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The best is silence: why Shakespeare in early film is worth celebrating

theguardian.comThe thought of silent Shakespeare can cause confusion, and occasional sniggers. If your memory of Shakespeare from school revolves around quotations, verse form and antiquated vocabulary, then silent adaptations of his plays might seem perverse. The truth, in fact, is that Shakespeare films were hugely important and popular in the early silent period. What’s more, these films can help us trace the evolution of narrative cinema, and show us something about Shakespeare too.

“Early films of Shakespeare’s plays captured his poetry in images rather than words,” runs the opening caption in the BFI’s new anthology, Play On! And that process was simpler than it sounds. Many early Shakespeare films, such as the earliest surviving “adaptation”, a King John from 1899, were recordings of scenes from staged versions of the plays. So in that film, Herbert Beerbohm Tree reprises the death scenes from his West End production in a studio on the roof of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s office on the Embankment in London. It’s not an attempt to tell the story of King John, but to give the cinema audience a glimpse of a great Shakespearean in action. Elsewhere on the disc, you can see John Gielgud as a queasy Romeo in 1924 in a similar style. A 23-minute condensation of Richard III in 1911 gives a taster of FR Benson’s skills as both actor and director. And in 1916, the Broadwest Film Company went to the trouble of transporting stage legend Matheson Lang to Italy, to play Shylock with an authentically Venetian backdrop.

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