When you live only a few miles from Stratford upon Avon, you virtually cannot escape Shakespeare (not that I'd want to!), and what could be better in these circumstances than having a closer look this Film Music Month at how the Bard's plays were brought to the screen. At their time of writing, Shakespeare's plays were a showcase example of commercial art, dependent on their success in the playhouse to grant their survival. Today, there is no art form more commercial than the cinema, and it is now responsible for spreading his works amongst audiences so large they could never have been reached by a conventional staged performance. Approaches to filming Shakespeare have been as numerous as they are varied, ranging from a five minute-Hamlet as one of the first silent Shakespeare films (starring Sarah Bernhardt in the title role energetically fighting Laertes, with synchronised Edison cylinders to provide the sound of the clashing rapiers), to Laurence Olivier's famous films, to plays eventually developing an afterlife in modern versions such as Forbidden Planet (a sci-fi reworking of The Tempest).

The popularity of the subject is in part due to the fact that tightened copyright legislation in 1908 caused an unprecedented demand on non-copyright literature; thus, Shakespeare's plays became a favourite source for single-reel silent films, originally screened with the same stereotyped music as other silent films. With the arrival of sound, the first Shakespeare play to be made into a sound film was an opulent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Austrian director Max Reinhardt, and it used Mendelssohn's incidental music in an arrangement by Erich Korngold. Besides the choreographed fairies in the style of the great Busby Berkeley musical routines, it was the musical side that was criticised for still using outdated romantic musical material.

One "modern" composer who received international acclaim for his film scores was William Walton, first to be seen in his music for the 1936 version of As You Like It. It features a grand introduction over the credits, limited work with a leitmotif, and it makes use of Elizabethan songs that accompany the pastoral scenes. All of these aspects would remain characteristic features of Walton's film music, and some of his best he wrote in further collaborations with Laurence Olivier – their 1944 venture of Henry V, for example, which, in this year of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, deserves a closer look.

The film sets out as a recreation of a stage production in the Globe Playhouse, underscored with pseudo-Elizabethan music including tabor and harpsichord as the theatre fills with spectators in period costume. As the Prologue draws the attention to the fact that the famous battle can hardly be appropriately depicted in this setting, it directly addresses the audience with an "On your imaginary forces work", which is also the cue for some impressionistic music that transports the action to Henry's campaign in France and a stylised cinematic rendition of the action according to the structure of the play. The film is dedicated to "Commandos and airborne troops of Great Britain", particularly the battle scene and English victory at Agincourt clearly set out to boost morale in the year of the D-Day landings. It is accompanied by dramatic flourishes interspersed with very short but very tense silences, creating a very rousing background . This is often regarded as the highlight of the score and, according to Olivier himself, the only thing that gave plausibility to the charging knights, who actually were Irish farmers on their own horses.

Walton's and Olivier's fruitful collaboration culminated in their version of Hamlet (1948), which was shot in monochrome and bears the mark of film noir with its high-contrast lighting, low-level upwards camera shots, point-of-view camera moving down endless corridors, and voice-over soliloquies. Walton provides some atmospheric writing without much pomp, and together they created a film with a much more contemporary feel that was presented as a kind of thriller – a whodunit, as Hamlet sets out to expose the murderer of his father. The music mirrors Hamlet's confusion, anger and grief with dysfunctional harmonies for the apparition of the ghost, for example, which also shows some excellent thriller qualities, and the concluding funeral march reminds of Miklós Rósza's film noir scores.

Rósza himself, too, had ventured into scoring a Shakespeare film - Joseph Manciewicz's 1953 Julius Caesar. With distinct harmony and organum passages for archaic effect and use of modal scales, he created an epic score that follows the Bard's initial intentions closely: Rósza does not provide music for the emperor's assassination, thus portraying it as banal and entirely in line with the fact that the conspirers at that time do not understand the full extension of their deed.

Apart from cinema of English-speaking countries, there has been relatively little use of Shakespeare as basis for films elsewhere. A handful of Italian films by Franco Zeffirelli are a popular exception, most notably his Romeo and Juliet, which brought him international recognition, despite an unknown leading cast. Nino Rota's music is permeated by a romantic love theme, most notably in the ball scene as Romeo meets Juliet. There, it is performed by a troubadour-like character, firstly in what now strikes us as a "typical 60s" timbre, but quickly transforms into a neo-Elizabethan song with lilting rhythm and recorder accompaniment, and a yearning, melancholy finish.

An entirely different, and thus very controversial, approach was made by Roman Polanski with Macbeth in 1971, and it was notorious for its depiction of violence, gore and nudity, such as the gruesome decapitation scene, and was provided with music by the prog-rock Third Ear Band, who contributed both some avant-garde pieces for the irrational, supernatural elements, and acoustic, folkish music with drumming, drones and dissonant wind instruments.

There have also been Soviet contributions to the output of Shakespearean film scores, the best-known of which probably is Shostakovich's music to Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet. Shostakovich had already composed incidental music for both Hamlet and King Lear and enjoyed a close working relationship with Kozintsev, who had commissioned the score. It is notable that Shostakovich's film music is very consistent in style with his symphonies and exhibits some of his trademark idioms such as fierce scherzos and rough militarism. Here, these are mixed with archaic lyricism – the harpsichord music in compound time for Ophelia's dance lesson, for example. Much of the score, however, uses Hamlet's theme (which draws parallels to Shostakovich's own musical monogram), and ends with a celebration of heroism and funeral music as Hamlet dies. 

The 1990s saw a powerful Shakespeare renaissance, beginning with Henry V by Kenneth Branagh, which was also a huge musical success, with a score composed by Patrick Doyle. At a New York screening, the choral conclusion of the battle scene – starting out diegetically, then gradually transforming to the extradiegetic with strong choral forces and dramatic orchestral passages – was so rousing and emotional that the audience mistook it for the end of the film and began to leave. Branagh has, however, been increasingly prone to including musical accompaniment without concrete necessity, which became so overwhelming that cues eventually ceased to make much impact whatsoever – a problem particularly prominent in his lengthy Hamlet (1996).

These films represent only a very small selection of the many Shakespeare films that were made in the last decades, followed by modern versions such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes, and in addition to them there are numerous more that aren't directly based on a play, but use one as a starting point. The first that come to my mind here are Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and, perhaps even more so, his Shakespeare in Love, depicting the Bard's imaginary love affair while he was writing Romeo and Juliet, with witty hints to many of this other plays and an easy, romantic score matching the simple nature of the film.

Both these popular and the lesser, non-award winning films made the original plays available in different shapes to a wider public. They draw attention to aspects we may not have noticed before, depict things in ways we may or may not like, and maybe – hopefully – offer new perspectives on our favourite plays. One might consider exploring those again while awaiting what the film industry has in store for the future.


Mervyn Cooke: A History of Film Music
Kenneth S. Rothwell: A History of Shakespeare on Screen
Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells (Eds.): The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare