Analysis: your guide to the best of Shakespeare to watch on RTÉ and elsewhere in the middle of a lockdown and global pandemic

Stay home and read Shakespeare: this sage advice was given by The Irish Times during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. The paper offered suggestions for how citizens might best pass the time during curfew and conversation with one's family, gardening, DIY and reading were all recommended. In particular though, the editorial observed, this "enforced domesticity" was a prime opportunity to become more familiar with the works of Shakespeare and to commemorate the tercentenary of his death that month. 

Writing over 100 years later, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I have to concur with and expand on this advice to stay in and read Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare is always a worthwhile pursuit, but this is really a perfect moment to watch Shakespeare.

Over the next three weeks, RTÉ will be screening many of Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, and romances. Several international theatres are making their Shakespeare productions freely available online or on TV, and various streaming services already offer multiple film adaptations of the Bard’s work to their viewers. Thus, this is an ideal time to stay home and "brush up your Shakespeare" – as the gangsters sing in Kiss Me Kate, a colourful Cole Porter musical that is a spin-off of The Taming of the Shrew.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Niall MacMonagle on Hamlet

RTÉ's Shakespeare screenings aimed at Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate students present us with several gems. The RSC production of Hamlet was screened last weekend and is now available online. To get the most out of this film, students may be interested in the Q&A discussion of the play by Cyclone Rep Theatre Company, Ireland’s leading theatre-in-education company. Although their tour schedule was cut short by the lockdown, Cyclone Rep has a range of online resources on Shakespeare’s plays that will be of use to teachers, students, and home-schooling parents.

For sheer acting talent, we can sit back and enjoy a young Helen Mirren as Rosalind in the comedy As You Like It. As the largest female role in all of Shakespeare, the cross-dressed Rosalind is arguably the greatest heroine in the canon: she is funny, clever, and plucky, she pursues her beloved Orlando, and arranges their marriage and those of several other couples to orchestrate the play's happy ending.

From RTÉ Archives, Cathy O'Halloran reports for RTÉ News on a 2005 gangland-inspired version of Romeo & Juliet in Limerick

Filmed in 1978, the BBC's Romeo and Juliet will screen on RTÉ2 in May. A young Alan Rickman plays Tybalt, the hot-headed Capulet, and in his cheeky villainy we can surely detect hints of Rickman's Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, seen on film in more recent years. Although 24 years old now, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet is an unmissable adaptation of the tragedy of star-crossed lovers. The performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the action, and soundtrack remain as fresh and engaging as they were in 1996. For many of the students I teach today, this is the movie that hooked them on Shakespeare.

For more delightful escapism, it is hard to beat A Midsummer Night's Dream. Three plots interweave in this comedy: four lovers run around a forest at night, the faery king and queen have a marital spat, and an amateur actor called Bottom gets transformed into a donkey. What’s not to love? RTÉ2 is screening the BBC’s 2016 film of this comedy, which was adapted by Russell T Davies and was made as part of the commemorations for the Shakespeare quatercentenary. It features stars from the stage and screen including Matt Lucas, Maxine Peake, John Hannah and Elaine Paige. Fresh and modern, and with many clever references to familiar films and TV shows – from Hannibal Lecter and Harry Potter to Little Britain and Doctor Who – this production is bound to appeal to a broad audience.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Sophie Gorman reviews Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Company's production of Much Ado About Nothing at the 2014 Kilkenny Arts Festival

Later in April, RTÉ2 will screen Much Ado About Nothing. Kenneth Branagh's film of this comedy was a box-office hit in 1993. Branagh starred in the film opposite his then wife Emma Thompson, with Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale and Michael Keaton in supporting roles. Belfast-born Branagh is a master of cinematic genres and styles, and a range of influences shaped Much Ado, including rom-coms, Westerns, period films, action movies, and the comedy of the Three Stooges and Monty Python. Shot in a palatial villa in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, if you are in need of some sunshine, romance, and slapstick comedy, this is the Shakespeare film for you!

READ: As you like it: Kenneth Branagh, Shakespeare and Irishness

For more serious fare, and for anyone interested in war movies, Branagh’s Henry V is worth watching. A hit in 1989, this film singlehandedly kick-started the revival of Shakespeare in the cinema. Although set in the medieval era and telling the story of England-as-underdog defeating the French at the Battle of Agincourt, the film can comfortably sit alongside classic war films, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which it borrows from and imitates. A more recent Shakespearean war movie is Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus. Filmed in the Balkans, it sees Fiennes face off against Gerard Butler and, with a pared back script and plenty of explosions, gun fights, and bloody battles, this film will keep everyone entertained.

Cheek By Jowl's 2017 production of The Winter's Tale

There are many opportunities to catch Shakespeare via "live" theatre. Shakespeare's Globe theatre has released its Hamlet, starring Michelle Terry, via the Globe’s channel on YouTube, and several comedies and tragedies are set to follow. Each production will be available on YouTube for a fortnight from their release date. The Royal Shakespeare Company meanwhile will broadcast a half dozen of its productions on BBC in the coming months. The National Theatre will stream the cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night in late April and Cheek By Jowl, one of the UK’s most iconic theatre companies, has released its 2017 production of Shakespeare’s bittersweet late play, The Winter's Tale. The Barn Theatre has released its Henry V, a contemporary adaptation which engages with topical issues such as modern warfare and Brexit.

If straightforward adaptations don't appeal to all viewers, there are lots of enjoyable spin-offs and appropriations of Shakespeare that bear his influence, if not his exact words. Teenagers will especially enjoy the 1990s' classic comedies 10 Things I Hate About You and She's the Man. 10 Things features a superb Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles as a sparky high school version of the warring married couple in The Taming of the Shrew. Starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum, She’s the Man similarly takes an American high school as its backdrop and presents a comical, complex love triangle, as Bynes’ Viola cross-dresses as her twin brother so that she can play football.

READ: The bawdy world of Shakespeare's sex workers

With Romeo and Juliet at its heart, Shakespeare in Love offers audiences laughs, tears, and an Oscar-winning performance from Judi Dench for her 8 minutes on screen as a formidable Queen Elizabeth I. Romeo and Juliet also forms the basis for the zom-rom-com Warm Bodies. Set in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, the star-crossed lovers are comically R, one of the walking dead, and the very-much-alive human Julie. Unlike its tragic source, this story ends happily, as Julie’s love and kindness literally brings life back to the dead and ultimately saves the world. As we remain in lockdown amidst a global pandemic, this strikes me as a really appealing message, so I for one, am going to Stay Home and Watch Shakespeare.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