Shakespeare on Television, this Millennium

Sarah Olive

#MargaretThatcher‘s ousting from Downing Street described on R4 in terms of a great Shakespearean tragedy #Shakespeare’, ‘Spotting #Shakespeare paraphrases in #FreshMeat’, ‘C4’s tribute to Richard Briars ended on a clip of him playing Polonius in Branagh’s #Hamlet: “to thine own self be true”’. These are just a few, recent examples of my attempts to tweet Shakespeare references that I casually and unintentionally encounter on television, using the hashtag #Shakespeare. I tweet them as a record, a body of evidence of the cultural saturation of modern British life with Shakespeare, for myself, colleagues and students working on Shakespeare, cultural and media studies. The tweets are evidence that Shakespeare spills across daily television in Britain, cutting through the boundaries of genre (Olive, 2013). The full range of ways in which Shakespeare features in this media – beyond small screen adaptations of his plays and documentaries on his life (already well-documented) – is, in the twenty-first century, increasingly reflected by a nascent body of critical literature in the field of Shakespeare studies and related disciplines.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles directing Chimes at Midnight, 1964: how has film studies dominated Shakespearean academia?

[Image by José Luis Pajares under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

It has been recognized for several decades that studies of popular culture Shakespeares were embraced belatedly in English-subject academia (Greenhalgh, 2007: 651). Subsequently, film became the dominant mass media analysed by the Shakespeare academy. Witness since the turn of the century alone, Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray’s Shakespeare, Film, Fin de siècle (2000); Pascale Aebischer’s Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (2004); Thornton Burnett’s Filming Shakespeare in the Global Marketplace (2007); his and Adrian Street’s Filming and Performing Renaissance History (2011); and Shakespeare Bulletin: Early Modern Drama on Screen  A Jarman Anniversary Issue (2011) to select a few. A handful of other volumes exist which feature multiple chapters on Shakespeare on film, with the odd chapter turning to discuss television. These include edited collections, such as Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray’s Screening Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century (2006), where two out of ten chapters explore Shakespeare on television (in modern-language adaptations of the plays, for instance); Anthony Davies and Stanley Well’s Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television (1994), where exploration of the latter medium is restricted to adaptations of the plays in the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Shakespeare series; and Diana E. Henderson’s A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen (2006), with a single chapter on television.

The pre-eminence of film in these works would seem to bear out Burt’s observation that there is ‘a tendency in Shakespeare studies to accord film a signal privilege as the form of mass culture closest to Shakespeare and therefore the most legitimate as an object of criticism’ (Burt, 2000: 206). Writing in a chapter on US television, he adds, ‘the varied uses of Shakespeare on television are among the least known and least studied by Shakespeareans interested in film and mass media’ and declares that Shakespeareans ‘have yet to attend to vast areas of television programming related to Shakespeare’ (Burt, 2007: 585). This is in spite of the fact that ‘the small screens of the television and computer have become the dominant places for viewing, and televised Shakespeare has overtaken filmed Shakespeare’ (Burt, 2003: 17). His views are echoed by Greenhalgh later in the volume. She writes that, in spite of the volume of viewers, ‘it does not follow that television Shakespeare has received the kind of critical attention that has been awarded to films by the academic and publishing industries during the last few decades’ (Burt, 2007: 651). Some comfort may be found by reflecting on the fact that such wrangling with the place of popular culture affects arts and humanities disciplines more generally.

Forgotten Television

Understudied: Shakespeare on the small screen has been overlooked by academics

[Image by the autowitch under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

