Fr. Dwight Longenecker on "Sound, Fury and Significance" - or how the Catholic vision of Shakespeare often fails to make it to the big screen.
Shakespeare and the Movies - Sound, Fury and Significance
Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Would Shakespeare have loved the movies? Of course he would! He was an Elizabethan version of one of those screenwriters from the golden age of Hollywood--sleeves rolled up, hunched over his typewriter wearing an eyeshade, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a Scotch and soda by his side--on contract to the studios to bash out yet another script to be handed over to the movie moguls to produce a movie a week to satisfy the groundlings’ hunger for yet more drama, spectacle, love, lust, entertainment, sound and fury.
“Forsooth, good sir, what would you have me write today? Dost thou need a vehicle for your teen stars Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney? I have what thou needest. Here is Romeo and Juliet. And you sirrah, need you a film for an aging Bogart and three young starlets? I have a project in development--King Lear will bring in the crowds. Do you wish to send in the clowns? Consider Twelfth Night. Searchest for a tale of incest, murder, madness and intrigue? Here is Hamlet.” he says as he rips the last page out of the smoking typewriter.
Like the Hollywood hack, Shakespeare provided the producers with everything they needed to attract the crowds: Historical dramas, comedies of love and manners, raging tragedies, celebrity biographies, family sagas, fantasy and the phantasmagorical, foolish farce and existential dramas--everything was there that Hollywood still offers: blood and glory, pageantry and pomp, action and conflict, fools and kings, hypocrites and heroes, twists in the plot and a sting in the tail, religion and redemption, sex and satan and salvation, occult horrors and slapstick comedy--the master did it all.
Yes, but. While Shakespeare wrote for the crowds and was unashamedly commercial, what is it that sets his work apart from all the other playwrights and screenwriters? Is it simply that Shakespeare was the greatest poet in the English language? His poetics are sublime, but beautiful language alone would not place him at the top. Is it his insight into characters--his uncanny instinct for understanding and expressing human psychology? Surely his ability to do so is supreme, but that alone does not place him at the top. Is it his way with a plot and story--his ability to tell an old tale in a new way and draw the audience into the story through the characters in such an unforgettable manner? Even this is not enough to put him at the top. Instead, Shakespeare’s genius is an elusive sprite which lurks unseen at the very heart of his plays. What links him with the movies is his ability to entertain, his boisterous populism and shrewd commercialism. What separates him from the movies is the profundity of his vision.
His vision, his worldview, his perspective, his philosophy--whatever you wish to call it, is Catholic. Much has been researched and written about Shakespeare being a clandestine Catholic and the theories of the secret Catholic codes which may be woven through his plays are intriguing, but these probabilities are only possiblilties because of the deeper, unified Catholic vision that underlies his work. To be sure, his mastery of the language, of human psychology, of conflict and character and plot place Shakespeare at the top, but when these factors are combined with his underlying Catholic vision his work achieves a depth of meaning and truth that conquers all.
Shakespeare’s Catholic vision is what separates him from the shallow populism of Hollywood; for even when Hollywood scriptwriters try to weave in ‘meaning’ or ‘symbolism’ or a ‘character arc’ or ‘morality’ their attempts are more often an obvious ‘cut and paste’ job that has more to do with producing a predictable emotional response than any real meaning or morality. You can hear the director say to the scriptwriter, “The audience likes some emotional involvement, so the main character needs some depth. Let’s make his marriage in trouble.” or “Let’s add some meaning to this story. I know! The guy has a little girl who’s dying of cancer. That always pulls the heartstrings.” Therefore, in Hollywood films the attempts at morality and meaning are too often the result of a commercial decision.
The meaning and morality in Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a natural outgrowth of who Shakespeare is and the world he inhabits. Shakespeare lived in a world that was still Catholic in it’s basic assumptions and perspectives, and it was Elizabeth’s Protestant revolution which put England’s Catholic past into sharp and poignant contrast. Shakespeare’s family and education (and therefore his faith and philosophical foundations) were deeply Catholic. His Catholic background--in conflict with the newly Protestant society--is the nexus of conflict and resolution in his plays, this crisis of philosophy and faith--locked deep in every page of his work-- is what gives Shakespeare such startling depth and timeless relevance. It is the Catholic universe he and his characters inhabit which gives his characters their true depth. His world has a profound underlying unity and congruity which modern film makers (even assuming that they want their film to communicate meaning and morality) can only try to copy, and as they copy it, they produce a shallow and artificial version of the truth which does not deeply satisfy. Their characters are shallow, fractured and partial in their understanding. Their plot lines, their world view and their vision is temporary, elusive, artificial and superficial.
It must be so because the society in which the Hollywood hacks write is multi cultural, materialistic, relativistic, artificial, superficial and lacking in any underlying, cohesive, unifying and congruent philosophy.
So what we have in the modern drama of the cinema is an artificial tale, told by an idiot that is full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Whereas in Shakespeare every character and every play springs from a deep apprehension of Catholic truth and so is a tale told by a genius full of sound and fury signifying everything.
- First published in The St. Austin Review. Used by permission.