Film Versions of Shakespeare Comedies

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Film Versions of Shakespeare Comedies

Shakespearean plays are complex, intricate pieces of work in which a diverse range of interpretations and readings can be made. This is particularly true of his comedies, where the light-hearted humour is often offset by darker, more serious undertones. In adapting these comedies it is for the director – in the cinematic context – to decide how to interpret the play and which elements are privileged and which are suppressed. This variance in interpretation is exemplified in comparing two of the more recent cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh’s A Much Ado About Nothing [‘Much Ado’]. Although both films can to an extent be seen as comedies with serious, almost tragic aspects inherent throughout, Nunn’s film deals with these serious facets as central to the depiction, whereas Branagh, although not entirely ignoring the deeper issues, prefers a more light-hearted and visually attractive adaptation.

Twelfth Night has been described as ‘like Hamlet in a comic vein’ . In terms of Shakespearean chronology, the bittersweet edge to the play and the fact that it is essentially a comedy with the dark, sometimes disturbing elements, has been linked with the playwright’s movement toward the genre of tragedy. The range of filmic adaptations of the play illustrates the variation in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, with the dark edge often failing to make the transition to screen. However this is not the case with Nunn’s Twelfth Night, which achieves this exploration of the serious essentially through his interpretation of some of the play’s principal characters including Malvolio, Feste and Maria.

Malvolio's character is significant to Nunn’s adaptation in many respects with it initially appearing that Malvolio brings an air of respectability and chastity to the film. However his essential flaws and his inability to recognise the reality of people's feelings, including Olivia's, remove him from the position of moral overseer to a simple player in the game of love. Malvolio's error is related to his self-perceptions and his consideration of his own self-importance, rather than his caring and compassion for his mistress Olivia. Malvolio’s function in this film is to serve as a comedic contrast to the merry-makers, as well as a vital reminder to Feste t...

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... provides glimpses of these issues, yet valorises a light-hearted, aesthetic approach to the text as a whole.

Works Cited:

Brode Douglas. Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 97-99.

Cartmell, B. Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen. (2000).

Cuppit, C. “Double Trouble: A Discussion of Trevor Nunn’s film adaptation of Twelfth Night.”

Fine Line Features. Twelfth Night. Home Page. 2003 Accessed 28/5/03

Fine Line Features. “Trevor Nunn – Director.” About the Filmmakers. 2003

Greif, K “Plays ad Playing in Twelfth Night”, in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, (1987).

Marshall, K. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?: A Problematic (re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.” Literature-Film Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2002): p. 219.

Richard, R. “Much Ado About Branagh”. Commentary 96(4) (1993)

Sheppard, P. “Intercutting in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night”. Literature Film Quarterly 30, No. 3 (2002)
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