To take one example, a parallel situation can be found regarding scholarly attention to Shakespeare and popular music. Adam Hansen has noted the lack of attention given to Shakespeare and popular music. He observes that it has traditionally been difficult to find in indexes of works on Shakespearean musicology: ‘The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, for example, contains only five references to Shakespeare: three relate to musicals based on his plays, two to popular early modern ballads in his work’ (Hansen, 2010: 9). Moreover, he notes that until recently what little scholarship existed ‘did not reinforce [the relationship between Shakespeare and popular music], but resorted to lists of artists whose works and lyrics alluded to Shakespeare…and offered suggestive but brief explanations for these allusions’ (Hansen, 2010: 9).  Early attention to Shakespeare on television can be seen in a similar light. However, Hansen later voices his perception of hope for the future: ‘The [recent] shift in scholarly attentions may … be in part due to changes in the community of Shakespeare scholars, some of whom seem more attuned to or sensitized by popular cultures than ever before’ (Hansen, 2010: 10). There is reason to be similarly optimism about the future of studies of Shakespeare on television. The last decade has seen an on-going expansion in studies of Shakespeare on television, radio, and the internet. Recent authors who cover multiple genres include Richard Burt and Lynda E. Boose, as well as Olwen Terris, Eve Oesterlen and Luke McKernan.

Yet, the limitations of the existing body of literature are (at least) three-fold. Firstly, it outdates rapidly as new examples are made and broadcast – this particularly affects filmography-type publications by James Bulman and Herb Coursen. Burt has sought to expand the shelf-life of his multi-volume work by having detailed discussion of a particular medium of popular culture, followed by a bibliography, discography etc. Secondly, work on Shakespeare on television overwhelmingly discusses the broadcasting of his plays or adaptations of the plays, as demonstrated by the amount of writing featuring the BBC’s Shakespeare (Re)Told series and, before that, the BBC Shakespeare. Despite Holderness’ claims of a broadening out of what counts as ‘filmed Shakespeare’ (Holderness, 2002: xiii), there remains – with regards to writing on Shakespeare on silver screen and small screen alike – a disproportionate, emphasis on productions and adaptations of the plays (although they are no longer dominated by a Shakespeare-centric focus on fidelity and authenticity). This can be seen in works such as Kenneth S. Rothwell’s A History of Shakespeare on Screen (2004), which ends by considering the impact of the web and digital technologies such as High Definition but only in regards to broadcasting the plays, as well as Holderness’ essay ‘Radical potentiality and institutional closure’ (1985), which concentrates on two films and the BBC Shakespeare series; Thomas Cartelli and Katherine Rowe’s New Wave Shakespeare on Screen (2007) which covers docudrama, underground cinema and experimental film handling of Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Titus; and Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin’s Shakespeare on Screen: Television Shakespeare, Essays in honour of Michèle Willems (2009). Douglas Lanier’s Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture although generally wider-ranging still includes, among other fare, one chapter dedicated to a focus on ‘recasting the plays’, dealing with homage to, adaptation and parody of his the play-texts (Lanier 82-109).

Richard III

Scholarship of Shakespeare on TV focuses on adaptations of the plays rather than TV as a medium for exploring Shakespeare

[Image by; used under fair dealings provisions]

In arguing that the early days of television were those ‘where the small screen fit better with theatrical productions’, Laurie Osborne offers the starting point for a potential explanation of televised plays’ dominance. She argues that Shakespeare was televised in play form since it was inherently better fitted to technology (and more affordable) than, for instance, the mini-series. Could the historically greater percentage of televised plays explain their disproportionate representation in the literature on Shakespeare and television? It is doubtful, since other forms including documentaries (one of which, Shakespeare and Shoreditch was screened alongside a Scene from Shakespeare to inaugurate BBC television broadcasting in 1936) have also been there since the beginning. More likely, it represents a slow-changing consensus on what counts as Shakespeare on television informed by an old-fashioned criterion of equivalence to pre-existing media such as full-scale theatrical productions or radio plays. Graham Holderness confirms the dominance of criticism of film and televised Shakespeare in the discipline, but notes that there has been an expansion of what texts count as such: ‘There are many more Shakespeare films and many more books on them. Critics, he argues, now routinely acknowledge and address films which would once not have been recognized as ‘filmed Shakespeare at all’ (Holderness, 2002: xiiii). Yet the contents of his own collection of essays Visual Shakespeares is concentrated on productions rather than adaptations.

