Shakespearean Film Technologies and The Birth of Consumable Wonder

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Title

SAA 2019 Annual Meeting: "Shakespeare in Film History"


Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education

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Beyond his material value as appropriatee and cultural value as muse, Shakespeare’s words and author-consciousness are foundational components of our cultural consciousness. More deeply interwoven with narrative cinema than mere adaptation or appropriation, Shakespeare’s tendrils wend through the ways Western audiences hear and process dialogue, connect sound and image, navigate between images, and construct their expectations of dramatic scale. With a keen awareness of the epic auditor’s imagination, the poet fostered a convincing illusion: That two senses, perhaps those easiest to lose or take for granted, can stand for all five. From the printing press to the motion picture camera, each modern replication technology has rendered intimate sensory subjectivities visual while revealing those most private impressions as irrevocably public. Readily evidenced in the visual arts (and exemplified in Walter Benjamin’s invocation of the word kultisch in “The Work of Art...”), this dichotomy requires the spectator to construct a private, interpretive bubble within which to direct their observing eye. In the public, gallery-like spaces of theater and cinema—each defined by the technologies it eschews or contains—many first encounter Shakespeare. But theater allows willing eyes to wander its nontheatrical spaces and ears to dial in the significance of their choosing, while cinema locks eyes and ears in the forward position, antennae to receive meaning rather than subjectively process it. The earliest cinematic spectators, however, enjoyed the privilege of looking through the camera eye for themselves. Whether hypnotized by a spinning zoetrope or riveted to the eyepiece of an Edison-Dickson kinetoscope, they functioned as agents of their own perception, retaining a fundamental advantage of the theater. In technological circumstances more or less under their control, these makers of perceived motion became the authors of moving images, like a film editor cutting a sequence together or an actor reinterpreting a role. If that actor’s job is indeed, as Hamlet observes, “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” and the screen actor’s fate, as Walter Benjamin put it, is “the same kind of estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror,” the reflected image each actor strains to discern is Shakespeare, lurking at the edges of the mirror’s frame and reiterated in its bevels and planes.


Arts and Humanities | Film and Media Studies



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