The Elizabethan poet and playwright seems to be alive and well, with filmmakers still loving to adapt his plays into movies, including the current Hamlet adaptation Haider, set in India during the 1995 Kashmir conflicts.
Shakespeare’s stories are about the timeless themes of love, betrayal, ambition, and magic, which translate in any age. And the words! The turns of phrase, the perfect rhythm of iambic pentameter gives Shakespeare’s plays a quality of music that is just as beautiful read as it is heard. “If music be the food of love, play on…”
The tragedies are the most famous and have been the most adapted, as they illustrate the worst and the best in all of us. From Macbeth and King Lear set in feudal Japan in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran to Othello set in high school with Tim Blake Nelson’s O to the currently playing Haider rounding out Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy with Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), Shakespeare tragedies continue to resonate, even in the LGBT universe, with Private Romeo, Alan Brown’s take on Romeo and Juliet, set in an all-male military academy. “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder which, as they kiss, consume…”
Certainly Romeo and Juliet has yielded many a film adaptation, including the musical West Side Story and the recent dance-off film Make Your Move by Duane Adler. The theme of star-crossed lovers is especially tragic given Romeo and Juliet’s youth. Here is a young couple who find the ever-elusive true love, and yet their circumstances don’t allow them to be together. How tragic is that! Even without the double suicides at the end! But such sorrows end in Much Ado About Nothing, where the young couple successfully fulfill their true love even though one pretended to die as well; always two sides to every story. “For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion…”
Indeed Shakespeare’s reach seems limitless, his comedies and lighter plays traveling into sci-fi with Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), and even gay musical territory with Tom Gustafson’s Midsummer’s Night Dream-inspired film Were the World Mine. “For you, in my respect, are all the world; Then how can it be said I am alone, When all the world is here to look on me?”
Most of all, Shakespeare’s plays allow a window into the human soul, commenting on our inner life in ways that will always remain relevant. Even kings are shown to have their moments of doubt: in the historical Henry V (last adapted thoughtfully by a young Kenneth Branagh), young king Harry envies the burdenless sleep of a common man since “What infinite heart’s ease must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!”
Of course, we must now come to Hamlet. Whether set in Elsinore or in war-torn Kashmir, Hamlet’s contemplative journey towards an inevitable end brings up all the questions of life, death, and what meaning there is in between the two. Unfortunately, Hamlet finds little meaning except for the truth that his father was murdered; not even love could save him, as he too quickly realizes Ophelia is also but a pawn in Claudius’ game. His only mission is to avenge his father, but Hamlet does so without as much rage as a deep sorrow that this is what he is relegated to do, that this act is the only thing giving any meaning to his life. This existential crisis can only be heightened by the real-life events surrounding the story of Haider, of torture and Draconian measures to suppress insurgents.
While the bard of Avon leaves the question of life’s meaning unanswered, his eclectic collection of comedic, tragic, magical, and historical plays gives the message of simply taking it all in, the slings and arrows along with the rosy hues of love, that perhaps the important thing is to not think on life but to live it. The rest is silence…until the next film adaptation arrives anyway.