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Silent Shakespeare: York academic contributes to new DVD

Posted on 1 August 2016

A University of York academic has collaborated with the British Film Institute (BFI) to produce a new DVD about Shakespeare in silent film.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Vitagraph, 1909)

Professor Judith Buchanan, an academic in York’s Department of English and Related Literature, provides voiceovers for ten silent films in Play On!: Shakespeare in Silent Film, alongside a score composed and played by musicians at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Out now, the DVD brings back into circulation a collection of silent Shakespeare films from archives not previously available to public audiences.Films include: a one-reel version of The Tempest from 1908; A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1909; a hand-coloured Italian version of The Merchant of Venice shot in Venice; a 1911 compressed film recording of Richard III shot on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon; and the first ever appearance of Sir John Gielgud on film as Romeo, in 1924.

Professor Buchanan’s research explores what once made silent Shakespeare filmmaking so popular compared to other modes of popular engagement with the playwright, analysing its early exhibition and reception. Her book, Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse, published by Cambridge University Press, tells the stories of these films.

Alongside her research, Professor Buchanan runs the Silents Now project, bringing silent films to contemporary audiences in fresh ways. This year – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – Silents Now has produced Shakespeare programmes in the UK, Adelaide and Chicago.

Professor Buchanan said: “The idea of silent Shakespeare strikes many as an oxymoron. Doesn’t a silent Shakespeare film strip away all that is nuanced, beautiful and meaningful in Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry? And yet, between 1899, when the first silent Shakespeare film was made, and 1927, when the first commercial sound film was released, nearly 300 silent Shakespeare filmswere made. That’s evidently more than just an eccentric sideline in the early film industry: something about the collaboration between Shakespeare and silent film clearly worked.”

“Sadly, many silent Shakespeare films have since been lost, destroyed or have disintegrated beyond the point of possible restoration. But those that have survived can still surprise. The new release of these archival survivors invites us to re-summon the delight that can be taken in these long-gone actors, their inventive acts of cinematic Shakespearean story-telling and the wider world to which they point.”

Professor Buchanan, along with the BFI’s silent film curator, has also contributed to a short film documentary for the British Council and BBC’s Shakespeare Lives season. To watch, visit:

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