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Approximately 300 Shakespeare films were made in the film industry’s silent era. They range from the filmed record of a theatre production to the film conceived as an autonomous work of cinema; the brief allusion to the full-blown drama; the narratively precise retelling of a play to a skittish borrowing from it; the historically placed production to the radical update. They emerged from production companies in Britain, the US, Italy, France, Germany and Denmark. Collectively, they are revealing both about the changing priorities of the film industry and of the broader history of Shakespeare on screen. This chapter considers the impulses that inspired them, what they achieved, how they were exhibited and received and the nature of their legacy. Moments selected for illustrative focus include the Herbert Beerbohm Tree King John (1899), The Tempest (1908), films of the Shakespeare Tercentenary (1916), Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet (1920), Emil Jannings’ Othello (1922), John Gielgud in the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene (1924) and the use of live lecturers. The chapter ends with the creative engagements silent Shakespeare films have recently prompted, including in the Kit Monkman Macbeth (2018).
Chapter One, “Shakespearean Sermons and other Pious Texts,” examines Shakespeare’s treatment in the Victorian pulpit, especially his place in what were then called “Shakespearean sermons.” This subgenre effectively begins at the celebratory religious services for Shakespeare’s tercentenary in 1864 and continues into the first decades of the twentieth century. Initially, Shakespearean sermons sought chiefly to evidence Shakespeare’s familiarity with scriptures. But progressively the genre developed strong claims that Shakespeare’s texts served as a “Lay Bible” that served better for sermons – and perhaps for souls – than the original Bible. By the fin de siècle, some preachers could prophetically boast that believers would soon celebrate Shakespeare’s inspiration across the Christian churches. Claims like this one derive from a well-developed Victorian hermeneutics that sees Shakespeare’s wisdom as both universal and given to sacred exegesis.