“Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method In’t”: Speculating on [Joss Whedon] Adaptations of Shakespeare

after the avengers
After the Avengers: From Joss Whedon’s Hottest, Newest Franchises to the Future of the Whedonverse, edited by Valerie Frankel, published by PopMatters, 2015

To borrow from Hamlet‘s Polonius, there is something of a method to the madness in Whedon shooting a “homebrew” adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing, during a break on the $220 million franchise mega-hit, The Avengers (Nicholson). Whedon’s idea and execution of a “homecoming party” (Whedon) is wonderfully explored elsewhere in this collection. This essay, on the other hand, shall adopt a posture comparable to that of Much Ado‘s Dogberry, or preferably, Buffy‘s Scooby Gang, in attempting to seek out clues and then speculate on any future Whedon adaptations of Shakespeare.

Through all his types of media, Whedon has consistently pushed himself to be innovative, even when adapting 400 year old plays; so trying to pin-down which project Whedon may make next, and what form it will take, depends on a variety of factors that this essay will explore. Unlike Whedon’s Ord of the Breakworld from Astonishing X-Men, we do not possess time-predicting technology, so there is a speculative sort of “madness” in this chapter, but in equal measure, there is also hopefully something of a method in exploring new endeavours, encouraged by the following quote from Whedon: “I’d love to do more Shakespeare but on the other hand I’d love to do something that I’ve never done before [so] it would have to be a really new enterprise every time” (Carnevale).

The Tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth

As a useful point of orientation, in the accompanying script book for Much Ado, Whedon is asked which play he might consider shooting next, to which he replies: “Twelfth Night and Hamlet are the two favourites of mine” (Whedon and Shakespeare 32). Twelfth Night shall be addressed shortly; for now it is interesting to note that whilst Whedon may love Hamlet, by his own admission it is also the play that he finds most difficult to consider adapting. Much Ado was shot in only 12 days at Whedon’s house, with the purpose of sharing one of the traditional Shakespearean readings that he regularly holds at home with his talented-actor friends. To shoot Hamlet in the same way would be practically impossible. As Whedon explains: Hamlet is something where I’d have to stand back a bit. I don’t think I can just rattle it off’ (Connelly).

This does not preclude Whedon from ever attempting to adapt Hamlet; rather it suggests that he would have to find a different way of adapting the play. It seems clear that as a Shakespearean adaptation with black-and-white aesthetics, Much Adoentered the theatrical (cinema) market as a niche product that would appeal to a very specific target audience. However, there is a recently emergent option, which Whedon might consider to reach a wider audience with a broader time schedule: he could create something for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or HBO on Demand. “Boardwalk Empire meets Hamlet, or Hamlet shot using the sets from Game of Thrones, would be deeply satisfying prospects. These subscription Video-on-Demand (SVoD) providers are not only buying the rights to provide television series and films to their subscription base of over 70 million households (Sharf; Yarow), but they are commissioning and producing original and innovative content from notable directors such as David Fincher, Baz Luhrman and Woody Allen. A mini-serialised adaptation of Shakespeare might be one way in which Whedon could find the creative space and budget to tackle a more demanding play such as Hamlet. Furthermore, without the attached cultural connotations of attending a screening or theatrical production which may act as a barrier to engagement, Shakespeare and Whedon might find new audiences around the world without having to use the less critically esteemed, free online platform of YouTube, which Whedon used for his mini-series: Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog.

For Whedon, there was much “less pressure” in shooting Much Ado over Hamlet, and he would know, given that there was a reading of Hamlet at his home, with himself performing in the title role (Nicholson); but it would be tempting to think that whilst the settings and costumes within Much Ado were modernised, a performance of Hamlet could also be executed in a way similar to that of the 2015 Manchester Theatre production, which also featured modern-dress but also cross-cast the actors: Hamlet was played by the female actress, Maxine Peake. Much Ado‘s leading man, Alexis Denisof once performed in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet as the minor character, Fortibras (View), and he could be promoted to a more significant role, but it is far more tantalising to imagine a Whedonesque female Hamlet, with inner torture comparable to Buffy Summers, the claustrophobic paranoia shown in Echo, the commanding intelligence of Zoe Washburne, or cut from the same classical cloth as Whedon’s (undeveloped) Wonder Woman.

