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Great Shakes

January 6, 2009

Over the weekend, I was introduced to what strikes me as a powerful and highly entertaining educational tool to help teachers turn elementary and high school kids as well as undergraduates onto Macbeth. Created in San Francisco by two Stanford lecturers - Jeremy Sabol and Greg Watkins -- who teach the so-called Great Books class, This is Macbeth is a terrific, feature-length DVD about Shakespeare's phantasmagoric tragedy of revenge. The film centers on a smartly-written television "interview" between a host -- the 16th century historian Ralph Holinshed (Shakespeare's source for the drama) - earnestly played by Sabol, and various characters from Shakespeare's play.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we watch Holinshed quiz Macbeth, his wife, Banquo and King Duncan about the motivations for their actions, feelings regarding their relationships and the play's turn of events. At one point, for example, Holinshed asks Duncan (played by an affable, blustering Ken Ruta) about his rationale for promoting Malcolm as next in line for the throne over Macbeth. Elsewhere, Holinshed asks Macbeth and Banquo (Mark Anderson Philips and Liam Vincent in a fine double-act) about their reactions to the witches. He also quizzes Lady Macbeth (a coldly poised Allison Jean White) about her lack of scruples on the night of Duncan's murder. The actors all respond in character, but use contemporary language mixed with occasional quotes from the play itself.

Interspersed with the interviews are performances of key scenes from the play. Funny songs composed by Austin Zumbro and spoof TV commercials promoting the likes of "Out, Damn Spot!" stain remover and a Medieval weapons supplier provide a delightfully irreverent way to recap the plot and a simple device to break up the long interview scenes. A ticker tape news bulletin slides across the bottom of the screen throughout the interviews with quotes from famous Shakespeare scholars and philosophers about the play. There's something slightly odd about the fact that the characters don't seem to know how the plot progresses beyond the present moment in which they're being interviewed, and yet are still able to quote from Shakespeare's text when asked to do so by Holinshed. But it's easy to forgive this quirk because of the movie's overall sense of fun, brilliant casting and seamless pace. The actors perform the scenes in a straightforward yet affecting fashion in simple modern street clothes. In short, This is Macbeth is an unstuffy, entertaining and highly useful educational tool. I'm not in school and I got a kick out of it. Ultimately, This is Macbeth is fun viewing for anyone who's interested in theatre or Shakespeare.

"Greg and I teach together in a residential Great Books program at Stanford (the program is called Structured Liberal Education, and about 100 freshmen take it each year), and we are constantly trying to generate enthusiasm and interest in great works of literature and philosophy," said Sabol in response to an email I sent him after I'd watched the DVD. "We thought we might reach a broader audience with a movie. We wanted to make something that would draw students towards the text, as opposed to replacing the experience of reading or watching the play."

The producers are currently at work on developing a similar DVD for Hamlet, which will hopefully be filmed this Summer, with Romeo and Juliet following suite.


  • "Great Shakes" is a superb review of an absorbing, multi-faceted DVD. "This is Macbeth" has so many one liners, subtle observations, and un-elaborated areas of humor, that we watched it twice. We may even bring it out for parties (given the appropriate guests.) We are also sending this DVD as gifts to our friends, irrespective of their previous acquaintance with Mac or Bill.

    It generates a lot of conversation, so be prepared to press the pause button while you watch.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 6, 2009 at 1:16 PM  

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