Shakespeare on Screen

24th November 2000 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE ON SCREEN. By Daniel Rosenthal. Hamlyn pound;20.

Let me propose a vote of thanks to Daniel Rosenthal. All teachers know how powerfully film can help their students' Shakespeare studies. Rosenthal now provides a first-class teaching resource.

At first glance, Shakespeare on Screen looks like a coffee table book, but it possesses an integrity and authority that recommends it to every secondary and college library.

This splendidly illustrated book covers the history of filmed Shakespeare, stretching from one minute of an 1899 King John to the just-released Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the title role. Fifty films are discussed in detail and Rosenthal provides for each a synopsis, an analysis of suitability for filming and accounts of its production and critical reception. The commercial fortune of each film is also reported. Most lose money, but a few are smash hits. Interestingly, the two most profitable films are both of Romeo and Juliet: Zeffirelli's 1968 version, and Baz Luhrmann's electrifying 1996 re-make. Teachers already know how well both go down with students.

The book includes perceptive profiles of the major creators of screen Shakespeare: Olivier, Welles, Gielgud, Kurosawa, Zeffirelli, Branagh. It's pleasing to see full recognition given to Kenneth Banagh's contribution. His 1989 Henry V and 1993 Much Ado About Nothing inspired Shakespeare's cinematic renaissance. These two films showed Hollywood moguls that pulling in cinema crowds and making money could go hand in hand with fidelity to Shakespeare.

Rosenthal also provides valuable discussions of films which use Shakespeare's characters and stories but not the language. If you want your students to become aware of how Shakespeare has turned up in every screen genre, send them to Rosenthal. Comedy, horror, musicals, science fiction, westerns, gangster thrillers are all represented, from West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), through Joe Macbeth to the feisty 1999 10 Things I Hate About You (Shrew).

Rosenthal curiously omits two features which would add even more teacher appeal to his excellent book. There is no identification of what's easily available on video, the universal teaching tool at all levels. And very surprisingly, in a book which can find space for Carry on Cleo and Hamlet Goes Business, there's no mention of the dozen Leon GarfieldRussian Animated Tales, one of the staples of school Shakespeare. It would be helpful to include these in the second edition that will surely follow quickly.

Rex Gibson is editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare

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