Bard for Beginners
Shakespeare can be intimidating. The language is 400 years old, after all,and the plots and characters can be complex and difficult to follow. For many, unfortunately, the name “William Shakespeare” may evokeunpleasant memories of tedious college classrooms or excruciating amateurproductions.
But sometimes a certain performance or adaptationwill stoke the 400 year old flames and the language bursts into vivid,captivating power. For us, that was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, released in 1989.It was a revelation: Shakespeare’s poetry glowed with white-hot intensity,vivid and powerful, and we became instant bardolaters, converts to the Churchof the Bard.
If you’re new to Shakespeare and wondering whereto start, we’ve compiled a list of film adaptations that we have found to be accessible, entertaining, and largely faithful to the source material (even if abridged). They’re gateway drugs, in other words, to more challenging or complete (if not necessarily better) productions.
The battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice set the standard for every “they hate each other but secretly love each other” romantic comedy that came after. In 1993 the bantering pair was played by “It Couple” Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, both brilliant and winning with scintillating on-screen chemistry.
Shakespeare doesn’t get more approachable than Joss Whedon’s micro-budget Much Ado, which reassembled much of the Firefly cast for a stylish black-and-white adaptation filmed in Whedon’s own home. For our money, Nathan Fillion steals the show as a hilariously inept-yet-overconfident Dogberry.
Twelfth Night has an autumnal glow and slightly melancholic air, but it’s buoyed by a charming lead performance from Imogen Stubbs and a rich supporting cast of British mainstays: Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
A luscious, operatic fantasy with an appealing mix of American stars (Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart, Michelle Pfeiffer) and British thespians (Rupert Everett, Christian Bale, Dominic West). The lush music, enchanting sets and delightful cast create a sumptuous experience.
Ralph Fiennes starred and directed in this visceral, visually striking adaptation of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies. For newcomers Coriolanus does not benefit from familiarity (most folks have at least some idea, say, of Romeo and Juliet’s plot), but it makes up for it with vivid performances and riveting action sequences. Fiennes can be a top-heavy, cerebral actor, but here he is a physical presence—threatening and intimidating with his dead eyes and shaved head. He is supported by veteran actors who deliver their lines with crystalline clarity –Brian Cox makes Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter sound as natural as breathing. The lucid acting, and action-packed storytelling make this a gripping introduction to Shakespeare.
It doesn't get better than Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, and Tom Hiddleston in a trio of handsome and accessible adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.
The main attraction here, to no one's surprise, is Benedict Cumberbatch as one of Shakespeare's most iconic villains: Richard III.
King Lear (2018)
King Lear is a taxing work even for seasoned Shakespeareveterans: a bleak, bitter tragedy of a powerful monarch’s descent into griefand madness. This recent version brilliantly streamlines the lengthy play intoa high-impact 90 minutes , with an absolutely powerhouse lead performance byAnthony Hopkins. He does something so simple and startling with the iconic partthat it almost seems obvious in retrospect: he plays Lear as someone sufferingfrom dementia. The effect of this choice is profound: human and heartbreaking,full of the poetry and pathos of the “mystery of things,” as Lear puts it.