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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cinema: Shakespeare's Comedies in Film and Television


This project examines Shakespeare's comedy plays and the way they have been used as source material for twentieth and twenty-first century films. Three main questions guide the project: What was comedy in Shakespeare's time? How do modern and postmodern film adaptations of Shakespeare's comedies draw upon and transform early modern comic forms and conventions? What do these films--along with their marketing and reception--reveal about today's cultural values and identities such as gender, race, religion, and status? Genre theory and cultural studies form the theoretical foundation for the answers to these questions as each chapter examines one or more sets of films based on the comedies.

The BBC Shakespeare Television series views the plays as early modern artifacts and makes traditional, but not entirely successful, versions of them. The Taming of the Shrew has found its way onto film multiple times. Usually the farce is turned into a "battle-of-the-sexes" style romantic comedy as the filmmakers attempt to bring to Katherine some sort of subjectivity. The supernatural elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream take over on film as filmmakers show off their technology by creating fantasy pieces. The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, while comedies in early modern categorization, become more serious. In a post-Holocaust world, the character of Shylock becomes problematic and The Merchant of Venice becomes his tragedy. The Tempest, on the other hand, seems to be a treat for film directors as they concentrate on a solemn Prospero and the way he directs the action of the film. Finally, what was originally tragic can be fodder for comedy as adaptations and appropriations of Hamlet demonstrate. Whether it is a lion, a female brewery owner, or an action star, the audience recognizes the character and laughs at the incongruity of the comedy. All of these films negotiate how to present early modern concepts and characters in a way that will be palatable to a contemporary audience, and sometimes the ones that free themselves from the restrictions of their source best honor the spirit of the Bard.

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