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Shakespeare as a Screenwriter

Shakespeare as a Screenwriter
Douglas Brode, professor of cinema studies at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, author of Shakespeare in the Movies (2000)

DOUGLAS BRODE: When Orson Welles said that Shakespeare would have been a great screenwriter, here is what I believe he meant by that. The normal play, as we know it today, is divided up into acts. It used to be a three-act play, now it's usually a two-act play, and while the act may be divided into one, two, or even three scenes, the act is the building block of the play.

That's not the case with a screenplay. Although technically there are three acts to a screenplay, or three movements, screenplays are written in short, brief scenes. That's the way it's done. That's exactly the way Shakespeare wrote his so-called plays. They were written in about 50 short scenes, maybe 45 for the shorter plays, 70 for the longer plays. There were no act divisions. Those famous five-act divisions that we see in all the printed copies of Shakespeare's plays today were added later. They were added after his death when the plays were published to organize them and to make them easier to grasp and understand, but they weren't there originally. So it was a series of some 70 scenes.

Also, a modern play is written for one basic scene or as few possible scene changes, whereas a movie script is usually written—with a few exceptions like Rear Window or Repulsion—a movie script is written for as many scene changes as possible. That's exactly the way, let's say, Henry V by Shakespeare is written. It reads like a movie script, not like a play. And that's why, whereas most plays have a very hard time adapting to a film format, Shakespeare's plays don't. They lend themselves to it naturally, because, in a way, I argue that Shakespeare more or less invented the screenplay form, not that there weren't a few other people doing it before him.

But at any rate, that comes down to why I, in my book Shakespeare in the Movies, say Orson Welles was right in arguing that Shakespeare would have been a great screenwriter. He in fact was a screenwriter before they had motion picture cameras and projectors. And even in a play like Henry V, the Prologue comes out and apologizes for the bare stage that's unworthy of the great subject they're going to present. It's almost as if Shakespeare were apologizing for having to do theater, and he actually says, I wish I could clothe our kings and our royals in the proper costumes. Your imagination, the audience's imagination, is going to have to eke it out. While, of course, in a motion picture version of that play, whether it is Laurence Olivier's or Kenneth Branagh's, they can do precisely that. The motion picture can fulfill what Shakespeare found lacking in the theater of his time.