Session 1 (9 June, 9:00-11:00): Big Screen, Small Screen
CIESLAK, Magdalena (University of Lodz, Poland):
'Hero our Heroine – negotiating the image of a perfect bride in the BBC ShakespeaRe-Told and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing'
COSTANTINI-CORNEDE, Anne-Marie (University of Paris Descartes, France):
‘"Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey nonny, nonny": Much Ado About Nothing seen by Kenneth Branagh (1993) and Joss Whedon (2012), from Merry-Go-Round Comedy to Screen Swirling Worlds'
DOGAN ADANUR, Evrim (University of Atilim, Turkey):
'Appropriations of Comic and Tragic Elements in Much Ado About Nothing in Rourke’s and Whedon’s Productions'
DROUET, Pascale (University of Poitiers, France):
'Branagh’s Much Ado on Screen: From Rhetorical Jousting to Bodily Exultation'
Session 2 (9 June, 15:15-16:45): MAAN On Stage
ESCOLME, Bridget (Queen Mary University, London, UK):
'Much Ado about Brexit and Trump'
REUSS, Gabriella (Peter Pazmani Katholic University, Budapest, Hungary):
'Shades of Light and Darkness in Contemporary Productions of Much Ado About Nothing'
TYLER, Daniel (Birmingham Rep Theatre, UK):
'Causing "Merry War" in Spain (2012) and China (2016): A practice-led research project on contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare'
Session 3 (10 June, 9:00-10:30): MAAN and Politics, Gender, Race
PATERSON, Ronan (Teesside University, UK):
'Whistling in the Graveyard? Four films of Much Ado from the DDR and Soviet Union'
WILLIAMS, Gweno (University of York, UK):
‘"Warrior Beatrice": as transmuted by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in her published play Bell in Campo (1662)'
WILLIAMS, Travis (University of Rhode Island, USA):
'Race, Color, Genre: The Recent Screen History of Much Ado About Nothing'
Session 4 (10 June, 10:45-11:45): MAAN in Music and Art
LASKOWSKA-HINZ Sabina (University of Warsaw, Poland):
'Much Ado About a Spider: Much Ado About Nothing in Polish and International Theatre Posters in the 20th Century'
LUTTEMAN, Elisabeth (Uppsala University, Sweden):
‘"That song again": Sigh no more, ladies on page, stage, and screen'
Speakers, in Alphabetical Order: Abstracts and Brief Biographies
Magdalena Cieślak: "Hero our Heroine – negotiating the image of a perfect bride in the BBC ShakespeaRe-Told and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing"
Much Ado About Nothing, typically for Shakespeare's romantic comedies, is an excellent material for exploration of gender politics as it focuses on the father-daughter relationship and on the transactional value of a woman in the context of marriage. The very title of the play strongly stresses the contractual importance of a woman's virginity, and the plot's climactic moment of the disrupted ritual of marriage foregrounds the proprietary implications of the ceremony. The character of Hero, especially in comparison to Beatrice, embodies the desired perfection of a bride, an ideal whose contamination has disastrous consequences. The supposedly dishonoured Hero is publicly shamed by her husband-to-be and condemned by her own father in an act of masculine hysteria at the possible lack of female purity at the threshold of marriage.
I wish to look at the strategies of presenting Hero in relation to her father and the prospective husband in two recent adaptations of the play – the 2005 BBC ShakespeaRe-Told version directed by Brian Percival and Joss Whedon's 2012 film. Analysing the ways in which the two films approach the play's concern with the transactional role of a woman in negotiations between men I wish to discuss how the narrative of the value of a female body is contemporarily interpreted. I wish to argue that adapting gender problematic, patriarchal, and even sexist elements of Shakespeare's play both productions in different ways diagnose our own attitudes to patriarchal oppression and objectivisation of women.
