It has been nearly four hundred years since Shakespeare's
fellow actors and theatrical partners, John Heminge and Henry
Condell, addressed the First Folio of Shakespeare's collected
works "To the great Variety of Readers. From the most
able, to him that can but spell," yet those who know
and love Shakespeare best are still trying to convince the
mainstream populace that Shakespeare is for everyone.
This point is made clear by the plethora of large-scale,
English language Shakespearean films which have surfaced in
the last decade, including one recent film that takes a fictional
look at Shakespeare in Love. However, actor Al Pacino
has confronted the issue more directly than any other filmmaker
in his labor of love, Looking for Richard, a
self-proclaimed "docu-drama type thing" which aims
at making Shakespeare's work more accessible and less intimidating
to the person on the street by recording and annotating a
performance of Richard III on several illuminating
Heminge and Condell also warn that if you read Shakespeare
and "do not like him, surely you are in some manifest
danger, not to understand him," and it is precisely this
problem Pacino sets out to remedy: if people understand him,
they will come. So Pacino markets Shakespeare to the timorous,
uninterested, and unsuspecting masses. Pacino, like Heminge
and Condell, mixes a perhaps crass appeal to all citizens
to buy or invest in Shakespeare with high praise of Shakespeare's
artistic value and an invitation to examine his work for personal
The intended audience for this film seems to be the average
American: a creature known, at least among the cultural elite,
for its inability to comprehend or identify irony and its
disinterest in any form of culture that might ask it to think
on an intellectual or artistic level of any depth. Pacino
declares that he intends to communicate to the American public
that Shakespeare "is about how we feel and how we think
today." In other words (or in those of Jan Kott), Shakespeare
is our contemporary, and his works hold truths and "meanings,"
an often repeated word in the film, that can influence, inspire,
and move us today.
And why should the great masses of the United States care
about the work of the great English Bard of Avon? Pacino credits
Shakespeare with the capability of inspiring higher moral
values and greater truthfulness in language, which he accomplishes
through interviews with theatre and film actors and with people
walking down the street. In order to bring Shakespeare into
the public arena, he takes his camera and microphone into
the streets of New York City and asks random passers-by questions
like "What do you think of Shakespeare?" and "Is
there anything that hinders your enjoyment of Shakespeare?"
(to which one man answers: "Yeah. It's boring.")
But Pacino's coup de theatre in the street is an interview
with a snaggletoothed, African-American panhandler who tells
Pacino the following:
When we speak without feeling, we get nothing from our
society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce
Shakespeare into our academics. You know why? 'Cause then
the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That's
why it's easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other.
We don't feel for each other. If we were taught to
feel, we wouldn't be so violent.
When Pacino, off camera, asks him if he thinks Shakespeare
helps us feel, the man declares soulfully, "He did more
than help us: he instructed us." It is a public
service message to Americans, and despite the hyperbolic claims,
this oration seems to come from the mouth of a sage of the
street, serving Pacino's purposes well.
In Looking for Richard, Pacino is marketing
Shakespeare. In an encounter with some small children on a
sidewalk at the start of the film, Pacino asks them, "You
know Shakespeare? William Shakespeare?," then announces
with a gleam in his eye, "We're peddling him on the streets."
And indeed he is, but more importantly, he is peddling Shakespeare
on film, in a film that will reach millions for the cause
of spreading the gospel of Shakespeare.
However, Pacino is not selling the sacred Shakespeare of
the pedant here; it is the Shakespeare of the actor and of
the people, a point he makes vividly clear by choosing two
very stuffy-looking British scholars, Barbara Everett and
Emrys Jones, to represent the academic approach to Shakespeare.
