The Best Shakespeare Films

400 years have passed since William Shakespeare died on April 23rd, 1616. I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt’s amazing 2004 book “Will in the World”, which vividly brings the Bard to life in a way that feels down to earth. By using the historical facts and records of Shakespeare’s life that we have, and tying them to the sonnets and plays that he wrote, Greenblatt brings us as close to the times and sentiments of the Bard’s life as is possible. A revealing read for me, and so was a visit I made to Stratford a few years ago. There’s something very surreal about standing next to William Shakespeare’s grave.

As expected from a movie blog, I’ve thought about the multitude of Shakespeare adaptations that we have, and tried to come up with the best. The playwright’s work was typically divided into three genres, tragedies, comedies and histories, so let’s take advantage of that:

The historical plays were among the first recorded in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Cinematically, there is no doubt which king should be crowned the winner – in 1944 and 1989, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both turned “Henry V” into masterful vehicles for their own burgeoning careers. In the former case, Henry V was also meant to be a morale booster for British audiences during World War II. In the clip above, Branagh delivers the famous “band of brothers” speech from the 1989 version.

Laurence Olivier’s most famous Shakespeare adaptation is likely his 1948 take on “Hamlet”; Kenneth Branagh failed to match him in 1996 with his four-hour version, even though it is a beautiful, extravagant experience. Roman Polanski made a colorful, bloody movie out of “Macbeth” in 1971, one that fit the director and his style like a glove (watch the opening with the three witches above). Not the most faithful version, but stands on its own as a majestic film. And then there is “Romeo and Juliet”, which always has had a special allure to teenagers for obvious reasons; this was true in 1968 when Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey played the leads, and in 1996 when it was time for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Those who want their Shakespeare tragedies served with a culturally different context should take a look at Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), his versions of “Macbeth” and “King Lear”.

Shakespeare’s comedies have been given an eclectic treatment on screen. There is no obvious candidate for which one is the best, even if Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is quite exuberant and one of the most commercially successful Shakespeare adaptations. It was obviously hard to ignore The Taming of the Shrew in 1967, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; directed by Franco Zeffirelli, it was just as lushly photographed as his Romeo and Juliet the following year. In the clip above, Taylor lets her father (Michael Hordern) have it from her balcony. Of course, we should also mention “The Merchant of Venice”, one of the Bard’s most challenging comedies for modern audiences; not only is this play more memorable for its dramatic ingredients, but its perceived anti-Semitism is hard to take. The film adaptation from 2004, starring Al Pacino, walked a fine line.

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