Of all English writers, William Shakespeare is probably the most famous. His plays are read by people all over the world and have been used in classrooms for many years. His plays have been produced so many times it is impossible to know how many. There are festivals and companies dedicated to the bard, no other artist has had as much energy spent on his works, by so many different types of people. Historians, writers, artists, theaters, all know and use his work in their own. Most people know his name, if not quotes and plays. The Internet Movie Database shows over 800 films based on Shakespeare’s plays, over ten of which are currently in production. This includes films using the original script, the story, or even just the characters. Film adaptations of Shakespeare range from edgy, small time private pictures to big time blockbusters. They are set in many periods; some productions claim to be as Shakespeare would have wanted them, others are set in modern times. There are such strange titles as ‘Romeo and Juliet vs The Living Dead’, ‘Macbeth; the Comedy’ and ‘The Lion King’. Because the nature of film production necessarily aims at the largest audience, they inherently follow popular trends, and are therefore a great way to understand society and how it changes.

With such a vast wealth of productions to choose from it is necessary to limit the scope of any research on Shakespeare’s works. For this reason I have chosen four plays through which to view some of the immense changes of the last century: Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth. These plays are among the more popular of those written by Shakespeare, and as a result appear in a number of different film versions. These four stories have faced much debate because of the way that they portray central characters who are in groups that have been oppressed socially and politically. This makes films of these plays a great way to view societal change. The issues have become more or less prevalent through time, and so this study is interested in finding out how the portrayal has changed.

Because it is not possible to go back in time to watch the plays as they have been produced on stage, this paper uses films instead. While theatrical performances can and have been documented, film is a more pure source because it is possible to view the production as intended firsthand. The main drawback of using film as a basis is its relatively short history, but the twentieth century has seen many changes, including monumental ones for people considered by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to be ‘other’ and ‘lower’. The civil rights movement of the 1960s has changed how women and minorities are seen and WWII has re-shaped how people relate to Jews. In fact it is during this modern time frame that the most monumental changes have been made for these groups. Because producers must make money from a production, they necessarily try to appeal to the largest audience. This means that productions take great pains to reflect contemporary values and points of view, so film is actually in ideal way to study this evolution.

Even distinguishing film from stage is confusing, as many stage productions have been filmed. Even rarer, some productions, like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1994 Midsummer Night’s Dream, were originally produced for the stage, and later re-imagined as a film documenting the stage production. They were not originally conceived as a film, and as such we are not viewing the director’s complete stage picture, but the film director chooses the focus of our attention. On stage there can be many things going on, all of which have been thought through and given attention. As an audience member, it is possible to decide for oneself what to watch, but as we are looking through the eyes of a camera in a filmed production this is not possible. The production is filtered through another set of eyes. Since direct access to the director’s original intent is a reason to use films over plays I have tried to avoid these ambiguous productions in which a theater director’s choices are compromised by film techniques.

In film production, unlike stage, the script is taken over completely by the producers, who can do what they want to it. Editors are trained to cut and paste pieces for dramatic effect. While many producers respect Shakespeare’s language more than most screenwriters, others freely adapt his characters, language and story. Different periods will cut out what they do not approve of, and may add things to bridge the gaps. These cuts and alterations can convey a lot about contemporary attitudes and are one of the ways this paper will seek to understand societal changes. In addition to films using the bard’s language, this paper also seeks to use retellings. These take the story and put it into a new context. Each of these types of films have their own methods of conveying society’s standards.

For each of these four plays in this study, I tried to use at least one film from before and after the civil rights movements, at least one set in the time that Shakespeare set the story, one where the time has been changed. I have also attempted to use one film that is very accurate to the script and are telling. I have tried to use a big budget and a small time film for each. These categories can overlap, with one film filling a few of my guidelines. Availability has also played a large role in my selection of films–part of the reason that I chose to use film is the large audience that they can reach. If a film is not easily accessible it does not fit that qualification. While films of Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth are numerous, for The Merchant of Venice I was unable to find neither an adaptation nor an early film, but I have nevertheless drawn upon the filmed sources as this play is an important means of examining attitudes to gender and to race.

This paper will explore cinematic portrayals of Shakespearean characters who were, by virtue of their gender, religion, or ethnicity, offered limited roles–theatrically, socially, and politically. To trace the progress of ethnic minorities, I will look at presentations of Shakespeare’s “Moors,” primarily with reference to Othello, but also giving consideration to Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. The latter text offers opportunities to consider the portrayal and position of religious minorities in the figures of the Jewish characters Shylock and Jessica, as well as strong women in the figures of Jessica and Portia. I will continue my explorations of gender roles by looking at portrayals of Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew and Lady Macbeth. In tracing the portrayals of these characters in twentieth century films, I hope to demonstrate that Shakespearean film can be used to view social and political change.