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Shakespeare Bulletin (1)

Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall 2004 v22 i3 p49(16) "Textual and sexual anxieties in Michael Hoffman's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream". (Shakespeare On Film)(Critical Essay) Buhler, Stephen M. Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 University of West Georgia Bringing Shakespeare to mass-market motion picture audiences is never a safe proposition.

At times, film makers and producers have attempted to hedge their bets by offering moviegoers implicit--and nearly explicit--contracts suggesting that immediate entertainment rewards will accrue in return for their dollars and time. Most of these contracts have not been successful: the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet promised both star power and pageantry; instead, it confirmed the Hollywood notion that Shakespeare was box-office poison. A few proposals, however, have worked exceptionally well: Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo+Juliet promised star power and a completely up-to-date milieu and presentation; it attracted exactly the youthful audiences to which the film reached out. For his 1999 A Midsummer Night's Dream, director Michael Hoffman tried to follow in this tradition, with a few extra safety nets set in place. The resulting film provides recognizable stars, but also promises familiarity in approach: this is, allegedly, Shakespeare according to Kenneth Branagh (with, perhaps, a little Merchant-Ivory thrown in). Among the many elements that Hoffman does borrow from Branagh is a keen desire not to offend, especially where gender is concerned. Rather like Bottom and the other Mechanicals in the play, Hoffman is anxious about aspects of the comedy "that will never please" (3.1.10; Hoffman 47). Instead of reframing those aspects, he attempts to remove them.

The indebtedness of Hoffman's Dream to Branagh's Much Ado has been widely noted; initial reviewers marked the connection both approvingly (Gantz) and disapprovingly (Bemrose, Carr). The most obvious influence is the Tuscan setting at or near the turn of the previous century; more complex negotiations have been traced by Mark Thornton Burnett (186-89). A deeper connection, I would argue, is the employment of avoidance strategies: neither Hoffman nor Branagh wish to give audiences any further excuse to stay away from Shakespeare. Stanley Kauffmann, in his New Republic review, opines that what Hoffman hoped to avoid was the perception of "being dull" (32)--an anxiety from which Branagh, the reviewer believes, generally does not suffer. I would argue that both directors would rather

be dully inoffensive than controversial: they want to forestall possible criticism of the plays and of their films not for being dull, but for being sexist, for perpetuating unenlightened views of women. They are anxious, first and foremost, that women in the potential audience will not be alienated from seeing their motion pictures; to avoid this, they take pains to present the principal male characters of the plays--and, by extension, the plays themselves and their playwright--as exceptionally nice, sensitive guys. This strategy, however, reveals more than it conceals. The plays depict male anxieties about authority, affection, devotion, and duty; they present the sexual, social, and personal politics involved in ways that invite analysis and critique. The films, in their haste to prevent any distaste, even if it might prompt audiences to participate in such critique, effectively enact male anxieties. To borrow from the title of Courtney Lehmann's fine essay (260), they seek to take "the rage out of feminism" preemptively by eliminating from the plays male attitudes and behaviors that could provoke justifiable outrage.

At the heart of Hoffman's and Branagh's shared anxiety is an attitude that Douglas Lanier has termed "the burden of the text" ("Drowning" 191)--a sense that the "monumentality of the Shakespearean book," along with the "textual authority" represented by the plays, must be confronted and challenged as part of "the perennial struggle of Shakespearean cinema to free itself from the constraints of bookishness" (192). Lanier is accurate in his description of the attitude; Burnett astutely points out its applicability to the intertextual resonances at work between Hoffman's Dream and Branagh's Much Ado (194). In this essay, I want to complicate matters further by interrogating the attitude itself. Filmmakers regularly experience a source text as formidable as one of Shakespeare's plays as monumental and constraining. Along with being an occasion for their own artistry, any example of Shakespeare's art is felt as imposing: it threatens to overshadow as much as inspire one's creativity; "a static artifact," in Lanier's phrase ("Drowning" 192), the play text carries with it a fixed meaning. Such perceptions are communicated in several filmmakers' handling of the task of translating a play into the cinematic medium. But the perceptions, along with the assumptions upon which they are based, warrant investigation. Is it the case that literary texts are static? Do they indeed delimit meaning in ways that demand contestation? Finally, does the authority of literary texts automatically align with other forms of authority, including those (such as masculinist authority) depicted in the texts? Hoffman's and Branagh's films suggest affirmative answers to all three questions, which provides a rationale for the liberties they take with their source materials. In practice, however, the directors themselves become "imposing": their alternative meanings, crafted and controlled through careful editing, allow other existing forms of authority to go largely unquestioned, unchallenged.