Ensconced in their book-lined offices, these pedants gaze
into the camera and pontificate occasionally on the fine points
of textual interpretation and historical background of Richard
This sterile academic environment is juxtaposed with the
incredibly vibrant and sometimes even volatile interaction
of the actors as they perform, argue about characterization,
and revel in the sound of the language itself. At one point,
Pacino's assistant Frederic Kimball angrily insists that Pacino
knows more about Richard III than any Ivy League scholar,
declaring "Actors truly are the possessors, the proud
inheritors of the understanding of Shakespeare!" The
message is clear: Shakespeare's text is meant to be performed;
it is a living, breathing thing in the mouths of actors from
generation to generation. It is not meant to be stuck in a
huge, unwieldy leather-bound volume, placed proudly on the
library shelf, and never opened.
Although the performative nature of Shakespeare is emphasized
repeatedly by many respected scholars, such as Stanley Wells
and Peter Holland, Pacino chooses to simplify the relationship
between the scholar and the play in order to reveal how the
cultural elite have in some senses buried Shakespeare's true
significance to and connection with the average person; in
essence, the academics have claimed Shakespeare as their own
"property." Pacino tells us in Looking for Richard
that we should be looking for Shakespeare's Richard III
in performances of the play, in the world around us, and in
ourselves, not on the bookshelf.
Al Pacino uses several devices and methods to help the film
audience discover a Richard they can recognize and understand.
Meanwhile, however, the audience is also getting a more personal
view of this traditionally taciturn star. And perhaps looking
for Pacino in his own docu-drama is apropos considering he
is Looking for Richard in Richard III. In fact,
in Time magazine Richard Corliss criticized the film
for being "naive" and "wildly self-indulgent,"
asserting that in approaching Looking for Richard,
"You come Looking for Richard and find Al."
Nevertheless, I believe that the cinematic and narrative
structures of Looking for Richard reveal and clarify
Pacino's project. Typical of documentary film, Pacino utilizes
a hand-held camera a good deal and conducts man-on-the-street
interviews, which are perhaps more reminiscent of the evening
newscast than anything else. By jumping between the general
Joe on the street and stage and film luminaries like John
Geilgud and Vanessa Redgrave, Pacino accomplishes a levelling
or equalizing. Although most of the people he runs into on
the street are clueless and apathetic about Shakespeare, the
actors who have clearly invested time and energy in the Bard's
work are passionate about and inspired by it. They did it
and so can you. Pacino is communicating that investing in
Shakespeare is worthwhile for everyone; Shakespeare can enrich
There are two sets of parallel scenes that epitomize this
technique and also give a good feel for the tone and mission
of the film. The first set of scenes begins with the introduction
of the character of Margaret into the polished, full-costume
film of the play, then cuts away to the actors discussing
their interpretation of the character, while a disembodied
voice-over of Vanessa Redgrave decries the difficulty of comprehending
Shakespeare in a world in which "for centuries . . .
word has been divorced from truth." We are given a quick
shot of Redgrave being interviewed, then cut directly to our
original New York sage on the street whose words profoundly
mirror those of Redgrave in the vernacular.
The panhandler's assertion that, "If we felt what we
said, we'd say less and mean more," is complemented by
Howard Shore's intensifying musical score swelling in the
background. Pacino is highlighting his point once again: The
two individuals in those last few seconds of film could not
be more dissimilar; they are of different nationalities, races,
genders, social classes, and educational levels, yet they
have arrived at the same conclusion about language and meaning
and they both believe that studying Shakespeare's language
could help remedy the ills of our postmodern society. The
symmetry of these scenes is ineluctable and poignant.
The second set of scenes feature Frederic Kimball raving
about actors being the true "possessors" of the
Shakespearean text in a memorable quotation I have already
given in this paper. He insists that the actor, not the scholar,
is the most intimate with Shakespeare. The scene then cuts
to the office of Emrys Jones. Perhaps the symmetry of the
scenes speak for itself, but it is worth pointing out that
in taking the omniscient scholar down a few notches, Pacino
again is effecting an equalizing of the disciples of Shakespeare.
