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Shakespeare's Late Plays

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's final works

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Shakespeare's final plays are hard to pigeonhole, which may well have been the intention. Although the First Folio subdivided them into 'comedies', 'tragedies' and 'histories', the only one of the five plays in this collection that unarguably fits a single category is Henry VIII. While The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline certainly veer towards comedy, they're not shy about revealing the darker side of human nature and experience - indeed, this is so true of Cymbeline, with its betrayals, attempted murders and a graphic beheading, that the First Folio editors initially treated it as a tragedy. More recently, critical convention has been to label Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest 'romances' (or, alternatively, 'tragicomedies', a not entirely successful name for a then-new genre that sought to bring together all the themes of Shakespeare's earlier work, very much including the 'problem plays' (to which they often bear a close resemblance).

Pericles (c. 1608-9) is the closest thing that Shakespeare wrote to what in present-day cinematic terms would be considered a 'road movie', though a more plausible literary model would be Homer's Odyssey. Effectively banished from the kingdom of Antiochus after inadvertently discovering its ruler is incestuously involved with his daughter, Pericles roams the Mediterranean, gaining and losing a wife and daughter along the way. It all ends unexpectedly happily, but not until after literally decades of anguished heart-searching.

The unclassifiable Cymbeline (c. 1609) is one of the richest, if most frequently bewildering, of Shakespeare's late plays. Ostensibly set in ancient Britain, though with next to no attempt at realistic period detail, the play resurrects the As You Like It/Twelfth Night device of a young woman going incognito as a boy. In this case, it's Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, king of Britain, who is forced to flee and disguise herself after becoming the victim of the politically-motivated machinations of her evil-minded stepmother.

The Winter's Tale (c. 1610-11) is often equally dark, its centre-piece being the trial of Queen Hermione on charges of adultery and conspiracy against the life of her husband. Though both are wholly false, it takes sixteen years for everything to be resolved, with the aid of apparent supernatural intervention, as a statue of the presumed long-dead Hermione miraculously comes back to life. The play is particularly notable for the dramatic contrast between its first three acts and the two-act conclusion, in which the coming of spring provides a powerful metaphor for the theme of resurrection and rebirth that dominates the final scene.

The best-known of the late plays by far is The Tempest (c. 1611), believed to be Shakespeare's last play as solo writer. Apart from Love's Labour's Lost, it is the only one of his plays for which there is no apparent source, and it's impossible not to regard the central figure of Prospero - a magician contemplating retirement while simultaneously manipulating numerous characters who end up shipwrecked on the island he calls home - as being a portrait of Shakespeare himself at the end of his career. It's his most unselfconsciously fantastical play, and has consequently remained one of his most enduringly popular works.

This leaves Henry VIII (c.1613), a collaborative effort with John Fletcher that tackles then-recent English history for the first time since Henry V some fourteen years earlier. For various reasons, not least the presence of Elizabeth I on the throne, Shakespeare had previously shied away from directly depicting the Tudor era, and his Henry VIII is very different from the wife-murdering monster of legend. A complex, thoughtful play, it prefers political and philosophical debate to lurid reconstruction, with a particular focus on the Reformation. (Another Fletcher collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen, was written at about the same time, but has yet to be filmed and hence has not been covered here.)

With one obvious exception, none of these plays has been filmed especially frequently, with the BBC Television Shakespeare project accounting for most of the television productions. It was responsible for the only filmed Pericles (1984), and the only surviving Henry VIII (1979; a 1911 version was destroyed for contractual reasons), while Cymbeline's only other filmed reference besides the BBC adaptation (1983) is a set-piece in the Vincent Price horror opus Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox, 1973). The Winter's Tale fares slightly better in terms of the number of adaptations, though only Jane Howell's BBC version (1981) does the play full justice.

That leaves The Tempest, whose cinematic appeal is obvious from even the briefest skim of the text, and all three cinema versions are unusually imaginative for their time. While most silent Shakespeare films are staid and stagey, Percy Stow's 1908 visualisation of the play is a major exception, turning its key scenes into a series of memorably inventive tableaux that were unmatched in British cinema until Olivier's Henry V nearly forty years later. Derek Jarman's strongly punk-influenced 1979 adaptation was even more extreme, relocating the play to a crumbling mansion presided over by Heathcote Williams' raffish Prospero, while Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991) remains the most radical big-screen reinvention of any Shakespeare play, though the surfeit of electronic imagery - it made extensive use of post-production trickery - does tend to swamp rather than illuminate the text (which is impeccably delivered by John Gielgud, voicing not just Prospero but all the other parts). But it's a perfect example of how Shakespeare remains endlessly stimulating even in the era of modern high-definition video.

Michael Brooke

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