I've often thought there should be a moratorium on Shakespearean film adaptations, if only for a couple of decades. Theoretically this would offer some breathing room to other famous authors in which they could increase their posthumous cultural capital. I assure you the movies would not suffer. Shakespeare is not the only great and famous playwright to have lived and not all filmmakers would be drawn to adaptations of TV shows should their favorite source of classic literature be suddenly verboten. They'd just have to be a teensy less lazy when looking for projects to adapt. When it comes to the movies, is their any author who's been more amply masticated than Shakespeare? Time to spit him out and try a new meal.
I'm aware that this proposed Bard sabbatical would never actually occur. But if we must have several new Shakespearean films per decade I wish that the net were cast a little wider. Anything other than Hamlet would give sweet relief. Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays and there are hundreds upon hundreds of film versions, so let's just zero in briefly on his tragedies and recent Engligh language cinema (1990-2007). In this time frame performers as diverse Mel Gibson (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Ethan Hawke (2000), have filled the crazy boots of that Prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Meanwhile Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus,
Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra, and Cymbeline (sometimes considered a comedy) gather cinematic cobwebs. Of the tragedies only Titus Andronicus ( Julie Taymor's Titus, 1999), Romeo & Juliet (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet , 1996) and Othello (Othello, 1995 and the indie O, 2001) have gotten popcorn play lately. Hamlet may have been an indecisive fellow but Hollywood clearly chooses him to be... their go to guy.
My personal favorite of Shakespeares tragedies is Macbeth. It has been modernized twice recently: The American indie Scotland Pa. (2001) had a clever fast food spin and a strong performance from Maura Tierney as "Pat McBeth" and there's an Aussie film Macbeth (2006) set in the Melbourne underworld. But this particular tragedy hasn't made a major cinematic stab at glory since Roman Polanski filmed it (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1972) with Jon Finch (Kingdom of Heaven) as the dagger wielding would be King and Francesca Annis (Dune) as his deliciously guilt-ridden Lady.
Since I don't get Macbeth often and since Shakespeare is so ingrained in the collective cultural psyche I often end up "seeing" his characters --particularly Lady Macbeth, a great literary figure --echoed elsewhere. To end this post, I thought I'd share three characters that resurrect Lady Macbeth vividly in my mind and hint that if we must have Shakespeare, there's considerable cinematic drama that could still be wrung out of Macbeth. Let's let Hamlet sleep this next decade out.
Lady MacBeth Revised
Glenn Close's rather grandiose acting style and intimidating persona might be too obvious a casting choice ...or a touch too steely a match for Lady MacBeth's operatic yet hidden crimes, but it was a hoot to see Close playing the famous character (albeit briefly) in Heights (2005) wherein she played a famous actress --she even has a speech about Lady Macbeth's monologue, But my favorite Close performance, and the one that brings the Lady to mind, is her work as The Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. Merteuil seems harder and less human than Lady Macbeth. Initially it's hard to imagine the Marquise feeling the levels of remorse that overwhelm Shakespeare's infamous blood spattered wife --the Merquise enjoys her string-pulling too much. But toward the end of 1988's best picture (well, it gets my vote), when her cold ambition and games have robbed her of the only two things she loved (Valmont and her social standing) ....well it's hard for me not to see the DNA of Lady Macbeth. I think of the "out damn spot" monologue as the Marquise purposefully yet catatonically wipes off that white mask of makeup. That teardrop falls. It's one of the most impactful film endings of my lifetime. Rub and cry though she might, you know she'll never feel clean again.
Here's the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand
I've often pondered whether "Faith" (Eliza Dushku) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pop descendant of Lady Macbeth. Though considerably less eloquent in her speechmaking than Shakespeare's character she too invites nearly supernatural corruption into her heart, daring evil to have its way with her. She too ends up with blood on her hands ("Bad Girls") and hides her guilt which starts to eat away at her from inside ("Consequences"). Faith doesn't die in Joss Whedon's Vampire Slayer narrative as Lady MacBeth does in Shakespeare's tragedy, but she most definitely invites it. It's up for debate whether or not Lady Macbeth's death is a suicide but in the thick of her tragic story arc, Faith's self-loathing is revealed to have quite a bloodlust: for her own ("Graduation Day, Part One" and more emphatically in "Who Are You?"). Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing the king with a dagger. Faith commits murder with her own hands but blood is blood. A rather fetishized dagger enters Faith's own story. Depending on how you read the story, isn't she goading Buffy into killing her with it?
Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done
Finally, there's The Lovely Laura Linney as "Annabeth Markum" in Mystic River (2003) to consider. For most of Clint Eastwood's acclaimed adaptation she is a sidelined character, a seemingly simple wife of Sean Penn's thuggish Jimmy. Many film fans feel that her late film reveal -- turns out she's a rather manipulative ambitious woman who doesn't mind so much that she has a killer for a husband --is too much of a shock. I'd agree to an extent. It doesn't carry the dramatic jolt it could have had the screenplay or direction, prepared us just a tiny bit more. But directorial choices aside, Linney delivers in admirable fashion adding just the right chilling note to the film's cynical denouement. Like Lady Macbeth she's 'crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty'