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Devouring Time

Nostalgia in Contemporary Shakespearean Screen Adaptations


Philippa Sheppard


Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016

Paperback. xii+426 p. ISBN 978- 978-0773550209. CDN$ 34.95


Reviewed by Victoria Bladen

University of Queensland





Philippa Sheppard’s recent volume Devouring Time : Nostalgia in Contemporary Shakespearean Screen Adaptations, presents a comprehensive exploration of the theme of nostalgia, in both its positive and negative facets, in screen adaptations of Shakespeare. She explores the concept across a variety of themes and perspectives, dividing the study into four parts. Part One ‘Defining Terms’ examines what might be meant by nostalgia, outlining a history of the term and how it has been used critically and theoretically. The term ‘nostalgia’ is a seventeenth-century neologism bringing together two Greek words, nostos (‘return’) and algia (‘pain’) – ‘thus the pain or longing for return’ [6]. Initially conceived of as a disease, it was originally interchangeable with homesickness. As the author observes, the shifting definitions of the term throughout history ‘suggest the ambiguous nature of the state, but they all have two aspects in common – attachment to the past and a sense of loss in the fact of change’ [7]. The concept of nostalgia thus raises a range of interesting questions that Sheppard explores: why do adaptors constantly turn to Shakespeare, and in what way does he embody or represent ‘home’; what is being negotiated in this dual quality of desire / longing and pain? Sheppard also places her study in a larger critical context of film studies, which has mapped a growing preoccupation with memory and nostalgia [8]. Sheppard suggests that nostalgia may be at the core of the appeal of Shakespeare’s language, particularly in a world of Hollywood blockbusters with their one-liners between special effects [48].

Sheppard notes that, like most adaptation critics, she avoids ‘fidelity discourse’ [20]; interestingly the debate on the vexed question of fidelity has been recently revisited by Douglas Lanier, who argues for a more nuanced understanding of the term in the volume Shakespeare / Not Shakespeare (edited by Christy Desmet, Natalie Loper & Jim Casey. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Lanier suggests that it is to ‘the Shakespeare network and not to a single originary text that a Shakespearean adaptation establishes some relationship of fidelity’ (Lanier : 297). Sheppard argues that in their use of Shakespeare, directors expose ‘their nostalgia for the notion of originality’, despite the knowledge that Shakespeare himself was an adaptor [49].

Part One also looks at the impulse towards ‘realism’ in adapting Shakespeare to the screen and the challenges this poses. The chapter presents a valuable comparison between productions that have predominantly chosen realism with those that have chosen a more stylized approach.

Part Two, ‘Remembering Origins’, looks at the ways in which directors have dealt with prologues, and how narratives are framed, in a cross-section of productions. The author notes that openings commonly begin with references to printed text, thus conveying an implicit nostalgia for a print-based culture that many would see as in the process of passing [104]. This section also considers the ways in which the stage is evoked and referenced as another form of nostalgia, and explores the ways in which key productions have presented death rituals, signs of nostalgia for past cultures that ‘set protocols for every major event in a person’s life’ [154].

Part Three, ‘Disguise, Genre and Play’, explores the theme of nostalgia through several thought-provoking perspectives: the genre of the gothic, focusing on Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet; the grotesque, considering Julie Taymor’s Titus and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books; cross-dressing, looking at productions of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, which she argues express a nostalgia for heteronormative values [226]; and propaganda, analyzing Branagh’s Henry V and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, and the links between nostalgia, patriotism and nationalism. The section on the grotesque was particularly intriguing, with Sheppard observing that the ‘translation of verbal poetry into screen images is often a grotesque process. Shakespeare writes largely in metaphor, and a literalized metaphor is in essence grotesque’ [199]. She links the idea of hybridity, at the core of the grotesque, with the alienation effected by industrialization that results in a crisis for human identity and a nostalgia for a lost wholeness.

Part Four turns to considerations of music in productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Tempest, exploring inter alia the impact of song lyrics in productions, music and intercutting, nostalgia in fin-de-siècle productions, and the depiction of Ariel in the work of Greenaway and Taymor, in the context of nostalgia as a dominant feature of the romances, given their emphasis on homecomings [341].

The study maintains a focus on the most prominent and well-known screen adaptations. It would have been interesting to see more examples of lesser-known productions, and a greater cultural diversity, to test the boundaries of the arguments. Nevertheless, the benefit of such a focus is that most readers will be familiar with the examples explored. The book is well-structured, although the bibliography section, split into ‘Works Cited’ and ‘Works Consulted’ is less user-friendly than a consolidated bibliography would have been.

As the author observes, ‘Shakespeare is an integral part of our efforts to comfort ourselves in a bewilderingly diverse and fast-moving world’ [321]. As such, the theme of nostalgia touches on many facets of Shakespearean adaptation. Audiences ‘are nostalgic for the classic text but at the same time anticipate with curiosity film directors’ new interpretations’ [357]. The volume is full of rich insights and will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, students and other readers.


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