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Film Adaptation Of Shakespearean Comedy: Twelfth Night And Much Ado About Nothin

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Autor:  anton  09 October 2010
Tags:  Adaptation,  Shakespearean,  Comedy,  Twelfth
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6. “Film versions of Shakespeare comedies can lie anywhere on a spectrum between an exploration of serious issues and simple comedy of a farcical or uncomplicated nature.” Discuss with reference to two films.

Shakespearean plays are complex, intricate pieces of work in which a diverse range of interpretations and readings can be made. This is particularly true of his comedies, where the light-hearted humour is often offset by darker, more serious undertones. In adapting these comedies it is for the director – in the cinematic context – to decide how to interpret the play and which elements are privileged and which are suppressed. This variance in interpretation is exemplified in comparing two of the more recent cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh’s A Much Ado About Nothing [‘Much Ado’]. Although both films can to an extent be seen as comedies with serious, almost tragic aspects inherent throughout, Nunn’s film deals with these serious facets as central to the depiction, whereas Branagh, although not entirely ignoring the deeper issues, prefers a more light-hearted and visually attractive adaptation.

Twelfth Night has been described as ‘like Hamlet in a comic vein’ . In terms of Shakespearean chronology, the bittersweet edge to the play and the fact that it is essentially a comedy with the dark, sometimes disturbing elements, has been linked with the playwright’s movement toward the genre of tragedy. The range of filmic adaptations of the play illustrates the variation in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, with the dark edge often failing to make the transition to screen. However this is not the case with Nunn’s Twelfth Night, which achieves this exploration of the serious essentially through his interpretation of some of the play’s principal characters including Malvolio, Feste and Maria.

Malvolio's character is significant to Nunn’s adaptation in many respects with it initially appearing that Malvolio brings an air of respectability and chastity to the film. However his essential flaws and his inability to recognise the reality of people's feelings, including Olivia's, remove him from the position of moral overseer to a simple player in the game of love. Malvolio's error is related to his self-perceptions and his consideration of his own self-importance, rather than his caring and compassion for his mistress Olivia. Malvolio’s function in this film is to serve as a comedic contrast to the merry-makers, as well as a vital reminder to Feste that life is serious, and not all fun and games. Malvolio expresses the dark side of comedy and love. He emphasizes demureness, yet, when he thinks he has the chance to move forward with Olivia, he abandons all that he stands for and acts like an absolute fool . This action is the first imperative step that leads to the undoing of several characters, primarily Malvolio. It is essentially Malvolio’s ultimate narcissism that allows the other characters to easily plot his demise .

Nunn’s adaptation of Feste is not dissimilar to Malvolio with his interpretation of the ‘professional clown’ proving persuasive because the fool presents wise insights into the complicated web of love that many principal characters become entwined with. His ability to suggest that love is a game, that lovers often love to love, and that love can be almost blind, are important themes to the attraction and comedy of the film. However Nunn utilises Feste above the scope of the comedic, with his poignant insights reminding the audience that this film is in fact dealing with serious issues and at times, the deeper, disturbing, side of love. In Ben Kingsley’s moving performance, Feste becomes an outsider as a man who lives alone away from Olivia’s house yet somehow witnesses all that occurs amongst the characters and provides some telling insights. This is illustrated when he shows Olivia why "take away the fool" could mean take away the lady," arguing not only to save his job but also out of a deep compassion for Olivia’s grief over her brother's death, and a desire to show why she need not commit herself so absolutely to mourning. It is Feste who speaks the voiceover prologue written by Nunn, with Nunn admitting that “Feste is the ‘cement’ that binds the contrasting ingredients together.”

Yet it is arguably Nunn’s portrayal of Maria that illustrates the greatest variance in character interpretation. This adaptation the film casts her not as a simple, unpretentious maid, yet a complex, motivated woman, who is determined to catch her desired Sir Toby and prepared to affront those who cross her path. Marshall comments;

“Rather than responding in the teasing manner which I have seen other Maria’s do, this one replies with irritation and a bit of embarrassment to Feste’s comment about her beau.”

This complexity in her characterisation is further evident in Maria’s reprimand to Feste after he comments about her relationship with the drunken Sir Toby – “Peace you rogue. No more of that.” While this could be interpreted as being comedic and joking, given Feste’s manner, in Nunn’s film it is clearly not .

Yet despite these representation’s enhancing the film’s exploration of serious aspects, these characters also serve to reiterate a lot of the comedic conflict in the film, thus supporting the contention that adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedy can be both serious and the same time uncomplicated and even absurd. This is illustrated in Nunn’s film by Malvolio’s “Puritanesque” wardrobe of his suit and shoes. The comedic aspect of Malvolio’s wardrobe is exemplified at the end of the film when Malvolio appears wearing bright yellow tights and cross belts. Furthermore it is Feste's recognition of the humour in the conflict that makes the comedy stand out. Feste's songs double in serving as a basis in which the comedic impact of these ironic situations are realised as well as implicitly relaying that the loves and desires of these principal characters, while at times foolish, are indicative of real, serious human emotion.

In addition to characterisation, Nunn utilises other mechanisms in expanding Twelfth Night beyond the scope of ‘simple comedy’, with the darkness of the play at times being palpable on the screen . It is there not just in the gloomy autumnal landscape of the film’s setting in Illyria but also in the oppressive interiors of the buildings. Viola transforms Olivia’s house from a house of mourning by the simple expedient of opening the curtains to let light flood in. It is also there in the militarism of Orsino's kingdom, where soldiers chase Antonio when he is recognized, and where the shipwrecked Viola and sailors scurry for cover when a troop of Orsino's horsemen investigate the debris of the wreck on the seashore. There is, in this continual reminder of the war where Orsino's "young nephew Titus lost his leg" (5.1.59), a threat of mortality in which "youth’s a stuff will not endure" because of death in war as well as the risk of growing up. Although one may contend that these are merely inherent aspects from the original play, Nunn does more than just include them as part of a comedy, yet makes his adaptation of Twelfth Night a comedy with a focus on the exploration of darker, serious issues.

