I watched the epic "eternity" version of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh. At over four hours, it’s a lot of Shakespeare to take in. However, I watched it with the director’s commentary on to find out more about Branagh’s decision to make the film and why he chose to approach it the way he has.
I’ve seen the film a few times before and have enjoyed it well enough. Some things about it still bug me, and it does seem to drag in places, but on the whole it’s a true spectacle. I doubt we’ll see a Shakespeare production like it any time soon. When the film was made, Shakespeare was big in Hollywood. Branagh struck while the iron was hot and created a unique film.
However, I got to wondering about Shakespeare in general. Why do these plays endure? Why do people keep performing them? Why does every decade have at least one solid Shakespeare film released (the 90’s had at least six)?
Is it the stories themselves? Some of these tales, if broken down to their basics aren’t anything new. "Romeo and Juliet" is a tragic love story. "Hamlet" is a tragic revenge story. "Much Ado About Nothing" is romantic comedy. "Henry V" is a hero’s journey with an epic war at the end of it. Nothing really new there. However, there is something deeper. Shakespeare’s characters are a real draw. Many actors harbor a desire to perform Hamlet. Why? Because his character is so puzzling. People love to see Hamlet performed to see how the lead will approach the character. Is this Hamlet really insane, or is he just acting insane? The most interesting proof of this phenomenon is the fact that Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa made three film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. These were not direct translations, but stories inspired heavily by the plays. It’s the characters that makes these versions work so well even in Japanese. Need proof, check out "Throne of Blood" "Ran" or "The Bad Sleep Well".
On the other hand there are those who love Shakespeare’s words. One of the reasons Branagh wanted to do the "eternity" version of Hamlet was to allow the full text to breath live into the characters with words. Shakespeare had the mind of a poet, one that was very skilled at selecting just the write words in the right combination of rhythm to give the listener a strong emotion, vivid image or just a delightful sound. This is why many feel that Shakespeare can not be appreciated if it is simply read, it must be seen and heard to get it’s full impact. Many times these people also abhor any changes to the text.
When it comes down to it, I think it is a combination of the two, Shakespeare’s intricate and compelling characters and his amazing use of language that keeps him so popular in the whole world. The first time I heard the story of "Macbeth" is was hooked. The first time I heard the words "To be or not to be" in context of the play "Hamlet" I was intrigued. To this day, Shakespeare’s stories and words inspire and entertain me.
Do you think Shakespeare is still a valid story teller or is he a relic? Do you think his words or his characters are the key to his success? What is your favorite play and why?