Were the roles to be played “straight”, Hamlet could also be played by Tom Hiddleston – who Whedon directed as the vainglorious Norse trickster, Loki, in The Avengers. In stage and television adaptations, Hiddleston has performed in productions of Shakespeare’s Othello (as Cassio), Henry IV (as Prince Hal), and in the leading roles for Henry V, Cymbeline, and Coriolanus, which would all make him more than qualified to play the Prince of Denmark. Furthermore, if Summer Glau channeled her “River Tam” to perform as Ophelia, her characters’ descent into melancholic madness would be a devastatingly beautiful and haunting compliment to the tortured, fragile and duplicitous madness that Whedon has already elicited in performances from Hiddleston.

Still, whereas the Manchester stage production was also filmed live for cinema distribution, Whedon is quite emphatic that he would always prefer “a captured performance, but not in a proscenium way. […] Making a film that had the energy of a play in the language of film” (Whedon). In wanting to avoid repeating himself, Whedon might not wish to replicate his intent to “evoke a film noir kind of look” as he did shooting at his home in Much Ado (Whedon); instead he might adapt the piece into an entirely different film genre, such as a modern gothic horror, feeding on the same creative impulses that developed The Cabin in the Woods and Buffy. If Whedon would also wish to avoid shooting any more adaptations in his house, then he might be able to use sets from his Executively Produced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the television show encompasses sets from ancient underground temple cities, through to chrome and steel modern military operation centres, and as the show is still in production there is a higher likelihood of the sets still being available.

Macbeth‘s dark themes as the characters fight predestination parallel Whedon’s explorations of free will and descent into evil, making it another excellent choice for adaptation. Having also recently starred in Jim Jarmusch’s contemporary vampire love-story, Only Lovers Left Alive, Hiddleston would be a strong candidate for any gothic-themed Shakespeare. However, another choice for a gothic adaptation is James Marsters, who has not only played Spike the vampire in Buffy, but has played the lead character in one of Whedon’s readings of Macbeth (Mellor), and has professionally performed on stage in his own abridged adaptation of Macbeth in 2005. To complement Marsters, and drawing analogies from the same Buffy-punk source to cast Macbeth, one might then cast Eliza Dushku as Lady Macbeth. Dushku has no theatre experience, but in her performances for Whedon she always plays tenacious yet “damaged” characters that make egregious errors in judgment (not always by her own volition) and must deal with the psychological fallout. For example, in the episode “Bad Girls” (B.3.14), there are already echoes of Lady Macbeth’s bloody hands scene when, racked with guilt, Faith tries her hardest to wash blood from herself after accidentally killing a man – but fails to remove the emotional guilt and shame (Richardson and Rabb, “Buffy, Faith and Bad Faith”). She and Angel have a similar relationship to the Macbeths as each character pushes the other to stop wallowing in despair, take responsibility, and act to improve their lives.

According to the director of photography for Much Ado, Jay Hunter, “the equipment used on the shoot were two Red Epic with Panavision lenses for the A & B cameras” (Fleischmann), the same technology used to shoot The Hobbit and The Amazing Spider-Man. Using this type of Hollywood technology on what is a relatively low-budget indie project suggests that whatever form of adaptation Hamlet or Macbethmight take, Whedon’s approach is to work to the highest possible standards available, scaling down the production only where necessary due to location or time constraints. It might be then, in adapting Hamlet, Whedon could focus on a single aspect of the play, in the same way that Tom Stoppard created the comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead from two minor characters (imagine Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk playing the roles); or Whedon could adapt a version of The Scottish Play, in the same way that Akira Kurosawa made the epic Throne of Blood – elevating the spectral elements and bringing in stylistic elements from elsewhere, which for Kurosawa was Noh theatre and feudal Japan, but for Whedon could be aspects from his own past creations (which would be an archeological pleasure for fans) such as the post-apocalyptic future depicted in Dollhouse, or the Chinese infused space western ‘verse of Firefly: The Good, The Bard, and the Powerful Ugly, perhaps?…


The full 3,100 word version of this article is published in After the Avengers: From Joss Whedon’s Hottest, Newest Franchises to the Future of the Whedonverse, edited by Valerie Frankel, published by PopMatters, 2015.


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