Research Stream


Robert White
The University of Western Australia

Penelope Woods
Queen Mary University of London

Shakespeare In Our World

This collection of two monographs by R. S. (Bob) White, and a collaborative book co-edited by Bob White, Mark Houlahan and Katrina O'Loughlin, explores the apparently strange phenomenon that plays written 400 years ago are still emotionally potent, as texts, staged performances, and films.

Shakespeare in our World

Image: Excerpt from an original poster for the premiere of the Negro Division of the Federal Theatre's production of Macbeth (frequently called Voodoo Macbeth), directed, adapted and produced by Orson Welles. Designed by Anthony Velonis. 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. See full image here.

White, R. S. Shakespeare’s Cinema of Love: A Study in Genre and Influence. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

This book argues that Shakespeare’s plays significantly influenced movie genres in the twentieth century, particularly in films concerning love. The nature of this indebtedness has not gained recognition because it is not always easy to recognise or describe since it operates on generic and emotional rather than verbal level. However, Shakespeare’s plays were well known during the time of the development of film in the earlier half of the twentieth century, and it would be surprising if they did not have some interrelationship with movie genres, although the influence is elusive and difficult to pin down. This study focuses on genre as marker for audience expectations, and as a structural underpinning which turns on repetition-with-variations. The book traces links between Shakespeare’s comedies of love and screen genres, such as romantic comedy, ‘screwball’ comedy, and musicals, as well as supplying common generic elements such as disguise, gender-transformations, and the problematical ‘shrew-taming’. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet continues to be a prime source for romantic tragedy on screen.

White, R. S. Avant Garde Hamlet: Text, Stage, Screen. New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015, 2017.

In this book White seeks to locate the perennial appeal of Hamlet not in some 'universal' quality nor in its iconic status as a 'classic', but instead in its inherently experimental and rebellious qualities that make it by its very nature an oppositional, 'avant-garde' work of art, and in some ways an anti-classic. For example, it depicts the rebellion of the young against shackling circumstances and attitudes; it attempts to reconnect a ruptured continuity from past times presented as a cause for revenge; it shows madness as a radically different way of viewing normative experience; it traces impulses towards political revolution as an alternative to opting out by fatalism or even suicide; stylistically it exhibits elements of deracinating absurdism, self-parody and surrealism, dark humour, and theatre of cruelty; it challenges us with philosophical contemplations of the “undiscovered country” on the other side of death, all preoccupations running through avant garde works of art. Such sentiments as the following are not the stuff of comfortable art, but instead are delivered in tones of rejective anger and a desire to right wrongs in the world:

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.    (3.2.390-4)

They represent an unsparing, emotional spirit driving those who seek to challenge authority and the trappings of power. And beside such lucidly angry outbursts, stylistically speaking, we also find in Hamlet passages that have been described as 'a kind of weirdly surrealistic jumble' (Raffel 2003: viii). The play’s textual state, its metatheatrical strategies, and generic indeterminacy, are problematical, in the very ways envisaged by experimental writers in all ages, in their attempts to break shackles of form. The early section of the book concentrates on these and other aspects of the play which make Hamlet an anti-formalist, politically subversive, and artistically experimental work, founded on qualities which have always appealed to writers positioning themselves as an independent 'vanguard' seeking consciously to break boundaries. Later chapters explore how similar attitudes inform the more groundbreaking and unusual performances of the play, on stage and in movies. At the heart of the avant-garde stance and range of viewpoints lies an emotional engagement seeking to change the world by defying and challenging authority, in order to make art that is 'ever-now, ever-new'. This is the 'Hamlet' stance.

White, R. S., M. Houlahan and K. O’Loughlin (eds). Shakespeare and Emotions: Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Essays selected from the conference jointly held in 2012 by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association, presenting a range of new perspectives on Shakespeare’s works, based on concepts relating to the history of emotions.