[Essay] Shakespeare on Screen: Adaptation and the Politics of Fidelity — Josh Mcloughlin

Critical debates surrounding adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays seem endlessly to revolve around whether or not the performance is, in some way, faithful to the text. Barbara Hodgdon has pointed out critics’ ‘penchant for judging performed Shakespeare in terms of textual fidelity’.[1] In the case of Richard III, the ‘authentic setting, period-dress, and […] strict adherence to Shakespeare’s language’ of Lawrence’s Olivier’s 1955 production aims at ‘contextual’ fidelity as well.[2] If Olivier’s production situates itself in a relation of ‘strict’ fidelity to the dramatic text and its context, then Richard Loncraine’s adaptation of Richard III completely re-imagines Shakespeare’s history play, setting the drama in a fictional, fascist 1930s Britain.[3] Loncraine displaces Shakespeare’s original not only from its temporal context, but also from the medium of its performance, transposing a dramatic text intended for the theatre into a cinematic blockbuster. This is what lead film critic Richard Corliss, writing for Time Magazine, to proclaim the adaptation ‘all movie’.[4] However, the adaptation is not as detached from Shakespeare’s original as Corliss’s comment suggests. It is, in fact, deeply concerned with the relationship between theatre and cinema, between Shakespeare’s dramatic text and Loncraine’s film. The adaptation resists a relationship of strict ‘fidelity’ to the dramatic text by subverting the textual cues of speech and stage direction in Shakespeare’s original with visual elements – and implicitly asserting the authority of the adaptation over the text.

However, the film’s self-conscious relationship to the viewer complicates this relationship between theatre and cinema, between dramatic text and Loncraine’s adaptation, beyond that of mere subversion. Ian Mckellen brings the soliloquy of the dramatic original into the cinema in the form of extra-diegetic gaze and direct address – a collision of theatrical and cinematic elements which calls attention to the conventional modes of address each form makes to an imagined reader/viewer. Loncraine’s Richard III, far from being ‘all movie’, is actually concerned with issues of theatricality, adaptation and dramatic text. If, as Hodgdon has attested, critical attention tends to focus on ‘textual fidelity’ or the lack thereof, then I propose in this essay that Loncraine’s Richard III enacts a kind of fidelity without fidelity, problematizing the very distinctions between theatre and cinema, Elizabethan dramatic text and Hollywood adaptation, and fidelity and subversion.

Loncraine’s Richard III deliberately figures a tension between textual cue and visual realization – a sort of filmic punning on the text – which resists or mocks a relationship of strict fidelity between text and performance. In the opening speech, the text has Richard enter ‘solus’, but the adaptation figures the scene, at first, as a public speech in a highly political arena. Richard’s tapping of the microphone is a visual gesture and, just as Mckellen waits to speak, the text is also forced to wait its turn –it is only in the eighth minute of the film that the first lines from the text are spoken. ‘Our dreadful marches to delightful measures’ (I.i.9) is delivered by Mckellen with a smile, drawing laughter from his audience as his eyes momentarily, almost imperceptibly, glance into the camera and then away behind it again, hinting at the direct address which will form a central concern in the film, and later in this essay.[5] However, at ‘Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front’ (I.i.9), Mckellen’s own face is actually transformed from a ‘smooth’d’ sideways smile, becoming ‘grim-visaged’ itself. If deception and the discrepancy between words and deeds are crucial to the play, then this is appropriated by the adaptation: the film visually reverses or opposes the verbal gesture of the text and enacts a cinematic doubling or deception. Whilst paying homage to the tension between ‘honey words’ (IV.i.79) and actions which informs the text, this technique also implicitly asserts the authority of the visual performance over that of the original, as ‘textual fidelity’ is not only resisted but mocked by the blatant disparity between verbal and visual gestures, between text and performance.