None of us can claim him for our sole property; the nature
of the Shakespearean text itself works to evade this type
of exclusive ownership.
Pacino brilliantly implements an MTV-esque film technique
of quick cuts between disparate locations and activities,
creating what one critic calls "a dazzling mosaic of
comic documentary and dramatic performance." The lack
of the classic Hollywood establishing shot during these fast-moving
sequences is edgy, avant-garde filmmaking and often leaves
the audience disoriented and unsure of its location (could
be New York, London, Stratford, etc.); yet somehow this technique
works in a sophisticated manner to emphasize Pacino's main
focus: to demythologize the Bard, or as one critic put it,
to attempt "demystification through deconstruction."
Location is irrelevant; understanding is all.
However, not everyone agrees that this technique aids comprehension.
Veteran film critic Stanley Kauffman writes that the "fragmentary"
technique of the film, rather than clarifying the plot and
meaning of Richard III, leaves him feeling as if he
has been "showered with Shakespeare confetti"; although,
he admits that it is the "confetti feeling that keeps
the picture entertaining." Nevertheless, I believe these
staccato cuts between Pacino with his cast discussing the
interpretation of the play, the actors in rehearsal, interviews,
and the full-costume, polished Hollywood film version of select
scenes from the play express formally both the confusion which
can ensue when trying to comprehend Shakespeare and the rich,
multifarious quality of the Shakespearean text.
Despite his call for people to become involved in the "art"
of Shakespeare, Pacino markets this film to the masses via
some traditional Hollywood routes. Most notably, Looking
for Richard has an astounding barrage of cameo appearances
by big name celebrities. Besides Pacino himself, stars such
as Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline, Winona Ryder, James Earl Jones,
Kenneth Branagh, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sir John Gielgud appear
in the film, a strange and wonderful gathering.
Another Hollywood move Pacino makes is to sexualize the wooing
scene between Richard and Lady Anne to an extent that is neither
textual nor plausible. Winona Ryder plays an insipid and suddenly
sexual Anne who is willing to passionately kiss and caress
Richard over her father-in-law's coffin, then retreat coquettishly
back to the funeral procession. Pacino claims earlier in the
film that he wants to cast someone young enough to believe
"Richard's rap," but this scene seems absurd to
me, nonetheless. Perhaps the issue is that Pacino has always
wanted to kiss Ryder. Well, now he has. But couldn't he have
done it off camera? So much for intellectual Hollywood.
It seems evident by the frenzied cutting from one thing to
another that Pacino is trying to appeal to the younger American
audience, raised on the quick-cut style of MTV videos and
accustomed to playing frenetically-paced computer games. In
my experience in the classroom, having taught this film to
approximately eighty students primarily between the ages of
eighteen and twenty-four, Looking for Richard holds
their attention and is largely successful in imparting the
message that Shakespeare is relevant and comprehensible to
them. However, the critics of this film have imparted some
scathing sentiments on the matter. James Bowman of The
American Spectator writes,
Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. . . really ought
to be called "Richard goes to Sesame Street."
It is a film based on the by-now old-fashioned notion that
Shakespeare can be made "relevant" to the happening
youth of the nineties--kids who might not, were it not for
Al and his pals in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, ever bother
to tear themselves away from MTV. But I doubt the efficacy
of slicing and dicing Shakespeare and serving him up in
quick cuts to pander to a bunch of no-mind slackers. They
probably won't like him anyway, and they won't realize that
the real Shakespeare takes work--though not so much work
as they might imagine. He cannot be made into a music video
with old-fashioned language, and people who suppose he can
are in for a big shock in the unlikely event that they ever
put themselves in a way to encounter the real thing.
The "real thing," or as the Bard might say "the
thing itself," unaccommodated Shakespeare: I hate to
ask the pedantic and obvious question, but is there such a
beast? It is certainly difficult if not impossible to determine
absolutely if there is a "real thing" when it comes
to Shakespeare's text, considering that so many of the plays
exist in multiple versions printed during Shakespeare's lifetime
or were printed for the first time in the First Folio of 1623,
seven years after Shakespeare's death.
