Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kenneth S. Rothwell (R.I.P.) and the Terminology of Shakespeare and Film

Rothwell, Kenneth S. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

On November 8, 2010, one of the brightest stars in the Shakespeare and Film firmament went out. Kenneth S. Rothwell died.

Rothwell had a long and varied career, but I think his most astonishing contribution to the field was his A History of Shakespeare on Screen (pictured and cited in full above). In addition to being a highly-readable book, full of brilliant ideas, stories, and material for study, the books gives students, scholars, and interested bystanders a fabulous vocabulary for talking about Shakespeare and film.

My students and I find his four degrees of Shakespearean adaptation (delineated throughout the book) and his list of seven kinds of Shakespearean Derivatives (Rothwell 209-10) to be incredibly useful for classifying and talking about the different ways in which Shakespeare manifests himself in film and television. As an homage to Rothwell, here is a taxonomy of Shakespeare and Film (with my own explanations and links added)

Four Degrees of Shakespearean Adaptation:

1. Full-scale, studio, feature-length, [Hollywood] treatments of a Shakespearean text
The word “studio” above limits this to four films and makes the editorial insertion above, as helpful as it may be in clarification, ultimately unnecessary. These are the four full-length Shakespeare films made under the Hollywood Studio system: The Sam Taylor Taming of the Shrew (1929), the Reinhardt / Dieterle Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), the Thalberg / Cukor Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the Mankiewicz / Housman Julius Caesar (1953).
2. Other films released for theatrical viewing
Olivier’s films, Branagh’s films, Welles’ films, et cetera are in this category. This realm contains considerable vastidity.
3. Televisions programs
This classification includes Shakespeare plays first broadcast on television (and, often, later released on videocassette or DVD): the BBC Complete Works broadcasts, some of Trevor Nunn's productions, and the Studio One Julius Caesar, for example.
4. Film versions of stage plays
This category is fairly self-explanatory, though there may be some overlap in films that have their histories in stage plays. The Kline Hamlet, the Casson Macbeth (with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen), et cetera.
In addition to the four degrees of adaptation, Rothwell provides seven types of derivatives:

"Shakespeare Derivatives of Seven Kinds" (Rothwell 208)

1. Recontextualization
Recontextualizations are derivatives that retain most of the plot elements, characters, and / or concerns of Shakespeare's original play, but they generally abandon most of the language. The BBC Shakespeare Retold series, O, She’s the Man, Strange Illusion, and many others fit in this category.
2. Mirror movie
A mirror movie will tell a story about actors putting on a Shakespeare play. The Canadian television show Slings & Arrows would fall into this category, as would A Double Life, Kiss me, Kate (which also overlaps with point 3 below), To Be or Not To Be (either Jack Benny's or Mel Brooks'), The Goodbye Girl, A Midwinter’s Tale, et cetera.
3. Musicals, ballets, and operas
West Side Story, Kiss me, Kate (which also overlaps with point 2 above), Otello, etc.
4. Revues (using biography and other genres)
Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, Vincent Price's Theater of Blood, and other films fit in this classification.
5. Parasitical
This kind of derivative “. . . will exploit Shakespeare for embellishment, and / or graft brief visual or verbal quotations onto an otherwise unrelated scenario” (209). These derivatives “use only fragments of Shakespeare that are not deeply embedded in the film’s main plot” (216). Some Star Trek (both The Original Series and the Next Generation) would fit in this category, as would Renaissance Man, Last Action Hero, et cetera.
6. Animations
The Lion King (which overlaps with either 1, 3, or 5 above, depending on your point of view), Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, and other works fit here.
7. Documentaries and Educational Films
Documentaries and educational films would be classified by Rothwell's seventh kind of derivative.
Rothwell’s degrees of adaptation and kinds of derivatives are extremely useful—and they really become interesting when we consider the ways in which they overlap and combine. For example, Kiss me, Kate fits and does not fit into Derivative Category 3—it’s a musical. But it’s also a mirror movie—a movie in which the characters are putting on a Shakespeare play. It might even count as a recontextualization, too!

Rothwell's contribution to the field cannot be overstated, and scholars the world over are deeply indebted to his work.

Links: An obituary for Kenneth Rothwell.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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