The Bard is back!

... and he's bigger than ever!

By , Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Shakespeare rules.

The hit movie "Shakespeare in Love" -the latest evidence of America's obsession with the Bard - could dominate this year's Oscars.

But all across the country that hero of the English language, William Shakespeare, is seeing a resurgence of popular enthusiasm for his plays.

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Hollywood is having a field day with Will as updated versions of his plays pour out of Tinseltown, fueled by star-power and megabudgets. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens in early May with Michele Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline. Kenneth Branagh is making "Love's Labour's Lost" as a musical starring Alicia Silverstone. Ethan Hawke will play in "Hamlet," with Bill Murray as Polonius, set in contemporary New York. "Macbeth" becomes the plot for "Near in Blood" about a high-school football team. A version of "Othello" takes place in a prep school, and "Taming of the Shrew" comes back as "10 Things I Hate About You" - a '90s teen battle-of-the-sexes without the Shakespearean dialogue.

Then there's television. Last Monday's "Cosby" filched its plot from "King Lear" and included a visit from the Bard.

There's no telling where it will all end.

Branagh fueled the feature film

Meanwhile, "Shakespeare in Love" has garnered 13 Academy Award nominations, critical praise, and a repeat audience in theaters. And though many scholars might argue that Shakespeare's popularity never has waned (the Guinness Book of World Records cites 309 film versions of his plays and 41 adaptations), even in theaters his stock is on the rise.

Just 10 years ago Kenneth Branagh, a young actor-director with his own theater company, a prodigious vision, and a diminutive budget, made a stunning motion picture of "Henry V." And though even Mr. Branagh has his detractors, the film's style, clarity, and relevance kindled a new excitement over Shakespeare for many - including many young people.

"Branagh tapped into that teenage audience, the largest and most consistent for movies, and then Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet' [1996, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes] went even [further] ... giving us an MTV version of Shakespeare," says Ohio University professor Samuel Crowl, author of "Branagh Renaissance: Imaging Shakespeare in the Age of Film."

Branagh followed "Henry V" with "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993), another low-budget hit that proved Shakespeare could make money. Professor Crowl points to "Hamlet" (1990) with Mel Gibson as important, too. "Shakespeare in Love" was possible because of these modest successes, he says.

Theater professionals point out that over the past 10 years, dozens of theater companies and festivals devoted to Shakespeare have sprung up around the country.

In 1989 when the Shakespeare Theatre Association of North America was formed, only about a dozen companies joined, according to Scott Phillips, a past president and now the artistic director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City.

This year, there are 135 in the ranks, with more to come. So great is the need for actors capable of performing Shakespeare that a whole new conservatory headed by the chair of the Julliard drama department, Michael Kahn, will open in June 2000 in association with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"As we approach the 21st century, the preservation of how we do Shakespearean theater is really important," Mr. Kahn says. "Audiences are coming back to Shakespeare. They are hungry for larger and more real experiences than action pictures offer them.

"If it's done well - by actors working at the top of their physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities in plays that are much larger than yourself and that you still completely connect with - it is an exalting experience, more enriching because its form is more complex and beautiful.

"It's an experience you can't get on television," Kahn reminds. It's "4,000 [people] a night at Shakespeare in the Park, all laughing at a 450-year-old joke. The tension between the extraordinary form that Shakespeare used, and the depth of what he wrote about, is very, very special."

'It's a mystery ... '

But movies based on the life of William Shakespeare - dubbed "the man of the millennium" in a poll of listeners to the British Broadcasting Company - can be very special, too, as "Shakespeare in Love" so joyfully demonstrates. It features a brilliant screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, one of the great living playwrights and a master of precision English. The power of the film is directly attributable in large part to Mr. Stoppard's highly literate, extravagantly witty dialogue - dialogue that plays well alongside the Bard's own. (See an interview with Mr. Norman and Stoppard on Page 17.)

"You have to remember that maybe a quarter of the movie is written by Shakespeare," demurs Stoppard, when asked about creating the illusion of Elizabethan English. "One gulps a bit at the thought of a juxtaposition between one's own dialogue and Shakespeare's dialogue. But I opted for a strange muddle of heightened English and anachronisms mixed together - which I hope took the poetical pretensions out of Elizabethan-speak.

"The issue is only acute when Shakespeare opens his mouth," he says. So Stoppard's clever device was to allow the character to quote himself from one of his own plays. At one point, Will's theater manager, Henslowe, says, "We haven't time, Will. Talk prose." Says Stoppard, "It took the curse off the moment. In this movie, I went on my ear and my instincts."

Most critics acknowledge the robust romanticism of "Shakespeare in Love." Questioned about being a romantic at heart, Stoppard doesn't actually deny it, but he says, "Don't leave out the actors and the director [John Madden]. You could make a movie from exactly the same script which wouldn't give you that feeling. I would say that John's movie is more romantic than the script, thank goodness! It's the way the camera moves and the story moves that gives it a zest and buoyancy so that when someone is high on love the movie is high.... I suspect [Mr. Madden] of being deeply romantic; he made a deeply romantic and funny film.... You can't do it without a script, hooray, hooray. But how it happens and why it happens is, as Henslowe would say, 'a mystery.' "

Nothing is more of a mystery than Shakespeare himself. But maybe a hero for the ages should be at least two-fifths blank slate - and the other three-fifths the work he left behind.

Even that work has been in dispute for a long time: Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare or did somebody else? The Earl of Oxford, maybe, or Christopher Marlowe?

The debate is important enough for Stoppard to wryly address it in his screenplay.

The film opens with Will writing his last name over and over again with various spellings, for example, since one argument used against his authorship of the plays is that he spelled his name differently each time. At another point, Will remarks that some of his plays are based on previous efforts by Christopher Marlowe.

"If you know Shakespeare and the theater, there is double the movie there," playwright Terry Dodd points out. "But the filmmakers have wisely put one foot in art and one in commercialism."

But then, Shakespeare himself had one foot in art and one in commercialism. It's part of the continued secret of his success.

"He has always uniquely straddled low and high culture," Kahn says.

"Part of the explanation for Shakespeare's importance over the long haul is that he does belong to popular culture and commercial culture," says Prof. Michael Bristol of McGill University in Montreal.

Prof. Sidney Berger of the University of Houston, artistic director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, adds: "Shakespeare is able to examine the depths of our souls and bring to the surface issues with which, on some level, we all can identify."

Always something new

"Over a 30-year period I have directed some of these plays many times, and no matter how much you grow, they stay in front of you. You cannot outgrow them," says Donovan Marley, the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company.

If you can't outgrow the plays, then each age must find a way to grow into them.

So why not make a popular movie about Shakespeare as a hero and ordinary fellow - well, an ordinary swashbuckling genius, anyway - who turns the raw material of life around him into the greatest poetry of the modern age?

Yea, verily, the chance to hear some of the most talented young actors of our time speaking these exquisite words is indeed fit fodder for the common man, a romance for our time.

* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is masonm@csps.com

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