Bard’s saga of crime and punishment
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

Shakespeare’s Cinema of Crime.
R.S. White. The Shakespeare Association.
Pages 182. Rs 695.

Shakespeare’s Cinema of Crime.In the history of contemporary criminology, one often comes across references to crime in art and literature with the purpose of investigating complex questions of law and justice. Going beyond the constraints of the narrow boundaries of a discipline brings up an interdisciplinary study that broadens the field of jurisprudence through motivations and solutions to the sociology of crime.

Crime writers (how can we neglect William Shakespeare within this genre?) can be considered significant sources of inquiry into the intricacies of the criminal mind, leading to the development of theoretical approaches for conceptualising criminal behaviour and social control.

This book by R.S. White has given new dimensions to Shakespeare by associating him with modern-day crime thrillers in cinematic form. Numerous plot-lines of Hollywood films are shown to have been inspired by two of Shakespeare’s tragic plays — Macbeth and Hamlet. The interesting component is the crime theme. As White argues: "When we look at cinematic crime thrillers, detective stories and film noirs in general, we can see the recurrence of at least some generic features drawn from Macbeth and Hamlet especially. The first provides the basis of a murderer’s guilt, a prevailing atmosphere of menace, and the most famous femme fatale in literary history — adding up to the ingredients for film noir; (the latter) the prototype for an investigative detective on the tracks of a murderer and becoming implicated himself for personal revenge for the death of a family member."

Resemblance between Shakespeare’s plays and modern-day cinematic representations, as the book reveals, is not merely at the level of form; the categories of analysis are indeed genre-based. They become tools with which larger motivations are explored. The appeal for use of Shakespeare on the screen is the dark amoral nature of characters such as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well as Hamlet. All these characters stand out as vivid examples of violent behaviour as also the suffering that is felt within as a result of the action.

The twentieth century sees in their behaviour something akin to its ways of thinking. This may be one reason why White chose cinema as the genre for questioning and investigation of the causes behind crime. Within this context, the 1940s are taken as the starting point of what is considered the noir-corporate or war-noir. If the issue is taken up with respect to technological developments, the noir could be extended to "docu-noir" too: "The term was coined in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank to indicate a particular kind of Roman noir, and descriptions first aired in the early 1940s (even before the term was invented) which established it as a distinctive visual style or movement rather than a genre in its own right. There are several sub-sub-genres depending on the context and setting: corporate noir replaces a criminal underworld with an executive suite and it has become more and more common as a setting for conscious adaptations of Macbeth such as Joe Macbeth (1955), Men of Respect (1991), and Maqbool (2003). Other hybrid and related forms have been treated as discrete, but some basic structural, narrative and stylistic elements occur in each." Thus we see that even as genres appear, the corporate is replaced by the criminal underworld, which means that the two are not just related but in fact integral to one another.

The reference in large measure to Indian films is instructive. Maqbool and Omkara suggest the presence of the sinister in Indian conditions. Matters of state at the highest level in Shakespeare’s texts are shown in their Indian representations as brash and superficial. In Shakespeare, psychology was emphasised whereas in these two films, verbal crudities and violent ways are in the forefront. This is vaguely suggested by "sub-sub-genres depending on the context and setting". A tribute to Shakespeare’s genius but it may come out as gross misuse of Shakespeare as a valuable intellectual resource. White says: "Many ‘purists’ amongst Shakespeare admirers (may be) shocked to find the plays they revere brought into the same orbit as the popular film industry and ‘trashy’ B-movies."

The breadth and scope of Shakespeare’s vision are indeed the stamp of his brilliance that has its impact both on the high and the low.