"No director is happy ending a Shakespeare play where Shakespeare intended to end it," said Peter Saccio, as he introduced writer/director Michael Radford's 2004 film version of Merchant of Venice this fall at the Loew Theater. "Our directors are anxious to shape our experiences."
Saccio, the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies, has been shaping the way Dartmouth students experience Shakespeare for 40 years. Merchant was one of nine film versions of Shakespeare plays he introduced at the Loew in conjunction with English 24—his perennially popular survey.
Retiring after what most would describe as a legendary career, Saccio is teaching the survey for the last time this year. He came to Dartmouth in 1966 as an instructor in the English department and, in the decades since, has brought Elizabethan drama and Shakespeare to life for generations of students.
To a packed audience at the Loew, Saccio delved into the complexities of Merchant, a play that until 2004 had not received a full production for the screen. He described how the director, working with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Bassanio, recreated the Venice of 1596. "The costumes, the architectural details are accurate to the period," he said. "Even the lighting plays with shadow and color—as did Caravaggio." He explained the various ways in which Merchant has been interpreted and puzzled over, drawing attention to how Radford conveyed the fear that must have surrounded Jewish inhabitants of Venice in the late 16th century.
This is the second Shakespeare film series he's held at the College, working with Bill Pence, Director of Film at the Hopkins Center. The first took place in 1999 based on what Saccio described as "an enormous revival of Shakespeare on film. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) was the first full-length English language movie version of a Shakespeare play since Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971).
Shakespeare is particularly compelling to young people now, Saccio explained, because they "read films so well." Films portray intimate details as well as epic effects. "Take Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing for example. I tell my students to think about the double eavesdropping scene that they've read and then to look at Branagh's choice of camera angles, music and physical movements for the actors. Audiences at the Globe in Shakespeare's time experienced these plays in ways we would now describe as cinematic," he said. "The stage was large enough for epic effects but the circular arrangement made intimate moments possible as well."
"[Saccio] becomes so completely invested in the plays. His passion makes it impossible not to get swept up in the magic."
- Kathryn Funderburk '07
"He's amazing. I've been lucky enough to take two classes with him, and he makes going to class something you look forward to."
- Paul Bousquet '08
Saccio, Shakespeare and the Dartmouth experience are inextricably linked. "He's amazing," said Paul Bousquet '08. "I've been lucky enough to take two classes with him, and he makes going to class something you look forward to."
The author of several books, including the definitive Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama, Saccio is internationally known and admired. In addition to English 24 and the related film series, he teaches an advanced seminar on Hamlet and his lectures are featured in the popular Teaching Company audio and video series, where they've been described by AudioFile magazine as "sparkling with excitement."
"I find myself constantly revisiting his lectures," said Kathryn Funderburk '07. "I discover Richards, Henrys and Beatrices scattered along my paths. [Saccio] becomes so completely invested in the plays. His passion makes it impossible not to get swept up in the magic."
That magic is nowhere more apparent than in "The Death of Falstaff," the session that marks the midway point in English 24. During Saccio's lecture, this short sequence from Henry V becomes a window into Shakespeare's art. It's a display of scholarship, a fearful discourse on mortality, a brilliant performance and a soul-searing personal conversation about grief.
Colin Partridge '72, who studied with Saccio as an undergraduate, said it was unforgettable then—and particularly meaningful now—after the recent death of his father. "It's a tour de force, theatrical, deeply thoughtful," he said. "It captures Shakespeare's clear concept of what we go through when someone close to us dies."
On the day of the lecture, Saccio begins almost dispassionately. "The death of Falstaff," he says, "is a short passage, in prose, related by simple characters leading common lives."
And then he begins to act the parts of those characters, explaining between lines how Shakespeare employs biblical allusion, Elizabethan thought and culture, word play and stage direction. He describes how Falstaff, near death, plays with his bedclothes and examines his fingertips, noting that contemporary doctors tell him that what Shakespeare portrayed four centuries ago is grounded in the physical reality of death.
The room becomes electric.
Saccio continues, "For Falstaff, in his final moments the world is getting smaller and smaller. He is 'focusing down'—as dying people do." He points out a reference to the 23rd Psalm towards the end of the scene and begins, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want..." and the classroom becomes utterly silent, spellbound.
Breaking the silence, Saccio concludes, "I've been trying to enter into Shakespeare's imagination. He imagined a scene that was peaceful, hopeful, bawdy, silly, childish, drunken, lecherous and terrifying—terrifying both physically and spiritually. All at once, in only 40 lines. I put my cards on the table," he concludes. "The man could write."
By LAUREL STAVIS
*King Lear, Act 5, scene 2
Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.
Last Updated: 5/30/08