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Hitchcock and Shakespeare

There are two adjectives we commonly use when discussing artists and artistic things that we feel deserve serious attention and appreciation: Shakespearean and Hitchcockian. These two terms actually have quite a bit in common, not only in how and why they are used but also in what they specifically refer to, and closely examining the ways in which Hitchcock is Shakespearean can be very revealing. My aim in adopting this perspective is more analytical than honorific: we could rest easy by simply repeating the frequent description of Hitchcock as “our modern Shakespeare,” but let’s be restless and think more deeply about some of the details that make this more than merely a convenient (and for some, a problematic) statement of high praise.

Starting with the concrete, Hitchcock is more often than we usually recognize literally Shakespearean: he made a substantial number of direct references to Shakespeare and his works. We should bear in mind that in general Hitchcock did not frequently mention the names of artists that he admired and was influenced by, so his few specific references in his interviews and writings to a small group go a long way: Griffith, Murnau, Chaplin, and Pudovkin are part of that select group – and so is Shakespeare, always discussed thoughtfully and strategically, that is, as part of an effort to understand and explain his particular approach to cinema. As we might expect from a strong-minded artist, he is respectful, but not always deferential. In one of his early essays, “Much Ado About Nothing?” (1937), he comments extensively on the subject of Shakespeare and film, and his primary concern is defending the latter, even at the expense of the former, noting that “The cinema has come to Shakespeare’s rescue.” Cinema popularizes and keeps Shakespeare alive, and far from being “radically and fatally opposed,” the “art of cinema” improves “the art of Shakespeare,” surpassing the resources of words by making full use of the resources of “pictures.” He envisions cinema as not only a means to “develop a new regard for Shakespeare” but also as an art form that has new powers, an “unlimited range,” and the potential for a new master artist to cultivate its “enormous” territory. Hitchcock is thus perhaps the ultimate Shakespearean: he defends Shakespeare on film, but perhaps even more significantly, although implicitly, calls for a Shakespeare of the cinema. And my argument here is that he himself answered that call.

Hitchcock regularly includes direct Shakespearean references in his films. (H. Arthur Tausig, one of the few critics to pay attention to this subject [in his book Hitchcock: The Mind of a Master], compiles a short list that could certainly be expanded, and I draw from it in the following.) Hamlet appears repeatedly: for example, in Murder!, which reenacts parts of the play; in North by Northwest, the title of which is close to a direct quotation from Hamlet’s description of his feigned madness; and, perhaps most unexpectedly, in Topaz, as a character broods over betrayal and mortality. And there are references, incidental and otherwise, to a variety of additional plays: for example, the title Rich and Strange is from the The Tempest; Romeo and Juliet is quoted in Foreign Correspondent; Spellbound opens with an epigraph from Julius Caesar; the absent-minded doctor in The Trouble with Harry is reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”); and one of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock, “Banquo’s Ghost,” reworks a dramatic moment in Macbeth. Some of this may very well be – in fact, surely is – second-hand Shakespeare: carried on from the original literary text that the screenplay was based on or additions by the screenplay writer. But Hitchcock presumably was the authority on what would stay and what would go, and while leaving something in may not be quite the same as putting something in, the effect is in many ways the same: Hitchcock’s works are loaded with Shakespeare.

This is true in ways that go beyond the direct quotations and allusions. There are analogues and models in Shakespeare of some of the defining elements of Hitchcock’s notion of “pure cinema” and his actual cinematic practice. Suspense perhaps comes first to mind when we think of Hitchcock, and he spent a lifetime insisting and demonstrating that the most effective and artistic kind of suspense is based not on surprise but on foreknowledge: in his classic example, not simply startling us by setting off a bomb unexpectedly, but rather alerting us to an impending explosion, so that the emotion and tension reside in the prolonged anticipation rather than the momentary blow up. This notion of suspense also applies to the structure and dynamics of his mysteries, which typically begin with rather than lead up to the revelation of “whodunit.” There are certainly some pleasures in the former approach, but greater depths in the latter, especially in pursuing mysteries that go far beyond identifying “whodunit.”

The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, 1610. National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are models of this kind of suspense, especially Hamlet, which is Hitchcock’s recurrent reference point when he has Shakespeare on his mind. He refers to it specifically when he describes what he feels is at the “core of a movie,” and at one point planned to make a film based on it. He never made this film, but there are thematic and structural elements of Hamlet (and other plays by Shakespeare) throughout the many films he did make. For example, he recognized the power of soliloquies, so critical in Shakespeare, and found imaginative ways to not only let his characters dramatize and expose themselves but also to convey interiority, sometimes transparent and other times opaque and hauntingly inexplicable, by cinematic soliloquies. (Psycho is a masterpiece of this technique.) And to say that Hitchcock’s villains are often Shakespearean is true but incomplete: it is particularly his approach to his villains that is deeply Shakespearean. The greater the villain, the greater the story is a Shakespearean lesson learned well by Hitchcock, as is the effort to make villains “attractive” and sympathetic, very often by having them address us directly and by showing things from their perspective.

Finally, Shakespeare is not just a series of texts but a larger than life person for Hitchcock, an essential and extremely useful model in shaping his career, persona, ambitions, and intentions as a filmmaker. Shakespeare is the exemplary artist, one who had an enviable amount of control over his productions, and who demonstrated that it was possible to be a commercial and popular success as well as a maker of acclaimed and innovative works respected and admired by critics and artists. The latter may have been Shakespeare’s legacy more than his lived reality, but Hitchcock was determined to be such a revered and rewarded public figure in his lifetime, instantly recognizable (he had his well-known signature portrait, as did Shakespeare), a master of art and entrepreneurship, an auteur and a brand.

Even one of the most well-known Hitchcockian trademarks, his cameos, has a direct Shakespearean analogue. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a writer, and regularly appeared as a minor character in his own plays, as documented in theatrical records and perpetuated in a widely circulated legend that he played the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. But I think Shakespeare’s spectral role goes far beyond that legendary performance. In many ways worth exploring in far greater detail than I have been able to do here, Shakespeare’s Ghost haunts and inhabits Hitchcock’s films, career goals, and notions and practice of “pure cinema.”

Featured Image credit: Portrait of Alfred Hitchcock. Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte, Public Domain via flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Sonia Erlich

    I have seen no better invitation to revisit a few Hitchcock films with this fresh lens. Thank you for this.

  2. Christopher Hodgkins

    A stimulating invitation to imagine a much broader discussion of how Hitchcock not only alludes specifically to Shakespeare, but how he aspires artistically, culturally, and commercially to perform something like “the Shakespeare function” in his own medium and era. Thanks!

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