Lights! Camera! Learning! - Shakespeare

Updated August 9, 2021 | Beth Rowen

Shakespeare on the Silver Screen

Keneth Branagh's Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh as the mad prince

Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet

DiCaprio's Romeo dukes it out with the Capulets


It was no small feat putting Shakespeare's magnum opus on the big screen, a task that requires four full hours. But it works, and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet emerges as the best, truest Shakespeare adaptation of the decade. Branagh in the title role is spectacular, capturing Hamlet's grief, rage and remorse but never dominating his supporting cast. Kate Winslet makes a passionate Ophelia; Julie Christie gives elegance to the tragic Gertrude; Derek Jacobi is a deceitfully suave Claudius; and Charlton Heston impresses as the Player King. If Hamlet shows a flaw, it's in the effects that wash over the action. Excuse Branagh's excesses; he's the only contemporary filmmaker who plays so well with the Bard.

Rated PG-13. Released: 1996.

If you prefer your classics classic, see Laurence Olivier's 1948 Oscar-winning adaptation. The film won Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Costumes and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration trophies.

Not Rated. Released: 1948

Romeo and Juliet

Franco Zeffirelli rolled the dice with 1968's Romeo and Juliet, casting young unknowns Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the doomed lovers. He took further chances by having them do several of the love scenes in the nude. His gamble, however, paid off; the film was a critical and commercial success and remains one of the most beautiful Shakespeare adaptations to date. Cinematographer Pasquale de Santis won an Oscar for his work, as did costume designer Danilo Donati.

Rated PG. Released: 1968.

For the rock 'n roll version of Romeo and Juliet, see Baz Luhrman's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which combines action-packed drama and hyperkinetic pacing with Shakespeare's language. The rival families, the Capulets and Montagues, are transplanted to fictional Verona Beach, where the families run businesses from dueling skyscrapers and gang members shoot at each other from the ground and the air. The heir (Leonardo DiCaprio) and heiress (Clare Danes) fall in love at a costume ball and all hell breaks loose.

Released 1996. Rated PG-13.

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