Beyond Shakespeare on the small screen

15th August 2013

I am delighted to have been invited to edit a special edition of the journal Shakespeare Bulletin to appear in 2015. Published by The John Hopkins University Press, the journal has as one of its editors Pascale Aebischer, who is the author of the new – and highly recommended – book, Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare (borrow it from a library, the cover price is a tad steep).

Pascale and I share an interest in screen adaptations of plays by early modern authors other than Shakespeare, and the presentation of these works on television and other screen media (although not movies) is the focus of the issue that we have titled ‘Beyond Shakespeare on the small screen’. This is the call for proposals (which can also be found here) – and then across the jump I discuss the idea a little more, as well as embedding two relevant examples. One is an amazing version of the opening scene of Robert Greene’s The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay; the other is Bed Trick (with Sinéad Mathews, above), a rather wonderful if also oblique example from The Young Vic and the Guardian of what I’m talking about:

The issue will consider a wide range of adaptations of early modern drama by authors other than Shakespeare produced for media forms that were not primarily conceived for cinema distribution. We are interested in critical and analytical discussions of plays from medieval literature through to the 1630s that have been adapted for broadcast television in Britain or elsewhere, for DVD distribution in either a commercial and/or an educational context, and for other forms of digital or online dissemination.

Proposals of up to 300 words for academic articles should be sent to me (email: by 31 March 2014. I would also be very interested to hear about any projects that you think I and colleagues might consider for discussion.

As was highlighted by the Screen Plays season of Jacobean tragedy at BFI Southbank earlier this year, British television has made comparatively few adaptations of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and by those writing before and just after him. But there are some wonderful examples, including James MacTaggart’s BBC production of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and a quite brilliant adaptation of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore directed by Roland Joffé.

Beyond the Jacobeans there are also one or two adaptations of Christopher Marlowe and some fine broadcast versions of Mystery Cycles, including the Chester Mystery Cycle directed by Piers Haggard in 1976 and Bill Bryden’s National Theatre The Mysteries, which was filmed for Channel 4. Then there are oddities scattered through the television archive, including this remarkable clip from An Elizabethan Evening transmitted by BBC Television on 17 February 1953. What was then the only television channel assembled an entire evening of programmes in a ‘Tudor style’. The idea was to celebrate the forthcoming Coronation of ‘the new Elizabeth’ and the drama offering was this opening scene from The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by Robert Greene around 1589.

(I am deeply grateful to the actor and director James Wallace for this reference, and am still amazed at both the realisation of the whole evening and the fact that sixty years ago the BBC broadcast a scene from a Robert Greene play!)

Fortunately, such is the richness of our media world today, we no longer have to rely on television for screen adaptations of early modern drama. A filmed version of the York Mystery Plays can be purchased on DVD. Stage on Screen has a filmed version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. There is a version of Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters online courtesy of the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York. All of these and more – and I intend to compile a fuller list of such resources for a future post – might be a focus for an article for Shakespeare Bulletin, as might (along with a discussion of what is and is not an ‘adaptation’) the film Bed Trick.

Bed Trick was ‘inspired by’ a production at the Young Vic of The Changeling, a seventeenth-century play by  Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins writes here about the film and its relationship with The Changeling. Enjoy – and note that he is about to take on Marlowe’s Edward II for the National Theatre; the production begins previewing on 28 August.


  1. […] Wyver always turns up fascinating material in his Illuminations blog, and this post, about TV versions of non-Shakespearean plays (to be the focus of an issue of Shakespeare Bulletin […]

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