In contrast to Nunn’s focus on the deeper aspects of Shakespearean comedy, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado privileges uncomplicated humour with a focus upon making Shakespeare’s comedy accessible to a modern audience. This Much Ado is more sensual and aesthetic than intellectual and while Shakespeare relied almost wholly on his language for effect, Branagh valorises the visual elements in creating an attractive film. The alteration in the setting of the film to the Italian sunshine, with attractive, joyous characters supports this notion. The filmic medium facilitates this focus on comedy, with the film’s cinematography and sound track providing for an attractive film. Furthermore substantial cuts and edits to the unabridged play speed up the pace of the film, with at times the ‘breezy energy’ making it difficult for the viewer to not get caught up in the aesthetic experience and neglect some of the more serious issues confronting the characters.

Central to the comedy in Shakespeare’s original play is the practice of ‘eavesdropping’ by the characters, creating the situation of dramatic irony. Branagh capitalises on this intrinsic humour by setting a Renaissance garden maze as the location for several of the film’s important scenes. It’s hedge ‘walls’ offer hiding places for the characters when they want to overhear but not be seen in return, also doubling as the perfect location for the character’s sudden entrances and exits. It is this site that is used when Claudio and Leonato decide to plant the seeds of the love in the contrary Beatrice and Benedick. While Benedick believes he is unseen as he eavesdrops, the viewer realises that the other characters know he is there, creating a humorous scene that possesses one meaning for Branagh’s Benedick and another for the informed viewer . This innovation in setting is unique to the Branagh adaptation and illustrates the focus that this film has on making Shakespeare’s humour accessible and simplified for the contemporary audience.

Although Branagh’s film represents simple comedy in many respects and does not portray as many of the tragic characters as Nunn’s Twelfth Night, it would be remiss not to discuss the examples where Branagh does confront the text’s serious aspects. Such aspects are undoubtedly inherent in the play - “even with its flaws, a director who calls on the text’s softer voices – and especially on it’s darker side – can elicit a work of intriguing complexity.” Branagh’s facilitation of the text’s feminist voice illustrates that he does not entirely ignore the more weighty issues. With the romance of Benedick and Beatrice – with a specific focus upon Beatrice - the Shakespearean plot encourages us to think this is a play about how women feel about men. Branagh in turn underlines this ‘feminist’ reading and in fact furthers it by increasing the significance of what is seemingly one of the play’s more incidental lyrics ; “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever.” In Shakespeare’s text this song is performed only once, with the intent of softening up Benedick, yet Branagh uses it to open his film, with Beatrice’s voice slowly reciting the words to the song as they appear on a black background. This opening serves to imbed the lyric into the play’s argument, and in the process, reiterates the play’s feminist connotations.

In addition to this feminist reading, the film provides glimpses of the text’s darker, more harrowing elements, perhaps singularly exemplified no more so than in the wedding scene. Here the falsely accused Hero is attacked by both her father and her betrothed, Claudio. This scene in which Hero’s friends and family are slow to protect

her is quite disturbing. This illustrates the contention that although a simple, light-hearted comedy, when Much Ado gets serious, it has the potential to become genuinely powerful.

In a similar vane to Nunn’s character interpretation, Branagh, through the character of Dogberry, portrays a character with a darker side than that evident in Shakespeare’s text. Dogberry’s most significant speech in which he reveals himself as a ‘man who has suffered losses’ is excised, which in turn, removes the audiences basis for feeling empathy towards him . This portrayal has been met with divided opinion from critics with Barton lamenting the decision, commenting Dogberry became “a menacing, sadistic, and profoundly unamusing thug.” Whereas an opposite interpretation is that Michael Keaton’s dark approach to the character offer’s a nice counter to the general brightness of Branagh’s Much Ado. Nonetheless the interpretation of Dogberry can be used to illustrate that this film, as with Twelfth Night, can be seen as both dark and humorous at the same time. It is through Dogberry that the film presents it’s moments of ‘simplest’ comedy in the form of physical humour. These scenes were initially intended to appease the ‘groundlings’ of Shakespeare’s theatre, with Branagh utilising and capitalising on this slapstick and punning to great effect throughout his film.

Both Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh’s A Much Ado About Nothing support the contention that film adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies lie on a spectrum ranging from simple comedy to the exploration of serious issues. When comparing these two films it becomes persuasive that such adaptations often incorporate elements from either extreme. These two particular comedies provide an interesting comparison in that Twelfth Night is a comedy which presents the deeper issues of the text at the centre of the film, whereas Branagh provides glimpses of these issues, yet valorises a light-hearted, aesthetic approach to the text as a whole.


Brode Douglas. Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 97-99.

Cartmell, B. Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen. (2000).

Cuppit, C. “Double Trouble: A Discussion of Trevor Nunn’s film adaptation of Twelfth Night.”

Fine Line Features. Twelfth Night. Home Page. 2003 Accessed 28/5/03

Fine Line Features. “Trevor Nunn – Director.” About the Filmmakers. 2003

Greif, K “Plays ad Playing in Twelfth Night”, in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, (1987).

Marshall, K. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?: A Problematic (re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.” Literature-Film Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2002): p. 219.

Richard, R. “Much Ado About Branagh”. Commentary 96(4) (1993)

Sheppard, P. “Intercutting in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night”. Literature Film Quarterly 30, No. 3 (2002)

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