Thirdly, where Shakespeare on television is studied outside of the plays in adaptation, it has been dominated by documentaries on his life, the history of the period, archaeology (e.g. BBC1’s National Treasures Live: Dig Shakespeare Stratford), theatre practice, and ‘comic inversions’ of the playwright’s work in, for instance, Blackadder or Morecambe and Wise (Longhurst, 1988: 67). A significant genre which has attracted a sizeable amount of critical discussion consists of programmes focusing on back-stage events, rehearsal technique and the process of putting on a production. This may involve working with professional actors, see the 1979 series Playing Shakespeare – Cary M. Mazer’s article “Sense/Memory/Sense-memory: Reading Narratives of Shakespearian Rehearsals” offers a recent example of academic discussion of such television – or with community groups (particularly groups deemed ‘hard to engage’) as in Michael Bogdanov’s Shakespeare on the estate (BBC2 1994), Patterson Joseph’s My Shakespeare (C4 2004) and When Romeo met Juliet (BBC2 2010). The Canadian mini-series Slings & Arrows offers a faux behind-the-scenes take on the vicissitudes of a fictional Shakespeare festival. It has inspired articles such as Osborne’s ‘Serial Shakespeare’ and various postgraduate student projects (so there may be yet more publications to come). However, in the sense that each of the three series (or seasons) deals with the company working on a different play-text, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, it is as plays-focussed as the real documentaries on staging Shakespeare. In none of these programs is Shakespeare ‘incidental’, rather than deliberate and central.

Harder to find are publications which analyse examples of television where Shakespeare is appropriated incidentally i.e. where he is not the driving force behind the plot, or the main character – studies of Shakespeare in quotation proving, perhaps, an exception, particularly those concentrated on older, literary texts (Rumbold, n. pag.). Such work is being proliferated: Lanier’s book is a treasure trove of historic and contemporary examples of Shakespeare in popular culture. Far wider in scope than previous work, it takes in phenomena from Shakespeare-derived self-help books to content generated by the public such as play-based fan fiction. It also uses these specific examples to address much greater issues of the relationship between institutional reverence for Shakespeare and popular appropriations’ freedom to re-fashion his life and texts into ‘something that speaks to their own sense of lived experience’ (52); the conservative nature of much popular appropriation (53); and the question of whether Shakespeare’s language is essential to Shakespeare (62). However, it cannot communicate a sense of the way television in the twenty-first century is casually saturated with Shakespeare. Nor does this body of work currently have the same physical presence of the monographs and collected essays given to Shakespeare on film, for example. Rather, such items tend to be dispersed around the library (physical or electronic) in individual chapters and journal articles. A case in point is Mariangela Tempera’s chapter ‘“Only about Kings”: Reference to the Second Tetralogy on Film and Television’. Concentrating on the function of quotation from these history plays, she highlights patterns in which of the plays/scenes are remembered and used, and which are forgotten, elided, and neglected (234). Piling up examples from the 1930s onwards, with analysis of Shakespeare’s significance within each piece’s context, she concludes with the observation that what unites each instance is the program-makers’ need for references to be understood, the insistence that they speak universally about human nature. Small and fragmented though it may currently be, this quietly expanding body of work belies arguments by researchers such as Olwen Terris (2008, 212) that there is little appetite for televised Shakespeare or Longhurst’s older argument that ‘it is quite clear that there is a wider gap than ever between the institutions and producers of Shakespeare and anything that could be described as a popular audience’ (1988, 61). These statements fail to take into account that the bard features as a person, a myth, a quotation, in myriad, often hugely popular, programs: drama, documentary, mocumentary, quiz shows and satire. His presence on the small screen may not steal the show, but as a figure or a fistful of phrases he is part of the texture of daily life in Britain and beyond: a reality which writing on Shakespeare in television seems set (slowly but increasingly) to reflect.

CITATION: Sarah Olive, “Shakespeare on Television, this Millennium,” Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 5 (2013): n. pag. Web. 9 October 2013,

Dr Sarah Olive is Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York, where she is Programme Leader for the B.A. English in Education. She is editor of Teaching Shakespeare and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association.

Works cited:

Aebischer, Pascale. Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Bulman, James and Herb Coursen. Shakespeare on Television (Hanover: London: University Press of New England, 1988).

Burnett, Mark Thornton. Filming Shakespeare in the Global Marketplace (Hamps.: Palgrave, 2007).

