Tuesday was William Shakespeare's birthday. Birthdays drag on for a week in our culture, so you should continue to celebrate his birth.
He may have been born well over 400 years ago, but he continues to impact and inform our lives. For instance, did you realize that when you say, “It's all Greek to me,” you're quoting Shakespeare? Did you know he invented the word “luggage”? Did you know that Mumford and Sons borrowed the title of their first album from Much Ado About Nothing? Shakespeare's plays are still performed, his lines are still quoted, and his work continues to be adapted and interpreted by artists.
If you have no idea where to start in a world that seems inundated with Shakespeare adaptations, here's a handy list with the top five adaptations and interpretations of Shakespeare's work. (And for those of you who could really care less about Shakespeare, check out the Reduced Shakespeare Company's adaptation of all of Shakespeare's plays. At the very least after watching it you'll be able to say funny things about Shakespeare at parties.)
1. Ralph Fiennes's film Coriolanus
Coriolanus is a gritty, rather lesser-known tragedy that follows the career of a Roman general as he falls from favor, turns traitor, and attacks his homeland. Ralph Fiennes's adaptation focuses on the political motivations for war, intercutting the action with updates from cable-news and juxtaposing war with popular riots (critics have noted the resemblance to the Occupy movement in the film's depiction of protest). Fiennes updates the setting and the clothes, but leaves the details vague — “Rome” may be fighting “Volsci,” but the names are mere placeholders.
The action seems set in some nameless, generic Eastern European country, but it really could be set anywhere. This is a taut, powerful Shakespeare adaptation, but it is also bloody, violent, and vicious. The film uses mostly Shakespearean language, but keeps the speeches short and crisp. This is a great choice for anyone who isn't steeped in Shakespearean language, but who is still interested in Shakespeare's depiction of politics.
2. Margaret Atwood's poem “King Lear in Respite Care”
Margaret Atwood likes to reinterpret famous works from slightly different points of view, but her take on King Lear is especially powerful, lending Lear a kind of helpless sadness and rendering the motivations of all three sisters more complicated. Lear is still the same crafty, suspicious man, but now he is powerless, thrown into respite care. He is lonely and he is broken. This is not a Lear that can rail at the weather or carry Cordelia back onto stage.
The poem imagines what would happen if Lear were alive in our own time, with no kingdom to divide and no need for his daughters to care for him in his old age. Rather than setting the stage for a bloody finale, Atwood's version of King Lear focuses on the displacement of aging parents whose children can't — or, as is implied in this poem, won't — care for them. Like the best poetry, Atwood doesn’t make her point obvious, and the poem ends with the remarkable line “I love you like salt.” This is a good choice for people who are well acquainted with Shakespeare, but who find modern film adaptations annoying.
3. Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Tom Stoppard does what many interpreters of famous Shakespeare plays do — he focuses on secondary characters who get short shrift in the play. Stoppard chooses to focus on the comic duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. While Shakespeare sees these characters as funny but dangerous, Stoppard sees them as bewildered. They float backstage, waiting for their cues, but even when they enter the action of Hamlet, they have no idea what's going on.
They spend their time trying to figure out their place. Stoppard creates the perfect sort of tension. His audience knows what's in store for these two, but the two simplistic characters have no idea. When they exit the stage for the last time, to go be killed by the King of England, the audience feels only sadness. Shakespeare (and Hamlet) may have found these two so irritating that death was the only thing for them, but Stoppard offers a different point of view. To Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are funny, gentle men who were murdered for no reason. The real power of this play is that he succeeds in convincing us of the same thing. This is a great choice for people who like a heavy dose of absurdism and existentialism with their theater — or for people who like to play at Questions.
4. Akira Kurosawa's film Ran
There's something about King Lear that seems to bring out the best in artists. Akira Kurosawa's take on the play changes much of its source material — now the king has sons, not daughters, for instance — but it captures the spirit of Shakespeare magnificently. The only possible draw-back? This film is nearly three hours long, and definitely drags in sections. That being said, this is one of the best Japanese epics, one of Kurosawa's last films, and one of the best film adaptations of King Lear available. This is the best choice for people who have watched every adaptation of Shakespeare they can get their hands on, but still want more.
5. Kenneth Branagh's film Much Ado About Nothing
Kenneth Branagh has become synonymous with Shakespeare, mostly because he has adapted so many of Shakespeare's plays for the screen. His adaptations always deserve a watch, but his version of Much Ado About Nothing is exceptional. The cast is nearly perfect (Keanu Reeves is no Shakespearean actor, but he is amusingly terrible), the setting picaresque, and the fun the cast is having is palpable. While I'll admit this was one of the first Shakespearean films I ever watched, so it has nostalgic value for me, even in an objective sense this film is a highly successful adaptation. (Also watch Branagh's version of Henry V.
It's gritty and dark, but it is an exceptional adaptation of one of the history plays, which are, to be kind, a bit flat.) However, for all that Branagh's version is almost perfect, Joss Whedon's upcoming adaptation looks like it could become the definitive Shakespeare adaptation (and I mean, the adaptation that blows all other adaptions away, not just all other adaptions of Much Ado About Nothing). So stay tuned.