Grad Conference Speech: Shakespeare’s Adaptations and Storytelling

*I was invited to speak at the Spring 2018 St. John’s University Graduate English Conference a week or so ago and I figured I should post my speech. I talked about my other WordPress site (I have many, actually) which is an archive for Shakespeare adaptations.*

As English students and scholars, we are certainly familiar with Shakespeare’s works as he is considered one of the most epic storytellers of all time. More than 400 years later, the reach of his tales continues growing. Today, I want to showcase a project I created for a class from the Fall 2017 semester. In this Digital Literature class, we discussed the importance of an archival collection of works from specific writers no longer with us. While Shakespeare’s works are easily available online and in bookstores around the world, I decided to look closer at another aspect of storytelling: modern film. His stories are required readings throughout middle school, high school, and university classrooms, but how many of these teachers implement the film adaptations into their coursework? As we move further into a digital world, the importance of translating his works into film grows greater, which is why I saw a need for an adaptation archive, for something that can be easily accessed by students, teachers, and Shakespeare lovers alike. 

For my archive, I desired something user-friendly and attractive. Focusing on clean lines and simple fonts allows the plays to take center stage. While you can explore on your own, I just want to point out that I found at least one adaptation or filmed production for each play, though some were certainly harder than others. I include a short summary of the play as well as links to where the explorer can find the video to watch or download—legally, of course! It would take much longer than fifteen minutes for me to discuss each play, so for this presentation, I want to perform a close reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside the 1999 production, titled the same, directed by Michael Hoffman to portray how film can be crucial in understanding the characters, setting, and ultimately the story.

First, out of the three adaptations I provided on the A Midsummer Night’s Dream page, this film is definitely the most traditional. Hoffman sets the play in a Tuscany village and begins the movie with a message that the bicycle has just been invented, all which can further convey how timeless this play truly is. Continuing on, each character is more or less exactly as the reader would imagine them—Helena is disheveled and crazy-eyed, Titania is dripping in glitter and gauze, and Theseus and his men fox hunt and wear stuffy suits. There are many scenes and characters I could focus on, but for brevity, I want to discuss the often loved, but equally often forgotten character: Nick Bottom.

His role in the original play, I believe, is to provide comedic relief as the play-within-the-play unfolds. Unlike the main characters, the troupe of actors isn’t given much time in front of the audience, and Bottom is no exception, which is why I found it odd that the 1999 adaptation gives more screen time to Bottom than I have ever seen.

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When the audience first sees Bottom, played by actor Kevin Kline, he is how I have imagined him: sitting at a cafe table, wearing a bright, white suit and hat, clearly set apart from the other people around him in the market. The image I provide here is when he sees a different attractive woman and gives her his signature smile, right before needing to dip into a storefront to escape his wife’s gaze, who has come to the market in search of him. Instantly, we have an image of Bottom’s home life which is something we do not get in the original play. Instead of leaving Bottom as a comedic character, Hoffman gives him a wife who is annoyed with his constant cheating and dreaming, which in turn provides depth to the Bottom we thought we knew.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 8.12.19 PM.pngAfter he successfully hides from her, he then meets with his circle of players, one of whom is Academy Award winner, Sam Rockwell, who plays Thisbe, and once again we see the original Bottom in his interactions with his friends:

Bottom: What is Pyramus, a lover or a tyrant?

Quince: A lover that kills himself most gallantly for love.

Bottom: That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes: I will move storms; I will condole in some measure. (1.2.18-22)

Further down, he continues trying to take over each part, forever playing the arrogant actor:

Bottom: An I may hid my face, let me play Thisbe too. I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice. ‘Thisne, Thisne!’ (1.2.44-45)

Bottom: Let me play the lion too: I will roar that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me. I will roar that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again, let him roar again.’ (1.2.62-64).

What isn’t portrayed in the play, however, is after Bottom roars ridiculously for the people in the town square, some children from above pour wine over him, ruining his white suit, and letting everyone have a laugh. While this seems to be a traditional reading of Bottom’s role in the play, that of a person for comedic relief, this production potentially makes the watcher feel sorry for him. Furthermore, after this scene, Bottom returns home and with no dialogue, we see him take off his ruined suit jacket after sneaking past his wife, but when she comes into their room, she crosses her arms and looks at him with disdain before shaking her head and walking off. Bottom, meanwhile, gave her a nervous laugh about the drenched suit, perhaps desiring to start a conversation, but their relationship is loveless. With this scene, we are given more layers to Bottom’s character than what is provided in the play.