Burnett, Mark Thornton and Adrian Streete, eds. Filming and Performing Renaissance History (London: Palgrave, 2011).

Burnett, Mark Thornton and Ramona Wray (eds). Screening Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. xii-xiv.

Burt, Richard (ed). Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture, Vol. 2 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007).

Burt, Richard. “Shakespeare, “Glo-cali-zation, Race,”. Shakespeare, the Movie II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, Video and DVD. Ed. Richard Burt and Lynda E. Boose (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 14-36.

Burt, Richard. “Shakespeare in Love and the End of Shakespeare”. Shakespeare, Film, Fin de siècle. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (London: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 203-231.

Cartelli, Thomas and Katherine Rowe. New Wave Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).

Castaldo, Annalisa. “Fictions of Shakespeare and Literary Culture”. Shakespeares after Shakespeare:  An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. Vol. 2. Ed. Richard Burt (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007), pp. 408-412.

Davies, Anthony and Stanley Wells (eds). Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Desmet, Christy and Robert Sawyer. Shakespeare and appropriation (London: Routledge, 1999).

Greenhalgh, Susan. “‘True to You in My Fashion’: Shakespeare on British Broadcast Television”. Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. Vol. 2. Ed. Richard Burt (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007), pp. 651-673.

Greenhalgh, Susan and Robert Shaughnessy. ‘Our Shakespeares: British Television and Strains of Multiculturalism’. Screening Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006), pp. 90-112.

Hansen, Adam. Shakespeare and popular music (London: Continuum, 2010).

Hatchuel, Sarah and Natalie Vienne-Guerrin. Shakespeare on screen: Television Shakespeare: Essays in honour of Michèle Willems (PURH: Cedex, 2008).

Henderson, Diana E. A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).

Holderness, Graham. Visual Shakespeare: Essays in Film and Television (Hatfield, Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002).

Holderness, Graham. ‘Boxing the Bard’. The Shakespeare Myth. Ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Holderness, Graham. ‘Radical Potentiality and Institutional Closure’ in Political Shakespeare (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 182-201.

Lanier, Douglas. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Longhurst, Derek. “’Base football players’: Shakespeare in contemporary popular culture’. The Shakespeare Myth. Ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 59-73.

Mazer, Cary M. ‘Sense/Memory/Sense-memory: Reading Narratives of Shakespearian Rehearsals’. Shakespeare Survey 62 (2009): 328-348.

My Shakespeare. C4. 2004.

National Treasures Live: Dig Shakespeare Stratford. BBC 1. 24 August 2011.

Olive, Sarah. (2013), ‘Representations of Shakespeare’s humanity and iconicity: ‘incidental appropriations’ in four British television broadcasts’. Borrowers & Lenders, 8.1.

Osborne, Laurie. ‘Serial Shakespeare: Intermediate Performance and the Outrageous Fortunes of Slings & Arrows’. Borrowers and Lenders.

Pearson, Roberta E. and William Urrichio. ‘Brushing up Shakespeare: relevance and televisual form in Great Britons and In Search of Shakespeare’. A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen. Ed. Diana E. Henderson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 197-215.

Playing Shakespeare. C4. 9 December 1979 -.c.1984

Rothwell, Kenneth. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Rumbold, Kate. ‘”So Common-Hackneyed in the Eyes of Men”: Banal Shakespeare and the Eighteenth-Century Novel’. Literature Compass 4 (2007): 610–621

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006).

Shakespeare on the Estate. BBC2. 1994.

Slings and Arrows. Movie Network. 3 November  2003 – 28 August  2006.

Tempera, Mariangela. ‘“Only about Kings’: Reference to the Second Tetralogy on Film and Television”. Shakespeare on Screen: The Henriad. Ed. Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Cedex: PURH, 2008).

Terris, Olwen. “Shakespeare and British Television”. Shakespeare Survey 61 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 199-212.

Terris, Olwen. “Shakespeare and Television Advertising”. Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio: The Researcher’s Guide. Ed. Olwen Terris, Eve Oesterlen and Luke McKernan (London: British Universities Film and Video Council, 2009), pp. 40-50.

When Romeo Met Juliet. BBC2. 2010.

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