His highness yet doth speak, and holds belief
That being brought into the open air
It would allay the burning quality
Of that fell poison which assaileth him. (King John 5.7.6-9)
Ten years ago, dad and I attended the Shakespeare-on-Film Centenary Conference in Benalmadena, Spain. The 100th anniversary of the first Shakespeare film was a big deal for the small cadre of critics who focus their academic life and writing on this particular medium, and the conference featured, appropriately, a screening of the 1899 Ur-Film. Wanna guess? Hamlet? Macbeth? Twelfth Night? Nope. It was King John. All 90 seconds of it. As the story goes, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was directing and starring in a production of King John at Her Majesty's Theatre in London and was curious about this new medium, film. So he took the opportunity to shoot four scenes (three were lost) from the play, and the Shakespeare film was born. If we leave it at that, it's fairly simple, but if you think for a bit the question of just what qualifies as a "Shakespeare film" will begin to nag at you.
First of all, in 1899 the medium doesn't include sound; Tree's King John is silent. Watch as Pembroke, Prince Henry, and Bigot stand around while John, supine in a chair, writhes, tries to rise from the chair, falls back, writhes some more, reaches out to Henry, tries to rise once again, clutches his chest, milks it for a bit, and finally dies, all in silence with nary an intertitle in sight. "His highness yet doth speak"? I think not. Can we truly call it Shakespeare if the language isn't present? After all the stories are not the uniquely Shakespearean aspect of his plays.
Second, the film doesn't tell much of a story; it's just a death scene, and to be honest if you didn't know the play, you might not even realize that's what's happening. John could be reenacting Linda Blair's role in The Exorcist.
Third, it's so brief it can't really tell a story, Shakespeare's, Tree's, Holinshed's or whomever's. Less than a minute and a half might be acceptable if we knew we were looking at some fragment, but Tree shot the scenes not as part of a whole, but deliberately as pieces, intended more as advertisements for his stage show than as Shakespeare in a new medium. Wouldn't that be like academics in some post-apocalyptic future, when nearly all human records have been destroyed, finding a cache of movie trailers (each one beginning, in the deep tones of Don LaFontaine, "In a world, one man...") and assuming the trailer is part of the actual movie? And not only did Tree show the scenes in film theaters as advertisements but he released them as Mutoscope peepshows. (Maybe that's why both John and Prince Henry are wearing dresses?) Even Tree thought it more curio than art form.
Interesting; despite Tree's film's lack of Shakespeare's language, its lack of plot, and its lack of Shakespearean purpose, King John tells us a lot about the power of Shakespeare as cultural icon. If we were to remove Shakespeare's name from this film clip ― say it were some unknown and unattributed fragment discovered in the Netherlands ― we might think it some version of Walewein. Because we know the clip comes from Tree's adaptation of his production of a Shakespeare play, we grant it Shakespearean status, just as we grant She's the Man Shakespearean status because it adapts, as a modern-English language farce, the bare bones plot of Twelfth Night. I think this says a lot about our idea of Shakespeare as source of art, as original genius, as literary patriarch; we ignore his own adaptative approach to story just as we fail to see modern adaptation of Shakespeare both to this new medium as well as into more tangential purposes (the Romeo and Juliet Nextel ad, anyone?) as anything more than inspired co-option.
Read King John. Watch Tree's scene from Act 5. Are they really related? And if so, what does that relationship say about Shakespeare? What does it say about film? And does it, in the end, actually take any steps toward defining the thing we think of as Shakespearean film?
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