Shakespeare without words? – it’s not half Bard

Hamlet Nielsen
A still from the silent film ‘Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance’ (1920)

Even without words, a Shakespearean tragedy still carries a powerful charge.

Film and drama lovers will get a rare chance to see silent Shakespeare at the free screening of the remastered 1920 German film classic Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance at the Capri Cinema at 7pm on Monday, 21 March.

There will, however, be sound: a live musical score will be provided by a trio of piano (Ashley Hribar), violin (Julian Ferrareto) and cello (Rachel Johnston).

The film will be introduced by prominent UK film and literature scholar Professor Judith Buchanan from the University of York. In April, Professor Buchanan will participate in the celebrations at Elsinore in Denmark to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The event has been organised by the Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities and the University of Adelaide node of the Centre for Excellence for the History of the Emotions.

Flinders University’s Associate Professor Robert Phiddian says the limitations of early film technology did not hold back artistic fascination with the Bard – around 300 films featuring Shakespeare’s plays were made during the silent era.

He says the lack of dialogue effectively pares down Shakespeare’s dramas to their stories, playing to the fact that many people then – as now – were familiar with the plots of the plays.

Associate Professor Phiddian says it is ironic that modern film versions struggle with Shakespeare precisely because the plays are so wordy.

“Because they didn’t have visuals in Shakespeare’s day, the plays are filled with long descriptions of the settings – in film you do that with a visual that takes a few seconds,” he says.

“So while a silent movie of Shakespeare might initially seem incongruous, it all comes back to the mythic power of the stories themselves. And these stories keep circulating in various ways – people familiar with Shakespeare who watch House of Cards can’t help seeing conscious echoes of Macbeth and Richard the Third.“

In another surprise for modern audiences, the lead role in the silent film version is played by German screen actress Asta Nielsen. But this casting also makes historical sense, Associate Professor Phiddian says.

“In Shakespeare’s time, all the female roles were played by boys; on the other hand, from the late the 18th century, there was a long stream of female Hamlets, because female actors were often the bigger stars and Hamlet is the star role.”

You can find more details and register to attend on the Events page on the Flinders University website.


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