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While film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays captured the popular imagination at the turn of the last century, independent filmmakers began to adapt the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries. The roots of their films in European avant-garde cinema and the plays' politically subversive, sexually transgressive and violent subject matter challenge Shakespeare's cultural dominance and the conventions of mainstream cinema. In Screening Early Modern Drama, Pascale Aebischer shows how director Derek Jarman constructed an alternative, dissident approach to filming literary heritage in his 'queer' Caravaggio and Edward II, providing models for subsequent filmmakers such as Mike Figgis, Peter Greenaway, Alex Cox and Sarah Harding. Aebischer explains how the advent of digital video has led to an explosion in low-budget screen versions of early modern drama. The only comprehensive analysis of early modern drama on screen to date, this groundbreaking study also includes an extensive annotated filmography listing forty-eight surviving adaptations.
In 1974, an appendix in Janet Adelman’s The Common Liar for the first time considered, with an unprecedented seriousness and application, the skin colour of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Surveying the textual evidence, from Philo’s condemnation of Cleopatra’s ‘tawny front’ with which the play opens (1.1.6), through Cleopatra’s reminder to Antony to ‘Think on me, / That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black’ (1.5.27–8) to her assertion of white racial purity in her reference to her ‘bluest veins’ (2.5.29) and Antony’s description of Cleopatra’s ‘white hand’ (3.13.140), Adelman was unable to pin Cleopatra down to a specific racial category. ‘Perhaps all we can conclude’, she wrote, ‘is that Cleopatra’s tawniness contributes to the sense of her ancient and mysterious sexuality, whether or not she is thought of as African.’
Spurred on by the development of a strong school of postcolonial criticism and early modern race studies and by an increasingly strong popular reappropriation of the figure of Cleopatra as a black ‘sister’, more recent critics have been more readily inclined to ignore the evidence of Cleopatra’s whiteness and insist, as does Mary Floyd-Wilson, on the ‘conspicuous blackness’ of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Ania Loomba was one of the critics who led the way with her description of Shakespeare’s queen as ‘the non-European, the outsider, the white man’s ultimate “other”’ who
embodies all the overlapping stereotypes of femininity and non-Europeans common in the language of colonialism…The images that cluster around Cleopatra are specifically Orientalist in nature: her waywardness, emotionality, unreliability and exotic appeal are derived from the stereotypes that Said identifies as recurrent in that discourse.