In Much Ado, Branagh aims at eliminating nearly every questionable element of Don Pedro's and Claudio's characters. Claudio's readiness to believe the worst about Hero in connection with other men is almost completely contained within Robert Sean Leonard's expressions of sincere devotion. Branagh finds it necessary, then, to provide an entirely external motive for his cruel shaming of Hero in front of the altar (and even here he softens the scene, by making the wedding semi-private). Far from simply seeing what he thinks is Hero talking "with a man out at a window" (4.1.309), Claudio is presented with what seems to be the ocular proof that Iago denies Othello: Claudio's gaze and the camera catch Boraccio in flagrante delicto. The avoidance of presenting one problem, Claudio's dubious status as a romantic lead (much less an acceptable husband), leads directly into the creation of another problem: male concerns about female fidelity are given emblematic expression.

The logic of the play also requires that male aggression offer some kind of threat, which originally is presented by Claudio and Don Pedro, so Branagh displaces the violence onto Michael Keaton's Dogberry (Buhler 133-34). This strategy is also in keeping with Branagh's generally benign view of hierarchical social orders; where Shakespeare permits his aristocrats to pull rank arbitrarily, Branagh insists on meritocratic principles, embodied here by Denzel Washington as Don Pedro. There is a contradiction between the idealized egalitarianism that Branagh's presentation celebrates (Crowl 117-78)--as seen in Henry V, as well as the later films--and the quietism toward degree that his interpretations insist upon (Breight 96-97, 106-08; Lanier, "Cultural Politics" 161-64). As Megan Matchinske has recently argued, Michael Hoffman's approach to Shakespeare insistently removes all potential class tensions at work in Shakespeare's Dream, so that only commoners, functionaries, and spouses are allowed to mock the Mechanicals' artistic aspirations. This displacement is frequently achieved by means of rewriting the play's gender politics: "to allow social equanimity across status lines, condescension and conflict have in this instance been shifted to the 'usual suspects'--to women and the domestic" (Matchinske 46).

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hoffman rewrites the play with an eye toward gender inoffensiveness from the very beginning. As we hear the reassuring strains of Mendelssohn's incidental music, we read rifles setting the scene in the Tuscan village of Monte Athena, rather than Athens, and at the waning of the nineteenth century. This is a time, we are told, during which "Parents are rigid" and "Marriage is seldom a matter of love." The play, however, depicts a world in which Fathers demonstrate cruel rigor with full support of the law; by using the supposedly gender-neutral term "Parents," the film immediately transfers a rather unfair amount of the blame onto the Mothers of Monte Athena. This play (unlike All's Well That Ends Well) presents the practice of negotiated marriage as primarily a problem for daughters, due to their subordinate status both as women and as children; instead, Hoffman's film mostly elides women's concerns and emphasizes what loveless marriages might mean for the menfolk. The film suggests that even slightly liberated women (thanks, in part, to the bicycle) are, as Lehmann observes, "simply too hard to love--let alone marry" (268). The motive for this emphasis, however, seems again to be one of avoidance: Hoffman does not want to share with his audience the clear view of harsh custom and ideology that Shakespeare presents, for fear that they see the playwright as promoting Egeus's and Athens's version of patriarchy. The result, similar to what occurs in Branagh's Much Ado, is the deployment of other anxieties. Here, men are worried about displacement- -so their concerns take center stage--and they also are worried as to whether their sensitivities, both emotional and artistic, are compatible with male identity. This makes for some painful gaps in presentation, strikingly paralleled by the inept cuts in Mendelssohn's score that accompany the opening credits and the visual establishment of Tuscan local color.

David Straithairn's Theseus shows no arrogance or even (from some perspectives) justifiable pride in being Hippolyta's conqueror and prospective spouse; Sophie Marceau's Hippolyta is initially reconciled to the marriage. Any real sense of the primal myth of the War of the Sexes that Shakespeare deploys at the play's beginning is for the most part erased. It is only after Egeus claims "the ancient privilege of Athens" (1.1.41; Hoffman 3)--and after Theseus reluctantly affirms that he is within his rights under the law--that Hippolyta's affections are in any way estranged. Throughout the scene, Theseus is portrayed as empathetic and solicitous, expressing deep concern about Hermia's suitability for the veil and deciding to remonstrate privately with Demetrius and Egeus in response to Hippolyta's clear displeasure. Even Bernard Hill's Egeus invites some credit from the audience by showing genuine shock at the revelation that Demetrius had been betrothed previously to Helena.

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