Watch Very First Film Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Plays: King John, The Tempest, Richard III & More (1899–1936)

Shake­speare sells: coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but seem­ing­ly true. The film indus­try, which pumps out Shake­speare adap­ta­tions (of vary­ing lev­els of cre­ativ­i­ty) on the reg­u­lar, has known this ever since it could hard­ly have had much aware­ness of itself as a film indus­try. At the top, we have the only sur­viv­ing scene from 1899’s King John, where Shake­speare on screen all start­ed.

“The next three decades would see var­ied approach­es to the chal­lenge of film­ing Shake­speare in a medi­um denied the spo­ken word,” writes the British Film Insti­tute’s Michael Brooke, “from the imag­i­na­tive tableaux-style mime of Per­cy Stow’s The Tem­pest (1908) to trun­cat­ed pro­duc­tions of the major tragedies (Richard III, 1911; Ham­let, 1913).” Excerpts from one of these last, F.R. Ben­son’s Richard III, you can watch just below:

Ear­ly Shake­speare adapters like Ben­son tend­ed to make less Shake­speare films than, as Brooke puts it, “com­pi­la­tions of mem­o­rable moments” from the plays. Then again, every genre of movie attempt­ed sim­ple things back then, and Shake­speare­an pro­duc­tions would grow far rich­er in the sound era, which 1929’s The Tam­ing of the Shrew ush­ered in for the Bard, and with no less a sil­ver-screen leg­end than Mary Pick­ford in the role of Kate.

Sev­en years lat­er, the not-yet-Sir Lau­rence Olivi­er, “cin­e­ma’s first great Shake­speare­an artist,” would make his Shake­speare debut as Orlan­do in Paul Czin­ner’s As You Like It (1936), which you can watch below. He’d almost made this debut as the lead in George Cuko­r’s Romeo & Juli­et, but ulti­mate­ly turned it down.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like to Shake­speare: Recon­struct­ing the Bard’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

A Sur­vey of Shakespeare’s Plays (Free Course) 

Shakespeare’s Satir­i­cal Son­net 130, As Read By Stephen Fry

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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