Or, Much to Do While You Wait Upon a Live Performance

Happy Birthday Will

Successful producer and playwright William Shakespeare composed his plays for a large audience. The Globe Theater could hold several thousand people in its three storey circular frame. Not everybody got a seat. A good bit of the crowd was made up of groundlings; they stood in the SRO section before the 5’ high stage that was about 44’ wide by 26’ deep. That’s about two-thirds the length and one-half the depth of the stage at the Miller Outdoor Theater where the Houston Shakespeare Festival will perform in late July and early August. There were colorful costumes and exciting swordfights, but special effects were limited to occasional cannon shots and puffs of smoke. Lighting was determined by the sun on the afternoon of the performance.

Although famous for his imagination as well as his writing, it’s unlikely that Mr. Shakespeare ever imagined that future audiences would be watching his plays in a dark theater where it was projected on a large screen. This has provided both possibilities and problems for film directors and screen writers when they must adapt the originals for the cinema. The plays as they have come down to us have minimal stage directions and absolutely nothing about camera angles or close-ups. A chase scene on stage lasted only as long as the actors could move across forty feet, much less time than the elaborate chase scenes that make for many memorable minutes at the movies. Costume and scenery are not specified. Indeed the scenery in the original was mostly the responsibility of the audience to imagine and not the director. So, modern television and movie productions adapt the originals, sometimes modestly and sometime drastically, when they turn them into motion pictures.

Here are a half-dozen of my favorites, each, like the original plays, worth multiple viewings. I’ve added just a snippit  of the script as an appetizer.


Twelfth Night     Twelfth night / Fine Line Features presents a Renaissance Films production ; by William Shakespeare ; produced by Stephen Evans and David Parfitt ; screenplay by Trevor Nunn ; directed by Trevor Nunn
Players: Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley, Mel Smith, Imelda Staunton, Toby Stephens, Imogen Stubbs

Orsino, The Duke of Illyria:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O! it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough! no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

A Midsummer Night's Dream      A Midsummer Night's Dream / Fox Searchlight Pictures and Regency Enterprises ; produced by Leslie Urdang, Michael Hoffman ; screenplay by Michael Hoffman ; directed by Michael Hoffman.
Players: Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, Sophie Marceau, David Strathairn

Theseus, Duke of Athens:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace: four happy days bring in
Another moon; but O! methinks how slow
This old moon wanes; she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame, or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.


Henry V       Henry V / Orion Pictures ; Renaissance Films PLC, in association with the BBC and Curzon Film Distributors Ltd. ; adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh ; produced by Bruce Sharman ; directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Players: Christian Bale, Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Richard Easton, Ian Holm, Geoffrey Hutchings, Derek Jacobi, Charles Kay, Alec McGowen, Geraldine McEwan, Michael Maloney, Paul Scofield, John Sessions, Robert Stephens, Emma Thompson, Daniel Webb, Michael Williams, Jimmy Yuill

O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.
Then should the war-like Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, word,
and fire crouch for employment.

Richard III      Richard III  / United Artists Pictures presents with the participation of British Screen ; a Bayly/Paré production developed in association with First Look Pictures ; screenplay, Ian McKellen, Richard Loncraine ; producers, Lisa Katselas Paré, Stephen Bayly ; director, Richard Loncraine.
Players: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey, Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood

Richard, Duke of Gloucester:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


Romeo and Juliet       Romeo & Juliet  / Twentieth Century Fox presents a Bazmark production ; produced by Gabriella Martinelli and Baz Luhrmann ; screenplay by Craig Pearce & Baz Luhrmann ; directed by Baz Luhrmann
Players:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John LeGuizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora

Two households, both alike in dignity,  
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,   
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,  
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.   
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes 
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;  
Whose misadventure piteous overthrows  
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.  

King Lear       King Lear / a Chestermead production for BBC TV and WGBH/Boston ; produced by Sue Birtwistle ; directed by Richard Eyre

Players: Ian Holm, Barbara Flynn, Amanda Redman, Timothy West, Paul Rhys, Finbar Lynch, Victoria Hamilton

Lear, King of Britain:
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburden'd crawl toward death.

Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?