Magdalena Cieślak is an assistant professor in the Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź. She specializes in Renaissance drama and the relationships between literature and contemporary popular media in the context of cultural studies. She works now in the areas of cultural materialism, feminism, gender studies, and queer theory, and researches the ways in which cinema addresses politically and culturally subversive elements of Shakespeare's plays.
Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède: “Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey nonny, nonny”, Much Ado About Nothing seen by Kenneth Branagh (1993) and Joss Whedon (2012), from Merry-Go-Round Comedy to Screen Swirling Worlds
Love, wit and generally the mood of the merry feature the joyful worlds of the romantic comedy, a genre which appears at its most in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In his 1993 screen version, Kenneth Branagh proposed an insightful parallel with the typical Hollywood screwball comedy of the thirties enacting forever quarrelling, but deep down loving couples, a most inspired illustration of the merry war of the sexes or the playful skirmishes between such equal wits as conspicuous ‘Signor Montanto’ and ‘Lady Disdain’. Joss Whedon, in 2012, also offers a convincing black and white adaptation mostly shot in his own California house. With this (literally) brilliant version drawing on highly stylized, photographic aesthetics also displaying some inventiveness, whether it be modern-day setting, the gender switch for the Conrade character and the love relationship with Don John operating as a sombre parallel to the Benedick/Beatrice sub-plot or the two love-enemies’ past relationship fully displayed, the artist means to expand on a “very cynically romantic text about love”. If film style, cinematography (light, framing devices, camera movements), sound, editing or mise-en-scène (framing compositions and playacting) here appear particularly prone to enhance hide-and-play games and slapstick tricks, the second version responding to the first one in a series of meta-artistic and inter-textual winks, cinema techniques also powerfully highlight the most poetic or nostalgic hues as well as the swirling, joyful worlds of romantic comedy. But neither version misses the target of tragicomic ambiguity or the necessary oscillation between gaiety and sadness. The darker vein always seems ready to surge from beneath the joyful surface. The merry war is never entirely so but often verges on the tragic, as with the sudden irruption of malevolence, doubt and jealousy. Cinematic movement and aesthetics here offer more than a mere direct visual illustration of the themes of the play, shady movement-image interpretive variations in turn generating further swirling meanings and readings.
Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède is a senior lecturer at Paris Descartes University (Paris V). She is a member of PRISMES research centre (EA 4398 Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle). She has written a Ph.D. on the aesthetics of representation in Shakespeare screen adaptations and is the author of several articles and book chapters on classic adaptations and modernisations (Olivier, Welles, Branagh, Loncraine, Luhrmann, Brozel…), analyses of trans-aesthetic links between cinema and painting (Jarman, Greenaway) and socio-cultural issues in historical or transnational adaptations (Axel, Hytner, Eyre, Radford, Abela, Kurosawa, Kaurismäki). She has published in international reviews and books like Shakespeare en devenir, Revue Lisa, Ligeia, P.U. Sorbonne, P.U. Rennes, P.U. Rouen et Le Havre, Michel Houdiard, L’Harmattan and The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts.
Evrim Doğan Adanur: Appropriations of Comic and Tragic Elements in Much Ado About Nothing in Rourke’s and Whedon’s Productions
Much Ado About Nothing, in its display of the “merry war” between the sexes, alters in tone shifting between comedy, tragedy, and romance. An early example of the comedy of manners, the play brings together two sets of lovers whose stories are set in an aristocratic and elegant Messina in which all action is regulated by masking, playing, and overhearing. When “war thoughts have left their places vacant” to be filled with “soft and delicate desires,” the residuary hostility introduces tragic potential in the play. The conventionally romantic relationship between Hero and Claudio, which constitutes the main plot of the play, is unnerving and unsatisfactory to the modern audiences in its slandered and submissive female character’s uniting with her easily misled fiancé without much ado, without a proper denouement. The underplot, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, marked by wit, satire, and comic reverberations, is more relevant to modern audiences in its “unconventional” approach to love and marriage.
