Sunday, May 25, 2014

My Introduction to Shakespeare

Shakespeare is in the air for Armitage fans this month since the release of the wonderful audiobook Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson and narrated by our versatile and amazingly talented Richard Armitage.

So as I slowly savor this wonderful audiobook and Richard's one man audio theater company,  I've been thinking of my own introduction to Shakespeare.

I first became aware of Shakespeare's work through the films of Laurence Olivier, one of my mother's favorite actors.  Now my mother's native language was not English but Spanish and as a very young woman she first saw Olivier's films, including his Shakespeare films, in our native country. When we came to live in the United States many, many, years later, she would always say to people who were speaking to her too fast in English for her to fully understand  "speak to me as a Shakespearean actor" because that way of speaking English she could fully understand.  (Of course, since we lived in the U.S., this was often seen as a very strange request! But that's another story, LOL.)

By the time I came around, and was old enough to watch and somewhat understand these films, they were on television. Now in those  TV days  of the 60's and 70's we didn't have cable, or even the technology to record and watch VHS tapes, we had to wait for these movies to be schedule for viewing on one of the three or four channels we had (sometimes less).  Luckily for my childhood classic films were very popular on afternoon television for many years. 

Whenever any Olivier films were on, my mother would watch religiously, and I along with her of course. I think I probably saw these films as a baby, and somehow through my childhood slowly absorbed them until I was old enough to view them on my own and understand and appreciate them fully. 

Later I read some of the plays at school, Hamlet of course among them. I have the collected plays in two or three volumes at home, but I confess not having read all of them, and not having looked at them for years.  Throughout my life I have been lucky to see many Shakespeare plays, dramas and comedies, on stage, including our wonderful Shakespeare Theater  here in DC.  

But whenever I think of Shakespeare and his plays I always first think of Olivier's films.  To this day they remain favorite film versions of Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard III.  

Laurence Olivier directed and acted in all three, filmed in the 40's and 50's. After several successful films in Hollywood, Olivier was approached by investors to bring Shakespeare to film audiences and the result were these three movies, filmed in three different styles. 

Henry V is interesting to me in the way Olivier approaches the play for film, because he goes back and forth between the play being performed on a theater stage, and the "real" action taking place in the palaces and battlefields in England and France.  It was also filmed at the end of World War II with England still at war.  My favorite of the films is Hamlet, filmed in black and white, in a "Scandinavian modern" style, and who can ever forget Olivier as Richard III. 

Below are my favorite moments and soliloquies from the films.

Henry V (1944)

Hamlet (1948)

Richard III (1955)

You can probably find all three films online or on YouTube. 


  1. Interesting -- I think your mother was right, insofar as I've never had any problem understanding Shakespeare on film or tv, but when I sit down to read, it's a struggle. Actually, we still share 85% of our English vocab today with Shakespeare's age but blank verse ... it's meant to be heard, I think.

    My introduction was Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, which I read in 5th or 6th grade. Then in 9th grade English we started reading / watching the plays, usu 2-3 or three a year each year of HS. I particularly remember Zeffirelli's Rome and Juliet, and a production of Hamlet from a 3-person traveling segment of the Royal Shakespeare Company that washed up in our town my senior year of high school.

    1. Also as a non-native speaker she didn't always know current slang for example. or certain acronyms, or understand when words were often slurred in conversation. Often people tend to speak louder to be understood, when that's not often the problem :) Interesting about English words in Shakespeare's day still being so current.

      Thanks for sharing your Shakespeare memories. Still such a part of all our school memories, even for different generations. Wander if it's still the same these days.

      I saw Zeffirelli's film on a class field trip. We left school to go to a local movie theater in the middle of the day to see it :) Good memories for both of us.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...