Whether you’re a casual fan of Shakespeare’s work, an ardent follower, or even a student of the theatre, there’s something on DVD for everyone. Enjoy.
The Casual / Beginner Fan
- 10 Things I Hate About You
This popular teen movie (that brought us a young Heath Ledger, and later spawned its own television series) put the “literate teen comedy” on the map. Based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things is a great way to get any teenager convinced that they like the story before you drop the S-bomb and tell them who wrote the original. If it’s a hit you can followup with She’s the Man, a modern version of Shakespeare’s popular cross-dressing romantic comedy Twelfth Night.
- Romeo + Juliet
If you enjoyed Leo DiCaprio in Inception and can’t get enough of him, don’t forget that he too had a go at Shakespeare, starring with Claire Danes in this 1996 Baz Luhrmann production. Dedicated Shakespeare fans either love or hate this one, but it’s hard to deny the success it had in introducing Shakespeare to an MTV audience. I love this movie so much that every time I’m channel surfing and see it playing, I try to show it to my kids – and then I realize that my kids are 8, 6 and 4 and that it’s way, way too violent for them and I have to change the channel again. For lighter fare that’s still in that same “Hey! I know that actor!” category we have Much Ado About Nothing (1993) starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
- Shakespeare in Love
When Shakespeare in Love won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999, two things were guaranteed. First, that it would live forever in Oscar trivia books as the movie that beat Saving Private Ryan (and is widely considered, by many non-Shakespeare-geeks, as the least-deserving winner of all time). Second, that star Gwynneth Paltrow would forever haunt my newsfilters because now she’s never written of anywhere without referring to her as “Gwynneth Paltrow, Academy-award-winning Shakespeare in Love actress ….” Still, this movie proved that you can create a film about Shakespeare’s life (regardless of how authentic it may have been) and achieve critical and popular success. It helped that this one was written by Tom Stoppard, who is well-known in Shakespeare circles for paying proper respect to his source material. Speaking of Stoppard…
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Most people who’ve heard of Tom Stoppard know him from this work of genius that tells the story of Hamlet behind the scenes, from the eyes of minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You’ll be amazed at how such a simple idea (periodically the cast of Hamlet wanders in while performing a scene, and then exits) can still spawn such creativity. Don’t be misled – this is not Hamlet. This is entirely its own movie. If anyone’s capable of writing a companion work to Hamlet, it’s Stoppard.
The Serious Fan
- Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (Now in Bluray!)
Generations of high school students learned Hamlet by watching the 1940’s version starring Laurence Olivier. That is, until Kenneth Branagh came along and did something previously unheard of – he filmed a “full text” Hamlet. Most Shakespeare productions are cut, sometimes drastically, to keep running times manageable. Branagh’s Hamlet? Four hours. And now in Bluray high definition! You may not always agree with Branagh’s directing choices, but he’s most definitely carved out his place in the history of Shakespeare on film. “What are we watching for movie night?” your friends will ask, “All the Lord of the Rings movies? All 6 Star Wars episodes?” “Nope,” you’ll tell them, “Hamlet. And there were 3 Star Wars movies. Shut up.”
- Great Performances: David Tennant’s Hamlet
Shakespeare geeks know that there is no single Hamlet (or Lear, or Macbeth). It’s all in the performance, and each is different. When an exciting new production comes along it’s like our Christmas – something new and exciting to see every single time. Once upon a time your only chance to see one of these productions was to get lucky enough to catch it live, but the Great Performances series on DVD now brings these destined-to-be-classics home to you. David Tennant was known to modern audiences primarily for his Dr. Who before he tackled Hamlet, and the excitement among both audiences was tremendous. I even live-tweeted the show when it was first on television.
- Great Performances: Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth
He may be Professor Xavier or Jean Luc Picard to you, but he’s also one of the great Shakespeareans of our time. You’ll also see him tackling evil Uncle Claudius in David Tennant’s Hamlet, but if you want Stewart in the lead role you’ll want his Macbeth. This performance is so new, in fact, that you’ll need to get on a list and pre-order – it’s not out until January. So the Shakespeare Geek in your life may need to get a “Coming Soon” note in his stocking this year.
- Great Performances: Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear
I didn’t intend to lay these choices out in good/better/best order, though I suppose one might look at it that way (Tennant the newcomer, Stewart the seasoned professional, McKellen the master). King Lear is considered the Mt. Everest of Shakespeare’s work, and actors do not enter into it lightly. Having already been Hamlet and Macbeth, it was only a matter of time before one of our greatest living actors put his own personal mark on Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece. How can this not be a part of any Shakespeare Geek’s collection?
Students of Shakespeare
- Playing Shakespeare
Now imagine the likes of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley (and numerous others) as students, listening intently at the feet of their mentor some 30 years ago. What sort of individual could command that level of respect from that kind of acting megastar audience? The one and only John Barton, legendary director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for more than 40 years. Even if you never plan to get up on a stage (I, for one, do not) it is still simply mind-boggling to watch the process. I’ve read the words on the page, and I’ve seen actors perform those same words. But this is the first time I’ve seen the middle, where an entire work of Shakespeare is broken all the way down into the beats of a line and then built back up again into something beautiful. I got this boxset for Christmas last year and it’s one of the most amazing pieces of “Shakespeare stuff” I own. There’s nothing quite like it.
- Acting Shakespeare
Full disclosure – this is the only item on the list that I’ve not personally seen. I just covet it, badly :). Ian McKellen gets a fair share of screen time in the previously discussed Playing Shakespeare, but no matter how much we love him, that wasn’t his show. Acting Shakespeare is exactly what would happen if it was his show. Imagine Sir Ian McKellen – Magneto, Gandalf, Lear – 30 years ago (1982), not only performing selections from Shakespeare but telling you about them. How to play it, why to play it a certain way, funny stories associated with this one particular time … It sounds, from everything I’ve heard, like an amazing companion piece to Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, and I can’t wait to add it to my collection.