Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Shakespeare's History Lesson for Hollywood

A recent article in the New York Times stated that "The Hurricane," a movie about the reversal of the boxer Hurricane Carter's unjust conviction for three murders committed in 1966, mixed fact with fiction for the sake of better drama. That is not much of a surprise: rare is the movie about history that does not do the same. The justification - not yet put forward about "The Hurricane" but no doubt soon to be offered - is that a work of art cannot be tied down to the dross of mere fact as it strives for the uncluttered essence of the truth.

There is a corollary to that justification. Not only have all artists manipulated history to forge theater and cinema, the greatest of them all, Shakespeare, did too. And if Shakespeare allowed himself to invent scenes that never happened and to put words into the mouths of historical figures who never said them then isn't it more or less the same when filmmakers do those things today?

A good question, one for which there is no easy answer. And yet it troubles the mind, especially if you believe as I do that at a time when fact and fiction are ever more blurred in film and on television, there ought to be something sacred about the historical truth.

But what I have come to see as the Shakespeare defense - that a higher truth resides above the facts - is a powerful one. No less an authority than the critic Harold Bloom wrote in his last book ("Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human") that Shakespeare's Richard III, unfairly depicted as an evil genius, was a reflection of the Tudor propaganda of the time.

Is there no ethical difference between the Shakespeare of Richard III and, say, the Oliver Stone of "J. F. K." and "Nixon" or the makers of "The Hurricane"?

There are important differences, some involving quality and others practicality. They are not easy to specify because they have less to do with the re-imagining of history than with whether history is re-imagined in a way that respects the facts. The basic difference is that Shakepeare's history was complex and ambiguous, while most recent movie history is morally one-dimensional. At least three points can be made in this regard: one, the nature of Shakespeare as a historian; two, propaganda as opposed to art; three, the enormous technical and public relations power enjoyed by moviemakers that was unavailable to playwrights of Shakespeare's time.

First: Shakespeare was a far better historian than most of the history-minded moviemakers of today. He took far fewer liberties with real events than the movies do. This is why the Shakespeare defense relies on the example of Richard III, which, as James Shapiro, a Shakespearean scholar at Columbia University, put it in a recent conversation, represents the closest Shakespeare ever came in the history plays to following a party line; in essence, to being politically correct in an Elizabethan context.

"The thing that probably distinguishes how Shakespeare dealt with history is how many historical sources he read," Shapiro said. When he wrote, say, "Richard III," he was writing in the context of Tudor myth, which saw Richard as evil incarnate. But he was also dealing with a range of classical sources, too.

"Shakespeare did not see writing history as a way of writing polemic," Shapiro said. "He was interested in the wellsprings of the political process and the historical process."

That raises point No. 2. Many movies about historical events today are closer to propaganda than to history. A recent example of this is Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," a movie about the anti-communist hysteria in Depression-era America that led the U.S. federal government to ban the performance of a leftist play.

The central event depicted in Robbins' film - the banning of a play sponsored by the tax-financed Federal Theater Project - did take place, largely because the play, by Marc Blitzstein, was seen as communist-inspired. But Robbins uses that central truth to spin a reductive morality tale.

The only characters in Robbins' movie worried that communists were indeed working to gain influence in cultural circles are pro-fascist, sexually repressed misfits. In one scene, William Randolph Hearst and the president of U.S. Steel talk about how they are going to control the culture by paying for it. Shakespeare didn't do things that sloppily.

The third point could be put this way: Shakespeare did not strive to convey an impression that what his audiences were seeing is what actually or literally transpired in history. The contract that he made with his viewers was that they were witnessing an interpretation of history, not an exact reproduction of events. Most history movies, by contrast, strive to give the impression that they are reconstructing what really happened. Armies of publicity agents are then dispatched to convince the public that this is the case. The publicity for "The Hurricane" states that the movie tells "a true story." When Stone's "J. F. K." was released, Warner Brothers distributed thousands of study kits to American high schools so that teachers might use the movie to teach about the Kennedy assassination.

To be sure, in interviews and in debates, Stone presented his "J. F. K." as just one man's point of view. But the facts of the contemporary world ensured that one man had an audience of perhaps 50 million and that his style of filmmaking would convey a vastly more powerful impression of reality than anything Shakespeare could have put on his modest stage.

The funny thing is that Shakespeare's history itself is often tampered with on the stage and in movies, usually to reduce the plays' complexity. In his movie role as Henry V during World War II, Laurence Olivier, reportedly at the behest of Winston Churchill, deleted Shakespeare's references to treason committed by English lords. A half-century later, when Kenneth Branagh filmed a new version of the same play, he altered an important sequence involving Henry's order to kill French prisoners of war.

In Branagh's version, Henry gives the order after he comes upon an English boy killed by the enemy. In the original Shakespeare, the order comes before. The lesson is apparently that Shakespeare in the original was inappropriately morally complex.

A similar simplification seems to be at work in one of the historical falsifications in the Hurricane Carter story. Missing in "The Hurricane" is the fact that before his clearly unjust conviction for murder Carter spent four years in prison for committing three muggings. The movie version of Carter is a model citizen victimized by a racist system.

By contrast, Shakepeare's history yields odors; it is not tidy and stench-free. Shakespeare approached history with depth and integrity and, rather than sanitize it, he let his audiences stub their minds against it. This is hardly the history practiced by filmmakers today, who nonetheless claim Shakespeare as a member of the same club, appealing to his authority to explain away their much less interesting tampering with the facts.

Richard Bernstein is a film critic for The New York Times, where this essay originally appeared.