Americans celebrate winning our freedom from England each July 4, and then we spend the rest of our summers watching William Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and histories. Summer is Shakespeare time, with countless productions of the master’s work in parks and public venues. It’s fantastic to see a live production of this work, and yet a film version can sometimes enhance or revive the experience of live performance. Film critic Roger Ebert has said, “One of the tasks of a lifetime is to become familiar with the great plays of Shakespeare.” We offer here the noteworthy film interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, including some of Ebert’s favorites alongside breakthrough versions, so you can become more familiar with Shakespeare’s grand insights into human nature.
HAMLET (1996) -- Although there are countless film versions of Hamlet’s tragedy, we’re featuring Kenneth Branagh’s directorial and acting masterpiece, considered one of the best adaptations ever of Shakespeare on film, nominated for four Academy Awards. With a stellar cast (Julie Christie, Kate Winslet) and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 94, this film is worth adding to your library.
OTHELLO (1995) -- This is the first film version to star a black actor, Laurence Fishburne, as the Moorish king, alongside Britain’s leading Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh, as Iago. Directed by Oliver Parker after the O.J. Simpson trial, this version of Shakespeare’s tale of evil reflects contemporary questions about interracial marriage, love, and jealousy. This film for rent or purchase has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 68%
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (1971) -- This controversial version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of power grabbing by murder is directed by Roman Polanski, just months after the murder of his wife and unborn child. Polanski’s a masterful director, and the violence and nudity in this production heighten the compelling look at Scotland’s regicide. Roger Ebert wrote: “Polanski’s MACBETH [is] more interesting than if he had done your ordinary, respectable, awe-stricken tiptoe around Shakespeare. This is an original film by an original film arts, and not an ‘interpretation.’ It should have been titled ‘Polanski’s Macbeth,’ just as we got 'Fellini Satyricon’.”
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967) -- Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, lovers in one of the stormiest of all Hollywood relationships, star in Shakespeare’s comedy about stormy lovers. We selected this version, directed by legendary the Franco Zeffirelli, with lavish costumes and sumptuous color. (We also have Cole Porter’s rendition, KISS ME KATE.) Rotten Tomatoes score: 85%
JULIUS CAESAR (1953) -- With a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, this film from Shakespeare’s play is still considered a masterpiece look at the murder of Rome’s republican leader and the factions battling for power, one lead by Mark Anthony (played here perfectly by Marlon Brando) and the other lead by Brutus (James Mason). Nominated for five Academy Awards, winner of one plus numerous other awards.
Other films of interest:
ACTING SHAKESPEARE (1982) -- stars Ian McKellan, one of the 20th century’s leading Shakespearian actors (known in the 21st century as LORD OF THE RINGS's Gandalf), in a series on monologues; although this collection was made in 1982, it's rarely been available for rent or purchase on demand before now.
RAN (1985) -- Japan's legendary director Akira Kurosawa turns Shakespeare's King Lear into a 16th century Japanese ruler who announces his intention to step down from power, only to find his heirs fighting for his love and favors. This is one of the masterpieces of modern filmmaking, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97%.