Loncraine’s adaptation is also Brechtian in its relationship to Shakespeare’s dramatic text. Walter Benjamin wrote, in epic theatre, ‘for its performance, the text is no longer a basis of that performance, but a grid on which […] the gains of that performance are marked’.[6] If the extent to which the film situates itself in a subversive relation to the verbal text marks the ‘gains’ of its performance, then the opposition only intensifies as the speech continues. At ‘he capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber’ (I.i.12), the abrupt switch from public to the private arena disrupts, mid-sentence, the smooth, uninterrupted verbal dexterity of the opening speech of the text, whose seriousness is then undermined by the scatological humor of Richard audibly urinating. Richard’s speech is again interrupted when his deformed hand makes buttoning up his fly difficult, and we watch, uncomfortably, waiting for him to resume his speech. Further, there is yet another kind of filmic punning: ‘he capers nimbly’ (I.i.13) is deliberately contrasted with Richard’s visible limp, with comic effect. Moreover, ‘in a lady’s chamber’ (I.i.13) loses all of the intended bitterness of its delivery in the dramatic text, in which it builds up to the vicious sibilance of ‘to the lascivious pleasing of a lute’ (I.i.13), as Richard enters the men’s bathroom, visibly and audibly relieving himself. The adaptation, then, through the careful deployment of Shakespeare’s language in relation to it’s own visual language of mise en scene, constructs a relationship between adaptation and original which not only resists fidelity, but implicitly asserts the authority of the visual over the verbal, marking the ‘gains’ of its performance as it arrests the continuity and seriousness of tone of the text’s opening speech by effecting a ludicrous, scatological humour. As Richard moves toward the mirror to deliver his speech more menacingly, Mckellen’s use of extra-diegetic gaze and direct address complicates the relationship between theatre and cinema, and the relation of subversion between text and adaptation as outlined above. Mckellen, in his notes to the screenplay, writes that he sought to ‘challenge the naturalism of cinema by talking to the camera’.[7] Mckellen’s extra-diegetic gaze and direct address constitute an interruption of a specific cinematic form – naturalism or realism – by the theatrical device of the soliloquy. Stephen MacCabe conceives of realist cinema as situating the viewing subject ‘in a relation of dominant specularity’ – in other words, any film-text which offers the viewer the subject position of a kind of invisible voyeur, outside the action looking in.[8] The moment where Richard ‘catches’ us looking at him marks a separation: until this point the viewing-subject has been situated in a relation of ‘dominant specularity’,  the subject of (realist) cinema,  but is henceforth addressed through extra-diegetic gaze and direct address. As these devices resemble the soliloquy and asides in the dramatic text which engage directly with the audience, the film now addresses itself to the viewing-subject of the dramatic text – the subject of theatre. This might more accurately be considered ‘dramatic’ or ‘theatrical’, rather than ‘textual fidelity’, but it remains an act of fidelity to Shakespeare’s Richard III which problematizes distinctions of cinema and theatre, and complicates the idea of a critical methodology which would identify strict fidelity to or subversion of the dramatic text.

Jacques Lacan conceives of the gaze as that ‘which […] surprise[s] – surprise[s] in so far as it changes all the perspectives, the lines of force, of my world, orders it […] in a sort of […] reticulation’.[9] In the world of the film, the viewer feels the full effect of the gaze in this Lacanian sense. As the camera slowly creeps up behind Richard, the absence of diegetic sound implies a rapt viewer gazing voyeuristically as Mckellen whispers to his own reflection, ‘Why, I can smile; and murder while I smile/And wet my cheeks with artificial tears/And frame my face to all occasions’ (borrowed from III.ii.83-6 of 3 Henry VI).[10] Then, Mckellen’s extra diegetic gaze recognises or confronts the gaze of the viewer and in so doing, ‘orders it’, interrupting a hitherto ‘dominant specularity’ through an almost incredulous extra-diegetic gesture which changes the situation of the viewing subject instantly as ‘a gaze surprises him in the function of the voyeur, disturbs him, overwhelms him’.[11] Mckellen ‘overwhelms’ the viewer-voyeur forcing the camera to back-step slightly as he shifts his body aggressively, pivoting to confront and address the subject directly as he says ‘And therefore since I cannot prove a lover/ […] I am determined to prove a villain’ (I.i.28-30). The decision to omit line 29 figures ‘lover’ and ‘villain’ in closer proximity, and in so doing draws attention to both as parts that will be played. The playing of multiple parts was a common practice in Elizabethan theatre, but is seldom seen in cinema, as it risks a contradiction of character – indeed Stephen MacCabe has written that ‘the classic realist text cannot deal with the real as contradiction’.[12] The extra-diegetic gaze which disturbs, the allusion to the playing of different parts and the direct address, then, all mark a theatrical mode of address. In resembling the way in which the text has Richard address the crowd as he speaks, the film situates the viewing subject in relation of theatricality, rather than the ‘dominant specularity’ of (realist) cinema. This marks a return to a degree fidelity to the text, furthercomplicates the distinction between theatre and cinema, text and adaptation. So far, the film has been shown to subvert the verbal gestures of the text by implicitly asserting the authority of the visual with visual/verbal puns shot through with scatological humour. It then restores a degree of fidelity – that which I have termed ‘dramatic’ or ‘theatrical’ – with the interruption of the cinematic mode of address by the theatrical device of the soliloquy. This might prompt the following questions; is the film contradictory? and; to what extent can ‘textual fidelity’ be said to inform the adaptation? Such criticism would ‘judg[e] performed Shakespeare in terms of textual fidelity’.[13] My next example shows how the film resists this approach altogether.

At the scene of the ‘reconciliation’ between Richard, Rivers and Elizabeth at Brighton (adapted from I.ii), the viewing-subject is now situated as complicit in Richard’s deception, privy to his ‘plots’(I.i.32) and therefore, as it were, ‘’in on it’’. After addressing everyone in turn, Richard announces, whilst turning toward the camera and removing his glasses pointedly, ‘I thank my God for my humility’ (II.i.73). The camera is at head height, situating the viewer as though partaking in the meeting and allowing for the viewer to meet Richard’s face and, as he removes his glasses, make eye contact with him as he delivers his line. This generates a comic irony as the viewer-subject understands the line sarcastically, sharing a sardonic ‘in’ joke with Richard, at the expense of the court. My point is that this use of extra-diegetic gaze and direct address which engages the viewer directly is a theatrical aside which does not appear in the text. In Shakespeare’s original, the line is not delivered either as soliloquy or as an aside, but directly to the court. In the adaptation, Richard’s turn toward the camera, pointed removal of his glasses to make eye contact, and the muted sarcasm with which Mckellen delivers the line into the camera all mark the gesture as theatrical. Further, as Mckellen pivots toward the camera, we are reminded of the body language address in bathroom scene which first marked the situation of the viewer in a relation of theatricality. The adaptation is theatrical its mode of address here, yet writes into Shakespeare’s Richard III an aside which does not appear in the text.  The extra-diegetic gesture which would remain faithful to the dramatic original at the same time constitutes a subversive re-writing of the text which refuses a relationship of either strict fidelity or subversion between text and adaptation.

I have focused on the relationship of Shakespeare’s language and stage direction to the mise en scene and mode of address of Loncraine’s adaptation, and so I have not considered how the temporal setting of Loncraine’s adaptation – a fictional, fascist 1930’s Britain – might also contribute to my argument. However, it might briefly be suggested that the lavish use of period costume and setting resists the non-illusionist theatre of Elizabethan stage practice, yet the decision to retain the political dynamics which inform so much of the relationship between characters in the dramatic text marks a degree of fidelity. The suggestion is schematic, and requires further elaboration but, given my aim here, can contribute to some generalising final comments. I aim to have shown that Loncraine’s Richard III resists a critical approach to ‘performed Shakespeare’ which measures the ‘textual fidelity’ of an adaptation against its literary or historical proximity to Shakespeare’s original. Loncraine’s Richard III subverts Shakespeare with its own visual language, and then shows fidelity by interrupting a cinematic text with the theatrical soliloquy, before combining both by writing a new theatrical stage direction into Shakespeare’s play through the medium of cinema. This need not imply contradiction: it does not reverse or refuse either the subversive cinematic language or the fidelity of the mode of address of the opening speech. Instead, it combines them to enact what I have called a fidelity without fidelity – blurring the distinctions between text and adaptation, theatre and cinema, fidelity and subversion. Loncraine’s adaptation problematizes the notion of ‘textual fidelity’ to such an extent that it forces a revaluation of the relationship between Shakespeare and performance more generally, and between Richard III and Loncraine’s adaptation in particular. As I have repeated, the film displaces criticism which ‘judge[s] performed Shakespeare in terms of textual fidelity’ altogether. Instead, I conclude, Loncraine’s Richard III insists on the need to see the relationship between Shakespeare and adaptation not in terms of fidelity or subversion, but as dialogue: a process in which texts interact with and (re)write each other over and again in a relation which fluctuates between fidelity, subversion and the paradoxical combination of both.[14]


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.


 [1] Barbara Hodgdon, ‘Replicating Richard: Body Doubles, Body Politics’, Theatre Journal, 50 (1998), pp.207-225 p.210.

[2] Jared Scott Johnson, ‘The Propaganda Imperative: Challenging Mass Media Representations in Ian Mckellen’s Richard III’, College Literature, 21 (2004), pp.44-59, p.47.

[3] Richard III, dir. Richard Loncraine (United Artists, 1995) [DVD].

[4] Richard Corliss “Pulp Elizabethan Fiction”, Time Magazine, 15 January 1996, p.3.

[5] William Shakespeare, Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond (London: Methuen, 1981) [All subsequent references will be incorporated].

[6] Walter Benjamin, What is Epic Theatre?, trans. by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998), p.2.

[7] Ian Mckellen, Screenplay by Richard Loncraine and Ian Mckellen, <http://www.mckellen.com/cinema/richard/screenplay/017.htm> [accessed 02/03/2014].

[8] Stephen MacCabe, ‘Realism and the Cinema’, in Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan eds., A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (Maidenhead: OUP, 2004), p.32.

[9] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Norton, 1979) p.84.

[10] William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 3, ed. Norman Sanders (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1981).

[11] Lacan, Écrits, p.84.

[12] Stephen MacCabe, ‘Realism and the Cinema’, p.32.

[13] Barbara Hodgdon, ‘Replicating Richard: Body Doubles, Body Politics’, Theatre Journal, 50 (1998), pp.207-225 p.210.

[14] Barbara Hodgdon, ‘Replicating Richard: Body Doubles, Body Politics’, Theatre Journal, 50 (1998), pp.207-225 p.210.

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