English professor discusses Shakespeare's battles through film

Greg Semenza presents an analysis on Shakespeare's battle scenes, delving into the parallels and differences on their presentation in his writings and in film adaptations. Semenza is a professor in the English department at UConn. (Akshara Thejaswi/The Daily Campus)

War and battle in the plays of Shakespeare always tend to comment about the era in which he was writing in, but at an event at the Austin building Wednesday evening, these battles were seen in a different light when examined through a medium that Shakespeare never had a hand in-film.

Greg Semenza, a professor of English specializing in film adaptations of Renaissance era drama, led a discussion about the adaptations of Shakespeare into film. The “battle plays” Semenza called them are 15 in total. The most recognizable of these plays would be “Macbeth,” “Henry IV,” “Coriolanus,” “King Lear” and “Richard III.”

Semenza, identified the style and structure Shakespeare employed when writing a battle. There were four methods, Semenza identified in his Power Point, used by the playwright when structuring a battle. They were written with minimal stage direction, interspersed dialogue, a focus on individuals in battle, particularly royals and an incredible amount of noise and color in the form of drums, fifes, banners and cannon shots. Shakespeare’s methodology may seem formulaic but it allowed for “The Bard” to circumvent, putting hundreds of people on a stage that really couldn’t be used in that way. It’s important to know as well that it wasn’t in the playwright’s interest to regurgitate realism on stage either.

“Filmed Shakespearean battle montages function as the central means of exploring tensions in the adapted plays between (always potentially fascist) narratives of individual heroism, on the one hand, and their critiques of state and class ideology, on the other hand,” said Semeza.

This is where film changes the perception of Shakespeare. Unlike the stage, film can be used with different strokes of versatility and with completely different methods. According to Semenza, “Filmed battles have the ability to draw out or clarify fundamental aspects of Shakespeare’s attitudes toward war.” After viewing several sequences from film provided by Semenza, the scenes shown, revealed in hyper realistic detail—a departure from the stage Shakespeare employed.

Film has access to one very key technique—the montage. It is the undeniable fork between stage and film. There is a finite limit to montage on stage, if one would even call it that. Montage is series of sometimes hundreds of two-to-six second shots. A pioneer in the theory of montage is Sergei Eisenstein. According to Eisenstein in the book “The Dramaturgy of Film Form,” Semenza cites in one of his power point slides, Eisenstein says “In my view montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together, but an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another…for in fact each sequential element is arrayed, not next to the one it follows, but on top of it, whereas the conventional film directs and develops emotions, here we have a hint of the possibility of likewise developing and directing the entire thought process.”

Style and approach aside, a montage has the ability for the movie goer to see a series of events from a very internal perspective of the subject. As an example provided by Semenza, appears in “Saving Private Ryan.” One sequence in the movie includes a series of rapid shots of the soldiers emptying out of the boats on the shores of Normandy. This is not fully Eisensteinian, as Semenza identified, but a sort of hybrid of his method and another. Pure Eisenstienian would be just rapid shots, however in the case of Tom Hanks’ character, the montage pace starts in the vein of Eisenstein, but then slows down to a point where the sequence becomes a close up of Hanks for almost two minutes before returning to a rapid pace. This shows the micro human narratives that are seeing the grotesque and bloody environment of war alongside the audience, versus the internal and personal struggles of Hanks’ character portrayed in the cinematography.

To get that internal view of character, Shakespeare employed the “aside” convention. The aside is a direct address to the audience where the audience may be given a sense that what the character is saying on stage is their inner voice, where many times the character's dispositions, or identity as an antagonist or protagonist, is revealed. It is sometimes independent of the circumstances on the stage, meaning while the audience may know someone to be an enemy, the characters of the play are none the wiser.

“The structure of filming Shakespeare battle scenes work as negotiations of all of the tensions in the Shakespeare plays themselves about war and fascism and freedom and governance in general. I want to think about how these issues are captured by the formal structures of film, which are unique to film,” said Semenza.


Matthew Gilbert is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu.