Film and Renaissance Drama
Sample Teaching Projects
Shari Hodges, Ph. D.
Play: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Film: Bedazzled (1967)
In this comic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore), a shy short order cook in a London diner, is the "Faustian hero." Suffering from an inferiority complex and a hopeless infatuation with Margaret, a beautiful waitress, Stanley attempts suicide but is saved by George Spigot (Peter Cook), an attractive, sophisticated night club owner who is actually the Devil in disguise. Having introduced Stanley to the Seven Deadly Sins (including Lust, played by Raquel Welch), George persuades Stanley to surrender his soul in exchange for seven "wishes." With each wish, Stanley attempts to gain Margarets love. When the wishes fail him, Stanley determines to win Margaret through his own efforts. He regains his soul and learns to believe in himself.
Before the Film:
- Reading: Students should have read Dr. Faustus.
- Oral Report: Student oral report on The Counter-Renaissance, by Hiram Haydn Collins
- Lecture and Class Discussion:
- Classroom discussion of the play in its cultural context of Renaissance ideologies: the traditional Renaissance world view; concept of the "Great Chain of Being"; ideologies of the Counter-Renaissance; the conflict between Renaissance humanism and the rigid, hierarchical Christian cosmology that the Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages.
- Background lecture on the films culture context: Existentialism; Absurdist Theatre; 1960s counterculture; increased emphasis on individuality; the "Me generation"; questioning of traditional authority.
Discussion Questions for Bedazzled
1. Compare Stanley Moon and Doctor Faustus. How does each feel about his own life? Why does each turn to the Devil instead of God for fulfillment?
2. Compare Stanleys and Faustus goals. What do they want to gain from their deals with the Devil?
3. Compare the protagonists respective fates. Why is Stanley redeemed and Faustus damned? How do the opposing fates of these protagonists reflect cultural/ideological differences between the Renaissance and the 1960s?
4. Describe the films portrayal of the Devil in the character of George Spigot. What are his attractive or likable qualities? Is he an entirely favorable character? Does he really care about Stanley? How would you compare George to Mephostophilis and the other devils in Marlowes play?
5. What is your reaction to the films portrayal of God? (Note: God and George are playing a "game" for human souls; if George damns a certain number of souls, God will readmit him to heaven.) How would you compare God to George? What is implied by the films final scene of the whirling merry-go-round with God laughing in the background? Compare this portrayal with the concepts of God proposed throughout Doctor Faustus.
6. How would you compare the films depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins to their depiction in the play? What is the significance of the Sins in their Renaissance and 1960s incarnations?
Play: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Film: Macbeth (1972), Dir. Roman Polanski
Perhaps the best cure for the feelings of intimidation students commonly experience when approaching Shakespeare is to witness Shakespeare in performance. The interpretation provided by a performance can often assist students with difficulties of language and meaning more quickly and efficiently than a discussion of the text. It is also helpful to compare multiple performances of a scene to demonstrate that a single performance is one of many possible readings of the text. Film is an ideal medium for such classroom study of Shakespeare in performance. Film adaptations likewise illustrate how Shakespeares plays remain relevant in various cultural/historical contexts.
Roman Polanskis film of Macbeth exhibits the personal influence of tragedy in Polanskis life and the cultural influence of chaotic social forces in the early 1970s. Macbeth was the first film Polanski directed after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate in 1969 by the Charles Manson Family. Shakespeares plot and Polanskis own interpretation of key scenes bear striking similarities to the Manson murder case. In reflecting a tragedy that embodied the collapse of the 1960s "Summer of Love" ideals, the film dramatizes the periods disappointment with the 1960s counterculture and thus places Shakespeares themes in a new cultural and historical context.
Before the Film:
- Reading: Students should have read Macbeth.
- Oral Report: Students oral report on selections from Helter Skelter (by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry), an account of the Manson Family murders.
- Lecture and Class Discussion:
- Background lecture on the films cultural context: collapse of 1960s countercultural ideals; the Vietnam War; the "cult of youth"; the drug culture.
- Discussion of the Manson case as a manifestation of American cultural conditions of the period.
Discussion Questions for Polanskis Macbeth
1. What reflections of the Manson murder case do you see in Polanskis interpretation of Macbeth? Compare the functions of prophecy in Shakespeares play and the Manson crimes. (Instructor Note: Manson was encouraged to order the Tate-La Bianca murders by "prophecies" of a race war that he claimed to hear in the songs of the Beatles.) How does the films evocation of the Manson murders illustrate themes of guilt and responsibility in Shakespeares play?
2. What manifestations do you see of the 60s drug culture and "cult of youth" in Polanskis interpretation? How does the film intimate criticism of the 1960s counterculture? (Instructors Note: In Macbeths final visit to the witches, his visions of the witches prophecies are drug-induced. Note also that drug-use was one factor in Mansons ability to incite his followers to violence. The films reflection of the increasing cultural ambivalence toward the 1960s drug culturethe discovery that instead of "expanding your mind" drugs can provoke violence and destructive misinterpretationsis one way in which the film envisions the 70s growing disillusionment with the 60s counterculture.)
3. Discuss the portrayals of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Were they what you expected? What is the effect of Lady Macbeths childlike, angelic appearance? Is she effectively portrayed as an instrument of evil? The filmmakers deliberately cast young, attractive actors in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Does this fact undermine or enhance their ability to create terror in the audience? Discuss the relationship between the Macbeths physical appearance and the themes of appearance and equivocation explored throughout the play.
4. Discuss the films portrayal of the witches. What is the effect of the graphic nudity in the witches coven scene? To what degree are the witches responsible for Macbeths downfall? What roles do fate and free will play in Macbeths destruction?
5. What is the effect of Lady Macbeth performing the sleepwalking scene in the nude? What does her appearance suggest about her state of mind?
6. Discuss the role of Ross as a unifying symbol of equivocation and deceit. (Instructors Note: Through various interpolations, Polanskis film depicts Ross as a self-serving traitor who continually manipulates events to his own advantage. For instance, only moments after comforting Lady Macduff, he allows Macbeths henchmen into the castle to murder her.)
7. Discuss the films chain imagery and animal imagery (note especially the chains of office and the bear-baiting scene). How does this imagery visualize the plays themes of ambition and fate?
8. This version of Macbeth is noted for its naturalism. It attempts to recreate realistically the physical details of daily life in medieval Scotland. Does the films naturalism undermine or reinforce the plays symbolic content?
9. In Shakespeares play, many of the murders occur off-stage, but Polanski portrays all the murders in graphic detail. Discuss possible reasons for the films graphic violence.
10. At the films conclusion, Polanski adds a scene not in the play. Malcolms brother Donalbain visits the witches coven, evidently with the intention of enlisting their help to usurp his brothers throne. What is the effect of this addition?
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