seen Carter’s portrayal of the psychological unraveling of her character.  Want to feel immensely better about your own latest break up?  Watch the film and be thankful that you are anyone but Ophelia.

2.  Twelfth Night

There is no denying that this is Shakespeare’s finest comedy.  Bet you didn’t know that this is the play that inspired She’s the Man.  And even if you did, you really need to read the play to fully appreciate the film.  Shakespeare does not skimp on comedy. Trevor Nunn’s production is my choice for the film version.  Helena Bonham Carter stars in this one again and plays just as brilliant a role this time showing us her comedic skills; she pretty much plays a character that would shrink at the sight of Bellatrix Lestrange.  My favorite quote comes from this play and pretty much sums up the message that everyone should take away from this well-crafted comedy:

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (ii.vii.142-145).

Shakespeare just defined the human condition. Mind blown? Read the play or watch the film to get a fuller understanding of the brilliance and meaning behind this statement.  Or if you prefer, just read or watch for a good laugh.

3.  A Winter’s Tale

(There is a film version coming out soon but the trailer tells me that it deviates quite a bit from Shakespeare’s original work though I think that it gets the same idea across)

A story of second chances.  If I say anymore, I might ruin the plot.  This is one of Shakespeare’s late Romances.  If you are a fan of Tolkien or Rowling, definitely check out this one.  The film versions are not great but the play itself is wonderful for the message it conveys about being thankful for what you have.  Everyone wonders what it would be like to have a second chance with a loved one so if you have ever lost someone or have loved and lost, make a point of exposing yourself to this play in some way, shape, or form. Side Note: This is the play that Carmen performs in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II during her summer drama program.

4.  King Lear

Why should you both to read this complex philosophical piece? One of the more depressing Shakespearean plays, it also holds some of the most important lessons.  Most of the play is a clear criticism of the human condition.  It is pretty dark to think, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” (iv.vi.178-179).  Is life really all that dismal and dejected?  Probably not, but there is something to be said about the reality that Shakespeare is trying to present to us – life is tough.  Life is wonderful and beautiful but it is also difficult.  Humans are slaves to the natural human condition, regardless of their reasoning skills or assimilation into society. Shakespeare knew this and nowhere did he convey this reality better than in King Lear.   There has been much criticism surrounding the ending of this tragedy and if you read the play, you’ll know why.  Shakespeare basically sets us up to think that everything is going to be fine and dandy and then pulls out the rug from under us.   It seems overly Hobbesian at times—especially in Michael Elliot’s film version—but he’s actually just being realistic. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog