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.  

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

 A spirited, Oscar-winning introduction to the world of William Shakespeare and Elizabethan theater. It’s a kind of fictionalized “making of” Romeo and Juliet, starring young Will Shakespeare as an ambitious young playwright who begins writing "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter," before love transports him to the heights of poetry (and tragedy). 

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

In 1968 the ascendant “youth culture” got a version of Romeo and Juliet starring actual teenagers – a fairly radical concept for the time – and the result was something like the Titanic of its time. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were photogenic and full of energy and the soundtrack by Nina Rota became a sensation on par with Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On”. 

William Shakespeare's R + J (1996)

In 1996 Aussie visionary Baz Luhrmann tapped the emerging star power ofLeonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes to create a visually-striking update full of scuzzy brio and neon incandescence. Purists turned up their noses, but many a middle- and high schooler flocked to the local cinema to watch a 400 year old play. 

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) 

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. 

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

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.

Henry V (1989)

Kenneth Branagh burst onto the scene with Henry V. The film’s gritty, gutsy power overturned the stereotype ofShakespeare as a genteel relic, sparking the renaissance ofShakespeare-on-screen in the 1990s.

Hamlet (1996)

“Accessible” does not have to mean “abridged.” The 4-hour running time may be intimidating for newcomers, but the effect is paradoxically more engrossing than most shorter versions: a vast canvas with a complex, multicharacter storyline that is immersive and transporting.  

Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

Not a masterpiece, by any stretch, but a frothy dessert that coasts on charm and a bit of old-school Hollywood glamour. Catchy showtunes, a bit of song-and-dance, romance, and broad comedy: not a bad way to spend an evening.

As You Like It (2006)

Bryce Dallas Howard and David Oyelowo lead a winning cast (including Alfred Molina, Kevin Kline, and Adrian Lester) giving life to one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. More subdued and lyrical than Much Ado About Nothing, but a lovely film in its own right.

Richard III (1955)

With his pageboy haircut, hooded eyes, sharp nose, and merciless sneer, Laurence Olivier remains the most iconic Richard III.  One of cinema’s great seducers, he was born to play the cunning, charming, theatrical "foul lump of deformity" whose asides to the camera generate a sense of queasy intimacy. Like Lady Anne, we find ourselves beguiled against our wills by the wily and charismatic spider at the heart of a complex web.

Richard III (1995)

There’s a reason Richard III is the most performed play by Shakespeare:it is mordantly funny, fast-moving, and features an all-time great anti-hero:the wickedly charming and malevolently Machiavellian usurper who kills his way to the throne. McKellen tears into the role with scenery chewing joie de vivre, while the presence of a young pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr may also appeal toBard newcomers.  

Looking for Richard (1996)

Al Pacino’s beguiling documentary about the“making of” Richard III is a love letter to Shakespeare that also acknowledges the challenges of adapting a 400-year old play for contemporary audiences. This is a“hidden gem” of 90s indie cinema, and worth seeking out for fans of Pacino orfor insight into the enduring appeal of Shakespeare. 

Twelfth Night (1996)

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. 

Macbeth (2010)

Based on a celebrated 2007 stage production, this version boasts riveting performances by Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shot on location at Welbeck Abbey, Macbeth is visually gripping and fast-moving, while retaining much of the play's original text. A fabulous introduction to the play for anyone who wants a compelling and largely unabridged treatment. 

Macbeth (2015)

An atmospheric, beautifully shot Macbeth co-starring two of the finest actors working today: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The dramatic battle scenes, gorgeous cinematography, and compelling lead performances make this a transfixing cinematic experience, with a visual poetry to match the Bard’s transcendent language. 

Macbeth (2006)

Newcomers (with a tolerance for violence and nudity) might try the low-budget but high-octane Australian version from 2008that featured a then-unknown Sam Worthington in the title role. In updating the play to modern day Sydney, director Geoffrey Wright threw in enough sex and shootouts to make Tarantino blush.   

Coriolanus (2011)

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. 

Hollow Crown (2012)

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. 

Hollow Crown (2016)

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.  

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