Two relatively recent productions in modern setting, Josie Rourke’s theatre production filmed live at Wyndam Theatre (2011) and Joss Whedon’s 2012 film production offer different readings to the potential controversy in the play. Rourke, while setting the play in 1980s in Gibraltar, underlines the comic, festive sides of the play. Whedon’s production on the other hand, dwells on the darker aspect of the play underlining its tragic potential. Both productions manifestly bring the Beatrice and Benedick story to the front and use different strategies to update the meanings in the play.
This paper evaluates the ways in which these productions appropriate the comic and tragic elements in Much Ado About Nothing in their adapting character, setting, and gender warfare.
Evrim Doğan Adanur’s current research examines a range of different approaches to Shakespeare and early modern drama. She has published and presented papers on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Bond, Cisneros, Fornes, and detective fiction and is the editor of IDEA: Studies in English (2011), and English Literature Special Issue of Atılım University Social Sciences Journal (2016). She is currently working on her book on Shakespearean tragedy and editing a book on George Orwell. She is a graduate of Hacettepe University (Department of English Language and Literature, BA) and American University, Washington, DC (Department of Literature, MA). She received her PhD degree from Ankara University with her dissertation on Renaissance drama. She has been teaching English Studies at Atılım University for fifteen years where she also worked as the former head of the department.
Pascale Drouet: 'Branagh’s Much Ado on Screen: From Rhetorical Jousting to Bodily Exultation'
This paper will examine how Kenneth Branagh, in his 1993 screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, extrapolates the Shakespearean comedy about inconstancies and substitutions with a visual emphasis on body display and body language in a lush countryside. Suggestive close-ups and slow motion explore sensuality in both its bright and dark aspects, and invite us to take into account the baroque water motif with its manifold symbolic meanings. In the end, not only is rhetorical jousting—whose words stab—outshone by both male and female bodily liberation and exultation, but also by exhilarating palimpsest effects with paintings (The Happy Accidents of the Swing), light operas (Véronique) and musicals (Singing in the Rain).
Pascale Drouet is Professor of English Literature at the University of Poitiers (France). Her publications include Le vagabond dans l’Angleterre de Shakespeare (2003), Mise au ban et abus de pouvoir. Essai sur trois pièces tragiques de Shakespeare (2012), De la filouterie dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance (2013) and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2014). She is the general editor of the online journal Shakespeare en devenir and the textual editor of Henry VIII for The Norton Shakespeare (Third Series, 2015). She also translates twentieth and twenty-first century drama for the French stage.
Bridget Escolme: Much Ado about Brexit and Trump
This paper examines late twentieth and twenty-first century productions of Much Ado About Nothing and considers the cultural and political drives underpinning the production of Shakespeare’s comedies in the UK today. With a particular focus on notions of nostalgia and critique, I want to interrogate the purpose of performing four-hundred-year-old comedies now, at a time when the UK’s large-scale Shakespeare producing companies continue to be optimistic about the role of Shakespeare in culture and education but when British culture – at least as it appears in the mainstream media – appears never more culturally divided. What kind of comedy do we need at this time?
For the first half of the paper, I play devil’s advocate on behalf of a political critique of the Shakespeare industry that would incline to name the majority of recent productions of Much Ado ‘nostalgic’, in the negative sense of that word where it means escapist, unchallenging, indulging in dreams of an idealized past. Of particular significance here is Susan Bennett’s Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past, published in 1996, which opens thus:
That global industry of remarkable industry and profit – Shakespeare – provides perhaps the very best symptom of a present-day epidemic, the past. (Bennett 1)
I explore Much Ado About Nothing in the light of a late twentieth century epidemic of past-ness that emerges in the TV costume drama and which I read as infecting and inflecting productions of this play as late as 2014.
Rather more optimistically, this paper also suggests that there have also been recent productions of Much Ado whose attendance to gender challenged contemporary audiences whilst still allowing the play its comic force. I argue that celebration does not necessarily obliterate critique; I make claims for Much Ado About Nothing and the possible ways it might both create comic communities and engage contemporary audiences beyond the nostalgic.
Sabina Laskowska-Hinz: Much Ado About a Spider: Much Ado About Nothing in Polish and International Theatre Posters in the 20th Century
Much Ado About Nothing seems to be an amalgam of various motifs typical for the Renaissance, such as: masques, slandered chastity, father’s anger, mock deaths, untamed female nature or poisonous slander. The combination of the elements in question, also present in other Shakespeare plays, together with the authorial additions, provides the audience with the unique comedy of a double plot: light-headed and dark. The intriguing palette of masks and decorous accessories; broken hearts and mischievous Cupids; red ears and green snakes; and different versions of oppositions becomes an established set of motifs, the stage pictures as James Black called them, applied by artists responsible for theatre posters. In a vast majority of cases artists intend to awaken their appetite and help them to imagine what they may experience during the performance. However, there are other posters, not so evident in their message. Such a work was produced in 2008 by Lex Drewinski for Wybrzeze Theatre in Gdansk. A minimalistic poster with a black spider located in the bottom left corner and a bloody-red background immediately captures viewers’ imagination and forces them to think of its inner purpose. The spider is a fertile source of symbolic meanings associated with both, positive and negative phenomena. Among the former we can enlist creativity, protectiveness or well-being; among the latter trickery, entanglement or illusion. One can analyse it also from two other angles, in the context of the renaissance iconographical and written traditions or modern culture in all possible manners: a spider-man, Voldemort’s supporter or a source of irrational fear. Such a poster remains open to an immense variety of interpretations the number of which is restrained only by the knowledge and fantasy of its viewers.
The paper will focus on the intermedial connection between the text of Shakespeare’s comedy and Lex Drewinski’s poster. To work on both, text and image, the comparative method applied by art historians to identify the origins of ideas will be used. The main aim of the paper is to discuss the impact of separated quasi-commercial images such as Lex Dewinski’s work on our perception of Shakespeare’s lines.
Sabina Laskowska-Hinz is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw. She submitted her MA thesis (“The Critical Reception of William Shakespeare's Plays in the British and Polish Fine Art of the 19th and 20th Century”) in 2014 at Gdańsk University. She is a member of the British Shakespeare Association and the Polish Shakespeare Society, and participated in several Polish and international conferences on Shakespeare Studies. Her main fields of interest include the relationships between text and image, Shakespeare theatre posters and artists as literary critics.
Elisabeth Lutteman: “That song again”: ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ on page, stage, and screen
Focusing on Scene 3, Act 2, of Much Ado About Nothing and its configurations in stage and screen productions from the 1990s onwards, this paper discusses the dramatic role of vocal music in the play. The first part explores the song itself, its place in the scene, the dialogue surrounding it, and its potential thematic affinities with the play as a whole. Building on arguments of ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ as a song intrinsic to the dramatic action, and exploring its participation in the playlet staged in the scene, I will propose that songs can be heard to function as tricks or fictions within the play. With these thoughts in mind, the second part of the paper goes on to engage with selected productions and adaptations. Listening for ways in which the dramatic role and potential of the song is interpreted and employed, and for the musical presence of ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ on stage and screen, I further consider the song’s place in the scene, and ways in which it may be heard to connect to central themes in the play.
Elisabeth Lutteman: A doctoral student in the Department of English at Uppsala University since February 2015, my main research interests are in early modern literature, particularly drama, and in literature and music, voice, and sound. I am currently working on my thesis, concerned with the dramatic role and function of vocal music on the early modern English stage. Previous qualifications include a BA with a major in music education, courses in museum education and learning, and BA and MA degrees in English. Professional experience includes work as a choir leader and singing teacher, as a museum guide, and as assistant producer for the Stockholm Early Music Festival. In 2016, I presented at the British Graduate Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, and participated in a seminar group on Shakespeare and music at the World Shakespeare Congress in London.
Ronan Paterson: 'Whistling in the Graveyard? Four films of Much Ado from the DDR and Soviet Union’
In the former Soviet Union the plays of Shakespeare were more popular than anywhere else in the world. Theatres all over that vast country produced frequent performances of the comedies and the tragedies. But in the cinema, although a number of Shakespeare films were made by Soviet film makers, with a very few exceptions the plays chosen were the comedies. This is completely at odds with the filming of Shakespeare elsewhere in the world, where the vast majority of the films are made based upon the tragedies. In particular, one play was filmed more frequently than all of the others. Much Ado About Nothing was filmed three times in twenty-three years in Russia, and when a fourth film, made in East Germany is added, Much Ado About Nothing on its own represents a significant proportion of the Shakespeare output of the former Soviet Bloc. Why was MAAN so popular? Why not Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It? This paper examines the 1956 and 1973 films of Mnogo Shuma Iz Nichego, the 1964 film Viel Larm Um Nichts and the 1983 version Lyubovyu Za Lyubov, and tries to explain why this one play above all others should exert such a fascination for Soviet Bloc film makers.
Ronan Paterson has been an actor, director and producer, mounting or appearing in productions of Shakespeare’s plays all over the UK and in nine different European countries. Eventually he moved into the teaching of actors, directors and film makers. He has taught in Universities and conservatoires all over the UK, and is currently Principal Lecturer in Performing Arts at Teesside University. A frequent speaker at conferences around the world he also organised the William Shakespeare: The NEXT 400 Years conference at Elsinore in April 2016. He has published widely on Shakespeare in Film, Shakespeare in Performance and most recently Shakespeare in Comics. He is currently writing a book about Shakespeare on the Soviet Screen.
Gabriella Reuss: 'Shades of Light and Darkness in Contemporary Productions of Much Ado About Nothing'
‘This happy play, chiming to the echo of Balthazar's song, converts all sounds of woe—its editors' included— Into Hey nonny, nonny’ – thus opens the recently re-published critical text edition in the Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare series (2009:vii). Kenneth Branagh’s prolific 1993 film version is perfectly in line with John Dover Wilson’s 1923 Introduction, and Branagh’s movie has effectively set the tone (and the tan) for many later productions during the two decades which Douglas Lanier dubbed a two-decade long ‘Branagh style’ (Lanier, ‘Good lord, for alliance’, 2014:118). When Joss Whedon’s film noir version appeared in 2012, the literally home-made, low budget film created on the basis of casual garden staged readings was immediately evaluated and measured against Branagh’s trend setting earlier movie.
This paper intends to explore the ways the globally available cinematic productions as Branagh’s or Whedon’s may influence local – e.g. Hungarian – stage productions of Shakespeare in terms of both acting and spectating. For instance, last year’s quite successful production at Central Theatre, Budapest (dir. Tamás Puskás), seems to solidify in the spectator the image of Much Ado which once Branagh’s landscape and the Branagh characters’ happy Tuscan tan evoked. Apparently, as Joss Whedon’s Much Ado was never played in Hungarian cinemas, Branagh’s rendering and its hallmark features (e.g. the ‘utopian quality communal amity’ in the closing sequence) remained the cornerstone of Hungarian understanding and interpreting of Shakespeare’s Much Ado. Yet, could the emphatic presence of the Branagh-tradition account for the proportions and shades of light and darkness in Tamás Puskás’s Central Theatre production? A closer analysis of the performance, with particular attention to acting and viewing traditions will reveal the extent the production experiments with the text independently of the Branaghesque performing tradition.
Gabriella Reuss is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary. Her research interest lies in the stage history and reception of Shakespeare, as seen particularly in performance archives including promptbooks, and in contemporary plays. Besides theatre reviews and performance criticisms, the majority of her publications concern the promptbook of the earliest restoration (1834) of the tragically ending King Lear. She devoted her doctoral dissertation (2004) to his manuscript. Her first volume, entitled ‘Az előadás emlékezete. Shakespeare Londonban és Pest-Budán’ [Remembering performances. Shakespeare in London and Pest-Buda], due to be published with L’Harmattan in 2017, is about W. C. Macready’s and Gábor Egressy’s interpretation of Lear as seen in their unique prompt copies (1834-38) and the way their paradigm-changing performances shaped the Shakespeare cult as well as theatrical and cultural memory.
She lives in the close vicinity of Budapest, Hungary with her husband and their three daughters.
Daniel Tyler: 'Causing "Merry War" in Spain (2012) and China (2016): A practice-led research project on contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare'
In 2012 Birmingham-based company Hôtel Teatro (under the direction of Daniel Tyler) created an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing for Almagro International Festival of Classical Theatre’s contemporary, emerging director programme AlmagroOFF. After previews in the UK the show was then premiered at the prestigious festival in the small Spanish town where it was praised by the Festival’s directorate for its ‘freshness and fearless innovation’.
During the creation of Merry War the director was successfully interviewed for a PhD scholarship based on contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare. The subsequent practice-led research project staged three productions: Tempestory in 2013 (Almagro Festival of Classical Theatre, Bristol Shakespeare Festival, Madrid Fringe Festival), Amid Some Nights (A Dream) in 2014 (Birmingham Repertory Theatre) and Hamlets in 2015 (Library of Birmingham) which Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, described as ‘a fabulous and rich night...simultaneously eerie and witty.’
Towards the end of the doctoral research project a revival of Merry War was commissioned by the Shanghai International Festival of Experimental Theatre and as a co-production between Hôtel Teatro and Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s 18-25 Company in September 2016.
Merry War not only bookended the research project but was also significant in the creation and exploration of the notion of Shakespeare’s ‘unscenes’ which is presented in Daniel Tyler’s forthcoming PhD.
In this paper/presentation, director Daniel Tyler will discuss the genesis and adaptive processes involved in creating Merry War and the various, and distinctive, responses to the two productions. A discussion of his notion of ‘unscenes’, clips from both versions and production shots will be included.
In 2012 the cast was made up of early career actors and the 2016 cast was made up of three professional actors and three members of the Young REP 18-25 Company. Therefore, conclusions would draw interesting comparisons with other elements of the symposium including the student performance and the Shakespeare in education workshop.
Daniel Tyler is a theatre-maker, most often as director, and Head of Education at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He has over 16 years' experience of professional, applied and student-based theatre production and performance. He is about to submit his PhD which is titled: ‘Contemporary Shakespeares: Adapting, Theatremaking and Ghosting’. His lead supervisor has been Professor Michael Mangan. He has specialised in work with young people and students for many years and this has led to work with and by young people at both the National Theatres of Spain and Korea as well as many diverse settings in the UK. Daniel is a member of Theatre for Young Audiences UK and has attended ASSITEJ World Congresses and Global Gatherings in Warsaw, Berlin and Birmingham. At the latter Daniel directed the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and ran the Learning Programme. Daniel has just received Arts Council of England funding to create Between the Two – a play based on his Anglo-Indian heritage and family archives which will tour the UK in 2017.
Gweno Williams: ‘Warrior Beatrice’: as transmuted by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in her published play Bell in Campo (1662)
This paper offers a new perspective on Beatrice as a successful female military strategist and General, as reimagined by Shakespeare’s great admirer, Margaret Cavendish (1623-73).
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle was the first woman to publish criticism of Shakespeare, in her 1664 prose collection Sociable Letters, where she specifically refers to Beatrice. Cavendish’s various writings in different genres suggest that she read Shakespeare extensively, with her husband William Cavendish Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676). William Cavendish was the Royalist general blamed for defeat at the crucial battle of Marston Moor (1644), who subsequently lived in European exile with his estates sequestered and a price on his head, should he return to England.
Cavendish’s first volume of published plays Playes (1662) includes Bell in Campo, her partly comic retrospective rewriting of the English Civil War, where women become militant and raise an all-female army of ‘Heroickesses’ who triumph on both military and domestic fronts. In this paper I argue that Cavendish’s Lady Victoria is Shakespeare’s Beatrice transformed into a victorious ‘Generalless’. Through Lady Victoria, Cavendish explores women’s choices and actions beyond the points at which Shakespeare reigns Beatrice in. Unlike Beatrice, the happily married Lady Victoria’s mouth is not ‘stopped’ at the end of the play; rather she wins from the King the right for women to ‘hereafter be Mistriss in their own Houses and Families’.
Electronic copies of Bell in Campo can be provided on request for paper attendees.
Gweno Williams is Professor of English at the Norwegian Study Centre, University of York, and Professor Emerita of York St John University, where she taught literature, particularly Shakespeare, for many years. She is a British National Teaching Fellow (2002). A major research interest is the published plays of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-she has won international awards for pioneering productions and has published a DVD Margaret Cavendish: Plays in Performance . She has also published widely on Early Modern Women’s writing and English Literature in the Norwegian curriculum.
Travis Williams: “Race, Color, Genre: The Recent Screen History of Much Ado About Nothing
My proposed title, “Race, Color, Genre: The Recent Screen History of Much Ado About Nothing,” draws attention to the prominent role of race, race-blind casting, and cinematic form in the two widely consumed films of the play, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film and Joss Whedon’s 2012 film. Branagh famously cast Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, the highest-ranking character in the play, but one also excluded from its denouement of happy marriages. This decision was widely discussed at the time as a watershed in race-blind casting, and had knock-on consequences for casting decisions in film and stage productions in the wider Shakespeare industry, and for the massive increase in popular adaptations of Shakespeare throughout the 90s and early twenty-first century. Conversely, the casting of Keanu Reeves, a mixed-race actor, as Don John, the play’s villain (also, obviously, excluded from the happy ending), went largely unremarked, probably because the period was not yet widely conversant with mixed-race identity as a signifying factor in mass entertainment (though there is much more subtle research to be done here). Nearly twenty years later, Whedon, setting his play in modern times (an unstated but obvious Southern California), whereas Branagh opted for a vague Renaissance Italy, also chose to shoot the film in black and white. This choice tends to efface racial difference, particularly a Latinx presence one might expect for California, and which was certainly available to him once we make ourselves aware of the self-defined identity of several of the cast members. In both films there are thematic and formal choices that simultaneously include and exclude people of color. I tie these phenomena together with the third part of my title, genre, since Much Ado, while clearly a romantic comedy, as film has also tended to draw on the traditions of screwball comedy and film noir. Both Branagh and Whedon appear to be “harking back” to an earlier era of film production, when racial difference was nonexistent or minor, to say the least. It is my intention to conclude with remarks about the purport of the occluded racial presences in these films, and how the hyper-traditional cultural capital of Shakespeare still delays a move out of monochromatic realms, even in our contemporary moment of global and multicultural awareness.
Travis D. Williams is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the University of Rhode Island. He specializes in Renaissance drama and rhetoric, and the history of mathematics. His current book project is Literature, Mathematics, and the Writing Arts in the Age of Shakespeare. He co-edited Shakespeare Up Close: Reading Early Modern Texts (Arden Shakespeare, 2012), which includes a co-written introduction and his own essay on Henry V. He has published on Hamlet, early modern mathematics, Renaissance arithmetic books, and other topics in Rhetorica, Configurations, The Library, Notes and Queries, and for MIT Press. He has been commissioned by Cambridge University Press to write an essay on the critical and performance history of Much Ado About Nothing since 1988 for an update of its edition of the play.