This past weekend I visited friends from grad school and had the chance to quiz them on their thoughts on the film. My creative-writer-movie-buff- friend hadn't seen it, but as she reminded me, "Gerard Butler has horrible taste in films" (cf, The Awful Truth, that bounty hunter movie with Jennifer Aniston, 300, etc, ad infinitum). She wasn't surprised that the movie was hard to watch.
No worries. I figured my Early Modern/Shakespeare-scholar-friends would be able to talk about it, but neither of them had seen it either. As we were talking generally about Shakespeare movies, I also mentioned my excitement about the upcoming Joss Whedon production of Much Ado About Nothing.
I do love Shakespeare stories more than the average person. The first reason for this is the one that everyone gets-- the enduring appeal of the stories. The big human questions played out before us, the wordplay, the bleak tragedies and the light comedies.
The second reason I eat up Shakespeare productions is because they offer me the chance to see the same text interpreted over and over again. There's no other writer in the English language whose works are reproduced for the screen to the extent that Shakespeare's are (though Jane Austen must come in second-- how many Pride and Prejudices have you seen?)
When you watch different productions of the same story, you obviously get a chance to consider directorial choices. This applies whether you're watching a traditional production using Shakespeare's text or an adaptation using updated language but maintaining characters and plot.
The appeal of rewatching the same story over and over extends beyond an interest in the director's vision, however. Given how ubiquitous Shakespeare's work is in the English-speaking world-- these plays have been very famous for a very long time-- I suspect that each play has come to function as its own genre.
A genre provides a set of common rules and expectations. Genre serves as a shorthand for the writer/director and for the reader/viewer. When a reader or viewer selects a work in a particular genre, he has certain expectations and assumptions about the gist of the work. A mystery novel will present a thorny crime and a persistent protagonist who eventually solves the puzzle. When I pick up a romance novel, I expect to meet two people who will overcome some obstacles and end up together at the end.
When we read within a genre, we're not doing so for surprise endings-- we're looking for something else.
Similarly, when I watch a version of Othello, I'm not looking to be surprised by the ending. (Or the beginning or middle, for that matter.) I'm interested in how the director and actors work within the genre of Othello to create a new entertainment experience. In particular, I like how productions embrace modern settings-- and sometimes language-- because this reaffirms the timeless appeal of many of the questions that Shakespeare considers. I find the constancy comforting.
Now, you'll have to excuse me. I'm off to watch 10 Things I Hate About You.