Film Adaptation of Shakespearean Comedy: Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothin

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6. "Film versions of Shakespeare comedies can lie anywhere on a spectrum between an exploration of serious issues and simple comedy of a farcical or uncomplicated nature." Discuss with reference to two films.

Shakespearean plays are complex, intricate pieces of work in which a diverse range of interpretations and readings can be made. This is particularly true of his comedies, where the light-hearted humour is often offset by darker, more serious undertones. In adapting these comedies it is for the director – in the cinematic context – to decide how to interpret the play and which elements are privileged and which are suppressed. This variance in interpretation is exemplified in comparing two of the more recent cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's comedies, Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh's A Much Ado About Nothing [‘Much Ado']. Although both films can to an extent be seen as comedies with serious, almost tragic aspects inherent throughout, Nunn's film deals with these serious facets as central to the depiction, whereas Branagh, although not entirely ignoring the deeper issues, prefers a more light-hearted and visually attractive adaptation.

Twelfth Night has been described as ‘like Hamlet in a comic vein' . In terms of Shakespearean chronology, the bittersweet edge to the play and the fact that it is essentially a comedy with the dark, sometimes disturbing elements, has been linked with the playwright's movement toward the genre of tragedy. The range of filmic adaptations of the play illustrates the variation in the interpretation of Shakespeare's work, with the dark edge often failing to make the transition to screen. However this is not the case with Nunn's Twelfth Night, which achieves this exploration of the serious essentially through his interpretation of some of the play's principal characters including Malvolio, Feste and Maria. Malvolio's character is significant to Nunn's adaptation in many respects with it initially appearing that Malvolio brings an air of respectability and chastity to the film. However his essential flaws and his inability to recognise the reality of people's feelings, including Olivia's, remove him from the position of moral overseer to a simple player in the game of love. Malvolio's error is related to his self-perceptions and his consideration of his own self-importance, rather than his caring and compassion for his mistress Olivia. Malvolio's function in this film is to serve as a comedic contrast to the merry-makers, as well as a vital reminder to Feste that life is serious, and not all fun and games. Malvolio expresses the dark side of comedy and love. He emphasizes demureness, yet, when he thinks he has the chance to move forward with Olivia, he abandons all that he stands for and acts like an absolute fool . This action is the first imperative step that leads to the undoing of several characters, primarily Malvolio. It is essentially Malvolio's ultimate narcissism that allows the other characters to easily plot his demise . Nunn's adaptation of Feste is not dissimilar to Malvolio with his interpretation of the ‘professional clown' proving persuasive because the fool presents wise insights into the complicated web of love that many principal characters become entwined with. His ability to suggest that love is a game, that lovers often love to love, and that love can be almost blind, are important themes to the attraction and comedy of the film. However Nunn utilises Feste above the scope of the comedic, with his poignant insights reminding the audience that this film is in fact dealing with serious issues and at times, the deeper, disturbing, side of love. In Ben Kingsley's moving performance, Feste becomes an outsider as a man who lives alone away from Olivia's house yet somehow witnesses all that occurs amongst the characters and provides some telling insights. This is illustrated when he shows Olivia why "take away the fool" could mean take away the...
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