For all their varied approaches to adaptation and their equally varied performances at the box office, the Shakespeare films of the 1990s might be understood in retrospect as participating in a much larger fin de siècle project, the recuperation of traditional literary culture for an age of mass media. At the heart of the recent Shakespeare film boom has been a desire definitively to disengage Shakespeare from the theater, to refute the proposition that the special nature and power of Shakespearean drama is rooted in the specific medium for which he wrote, live stage performance. That proposition has become increasingly problematic throughout the twentieth century as the professional theater has moved decisively to the margins of cultural production, displaced by the newer, putatively more democratic dominants of film and video.Were Shakespeare’s works to be regarded as indelibly theatrical, they – and, more importantly, the cultural capital they represent – would risk being mired in an outmoded, coterie format, the cultural equivalent of Betamax. What film adaptations of the 1990s share is an assertion of the radical mobility of Shakespearean content, the capacity of Shakespeare’s writing to transcend the particularities of his chosen medium and its unproblematic affinity with more contemporary media, particularly film and TV. Nowhere is this assertion more explicit than in the final moments of Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998), when Shakespeare, in the wake of the triumphal stage performance of his Romeo and Juliet, begins writing Twelfth Night, his valentine to Viola de Lesseps, his newfound secret muse. As Shakespeare puts his pen to page and outlines the opening scene in voice-over, we see no playhouse enactment of his script-in-progress but rather Shakespeare’s “unmediated” imagination, one that, judging from the slo-mo of the watery shipwreck and Viola’s stride across an emphatically widescreen beach, operates cinematically. That is, if this scene gives Viola a means for transcending the marriage market that binds her throughout the film, it also provides Shakespeare a means for transcending the stultifying artificiality and conventionality of the Elizabethan theater that heretofore has rendered him artistically impotent. To stress the extent to which Shakespeare’s writing relies upon live stage performance for its full meaning and power, then, would entail swimming against the tide of recent screen Shakespeares and
insisting upon an antiquarian authenticity that risks relegating Shakespeare to the dustbin of history.