James Earl Jones first heard Shakespeare in the cornfield of his family’s farm, where his uncle began reciting from Julius Caesar while hoeing. The elevated musicality of those words became the seed that grew into a towering career. Jones is one of several actors and directors who contributed essays to a meaningful new collection on the most enduring writer in the English language, Living with Shakespeare (published by Vintage Books).
In her introduction, editor Susannah Carson speaks of our necessity to “imagine our way back” to Shakespeare cross the barriers of time and language. Staging Shakespeare, whether in the theater or for the cinema, can be hard work but the effort is important. His characters can “help us make sense of our human condition” and have tested the mettle of generations of screen actors. Jones has never starred in a film adaptation but has appeared on stage in Hamlet, Macbeth and other plays.
Ralph Fiennes, who directed and starred in a film version of Coriolanus, makes a point applicable to many works of theater transposed to cinema. “I think you can get closer to Coriolanus on film than you can on the stage,” he writes. Coriolanus is the Mr. Angry of the Shakespeare canon; on stage, the audience has trouble finding a point of sympathy; but “film is often about getting into the eyes.” The close up is the window to the soul. “I think that on film you have a chance to at least glean what’s going on inside,” Fiennes continues.
After directing Shakespeare on stage, Julie Taymor filmed The Tempest with Helen Mirren as Prospera. Taymor calls Shakesepare “the ultimate screenwriter”; no playwright has been filmed as often. Prospero(a), “the ultimate puppetmaster, the string-puller and engineer of illusions,” is very much like a movie director. Aside from a believable shift in the gender of the central character, Taymor’s The Tempest takes advantage of the cinema’s underused ability to be both naturalistic and artificial—at the same time. The storm that washes the castaways onto Prospera’s island resembles a Turner painting more than footage from the Weather Channel.