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Silent Shakespeare

Shakespeare without the speeches

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Nearly half a century separates the first British Shakespeare film from the medium's first universally acknowledged masterpiece, but although Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) was certainly a gigantic leap forward, its predecessors shouldn't be entirely forgotten.

Despite the twin drawbacks of length and verbosity, a number of Shakespeare adaptations were made during the silent era. At their most primitive, they consisted of abbreviated treatments of individual scenes, shot from a fixed camera position and often derived from then-current stage productions - a good example being the very first British Shakespeare film, King John (1899), or F.R. Benson's slightly more extensive compilations of memorable moments from plays such as Richard III (1911), which at least featured small snatches of the original text.

Rather more imaginative was Percy Stow's The Tempest (1908), which attempted an eight-minute précis of the entire play, staged in brief tableaux interspersed with explanatory intertitles, while Cecil Hepworth's Hamlet (1913), although mostly as stagebound as its contemporaries, does at least attempt a more cinematic approach in a few scenes.

Anson Dyer's Shakespeare-sourced cartoons were produced round about 1920 - the two (or rather one and a bit) that survive, Oh'phelia (1919) and Othello (1920) show a lively wit, even if their relationship to the original plays is somewhat tenuous.

Michael Brooke

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