Silent Shakespeare

This post is by Talia Smith, a Teaching with Primary Sources program intern at the Library of Congress.

There is a reason why creative artists in all media have drawn inspiration from William Shakespeare’s work for generations: It is timeless. Filmmakers, composers, and choreographers have tried their hands at adapting a Shakespearean work in order to connect with their own audiences. How can we, as educators, use these works to connect to our student audiences?

The Library of Congress has a wealth of Shakespeare related sources, but the collection of silent film adaptations is most impressive to me. However, while some of these films, like The Taming of the Shrew (1908) have been saved in their entirety, others exist in the form of fragments from paper prints. Many films in the Library’s paper print collections have been digitized, including some Shakespearean classics, like Richard III (00:09 – 01:16), Romeo and Juliet (02:37 – 03:30), Antony and Cleopatra (01:32 – 02:16), and Comedy of Errors (17:06 – 17:33). These brief montages provide viewers a glimpse into the majesty of turn-of-the-century film production. In addition, these films challenge the viewer to consider important aspects of Shakespearean works beyond the text itself.

Discussion Questions and Activities

Keep in mind three concepts when using these films with students.

The first is length. While the paper print selections are only able to show a collage of scenes lasting roughly one minute long, the silent film The Taming of the Shrew has a total runtime of around 18 minutes. Some discussion questions could include:

  • How does the shorter run time change the story the play tells?
  • Which scenes are included from the original play?
  • Which scenes are missing?
  • Which scenes were added?

Secondly, in a silent film, there is no audible speech. These films instead use dramatic physicality in the actor’s movements. Some discussion questions could include:

  • How do the actors use their bodies to communicate to each other?
  • How does reading vs. watching the play change your impression of the characters?

Finally, silent films had to pay more attention to the film’s design in order to communicate time and place. Some discussion questions could include:

  • What do the design elements tell the audience about the different characters and settings?
  • How do the costumes add or take away from your understanding of the characters?
  • How do the different set pieces establish a sense of place? Does the setting look the way you envisioned it after reading the text?

One teaching activity to use with this film is to compare and contrast.

  • Support students in comparing and contrasting the original text to the film adaptations.
  • Which scenes do you recognize in the adaptation from the original text?
  • To what extent is this a faithful adaptation of the text?

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