What complicates Bottom further, after having seen him with his wife, is when Bottom’s head becomes that of an ass and Queen Titania becomes enamored with him.

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 9.07.12 PM.png The audience has already seen that Bottom has different interactions with women: first, he’s a flirt as we’ve seen in the clip. Second, the woman he’s married to potentially doesn’t love him, or at the very least is tired of his antics and constant dreaming, so when he is doted on by Titania, he, perhaps, is finally feeling a truer love. Even though Titania’s love is false to her, Bottom does not know this and while he is hesitant to comply when she says “I do love thee: therefore, go with me” in Act 3, Scene 1, why wouldn’t he attend to her bower? This may be the first time a woman has told him that she loves him. Throughout their scenes together, Bottom is certainly still traditional as in he is funny and slightly overbearing, but Hoffman’s previous scenes complicate his character, making the audience feel a wider range of emotions towards him than by simply reading the play.

Of course, their relationship was never meant to last. After having Puck fix the two pairs of lovers, Oberon fixes Titania by dropping the antidote on her sleeping eyes so she no longer lusts after Bottom. Bottom then gets thrown roughly out of the fairy world, and awakens in a field where he performs the monologue in Act 4. Looking closely at the lines, we see Bottom trying to make sense of what he had, and then lost, from what he thinks is a dream: “Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was — there is no man can tell what. Methought I was — and methought I had — but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had” (4.1.207-10). He cannot comprehend what he found in Titania and Kline portrays Bottom’s confusion, and ultimately his sadness, when he wakes up in the field alone. While Bottom is sad here, as he stumbles back towards town, his life of humiliation is perhaps over when the other actors, his friends, run to greet him as he returns, actually excited to see him, which contrasts the rolling of their eyes and annoyance they felt towards him in the earlier scenes.Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 9.43.01 PM.png

To further prove that Hoffman makes Bottom a primary star is that he adds two more scenes that have no dialogue and serve no purpose other than to showcase Bottom’s deeper emotions. When the acting crew arrives at Theseus’ manor to present themselves as performers on the wedding day, Bottom notices a statue of what the audience assumes is Titania. In the play, after waking up in the field, Bottom believes everything was a rare dream and the story continues on, but by including this quick scene here, Hoffman shows us Bottom’s perplexity towards what really happened between him and the Fairy Queen. Was she real? Was their relationship real? Can he ever truly feel loved?

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Then, in the ending scene, before Puck gives his final monologue, Hoffman shows Bottom wistfully glancing out the window where fireflies, or supposed faeries, dance outside. This scene leaves me wondering what is Bottom thinking? How has he changed since the beginning of the movie? Is he aware of this change?

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The common consensus on Nick Bottom’s role in this play is to make us laugh and while there are surely countless scholars that read deeper into Bottom’s character, I believe it is safe to say that Bottom is our guilty pleasure, the character we can laugh at and remember once the play concludes. And what is fascinating about film, and this particular film, is that Hoffman leaves us with more to think about in regards to Bottom. Sure, he is still a guilty pleasure character, we laugh at and with him throughout the movie just like we do while reading the play, but we are also left with further thoughts and emotions towards him. This is significant as we continue transforming Shakespeare’s works into modern film: how are the directors, actors, set-designers, producers, and all other members that make the movies going to change, complicate, or beautify these works?

While I hope my presentation has portrayed an interesting close-reading of Bottom’s character alongside the film adaptation of him, my point, however, is not to prove that Bottom necessarily has to be a simple or complicated character. Instead, I have strived to show you that film adaptations can change our original assumptions and images of each character–for better or worse. A Slate Magazine piece written just a few months after the release of Hoffman’s movie has author David Edelstein ranting about the mutilation of Shakespeare’s play, specifically pointing out certain scenes that I have mentioned as a display of “the ass’s head materializing on the director.” What I did not have time to discuss were the other two adaptations I’ve provided for this play on my archive. The one, a teen drama, Get Over It, loosely puts this play into the hands of teenagers much like 10 Things I Hate About You. The other, Were the World Mine, flips the genders of some of the characters and places Timothy, a gay teenager in an all-boys school, as Oberon, therefore giving him the power to control his classmates love interests. The collection of films here, and many more to come, are the example of how Shakespeare’s stories have permeated throughout our history–they are not going anywhere. Instead, we are recrafting his stories, his characters into the modern world, giving them new life and expanding their telling power.

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