But Bowman is not alone in his condescension to Pacino's
unorthodox Shakespearean docu-drama, Donald Lyons of Commentary
magazine calls Looking for Richard, "Another misguided
attempt to make Shakespeare intelligible to the groundlings,
. . . directed by Al Pacino, starring Al Pacino, with narration
written by Al Pacino." Lyons, like many other critics,
finds the film self-indulgent, reducing the whole project
to a vain farce:
[Pacino] decided to film his efforts to get a film made
of Richard III, assembling a cast of cronies and
colleagues to discuss the text over spaghetti and donuts
and then dress up and perform it. . . . And so the film,
basically a document confirming the obsession of the actors
with themselves, is finally left looking at its own navel.
Despite its high- minded posturing about the Bard's essential
communicability, Looking for Richard actually demonstrates
the incompatibility of Shakespeare with a certain self-important
American mode of communicating: namely, Method acting.
It is indeed true that this film focuses on the process the
actors engage in to put together a Shakespearean film; however,
it is also obvious from the interweaving of the rehearsals
and explanations of certain play scenes with the "finished"
film of the same scene that Pacino is subordinating the actor's
process to the narrative timeline of the play. The film presents
us with the actor's initial preparation for performing a specific
piece, then participation in rehearsals of various levels
of formality, and finally their performance of the play is
revealed, but the stages of this process are all shown simultaneously
in Looking for Richard because Pacino is most interested
in clearly communicating the plot of the play.
It is revealing that over eighty hours of footage was shot
over four years for this project, and between the three film
editors and Pacino, Looking for Richard was cut and
shaped into the highly organized 112-minute end product. Pacino
worked on the film between acting jobs, and he admits its
completion marked the "culmination of a personal journey"
for him (Pacino newsletter).
However, it is not so much the documentation of Pacino's
inner journey that we see, but rather an explanatory guide
through the play, beginning with the reasoning behind even
attempting a project of this sort and moving through the acts
of the play. Screen legends announce the sections of the film,
starting with "the question" (which transmorphs
into "the quest"), then "the play," "Act
I," etc., until the final section entitled "the
battle," introduces Bosworth Field.
Interpolated between and during play acts are sections focused
on elements of performance and interpretation, such as "casting
the actors," "getting in deeper," "the
birthplace of shakespeare," and "iambic pentameter,"
but these clearly serve as footnotes and tutorials for Richard
III. Moreover, "The play's the thing," and Pacino
privileges its narrative over everything else by tying the
sequential progression of the film to Shakespeare's plot instead
of the actor's process. While there may be some self-indulgence
on the part of the actors, Pacino manages to stick to his
purpose, and the vast majority of my students agree.
Lastly, I would like to consider the potential for Looking
for Richard to be used as a learning tool successfully
in the college classroom. Pacino may be a great actor, but
is he a good teacher? Many critics seem to think so. One pays
Pacino a backhanded compliment: "As for Pacino himself,
he might be a better teacher of Shakespeare 101 than an interpreter
of Richard III's lead role"; and another effuses,
"Pacino has crafted a remarkably coherent and compelling
movie, a vividly annotated Shakespeare. It is as if Scarface
had suddenly turned into the world's coolest English teacher.
. . . Pacino's Shakespeare class explodes into pure movie-making."
The sardonic Stanley Kauffman, who calls the film an entertaining
"romp-and-tribute" and a "wacky busman's holiday,"
disagrees with these opinions and claims that "textual
explication doesn't seem to me the basic reason for this film.
It's a very slim gloss of the play"; instead, he believes
Pacino is really only selling himself: "I know of no
previous instance in which a film star wanted to assure his
film public that he was more than a film star." Kauffman
is another believer in the "vanity project" theory.
But critics aside, my own students, who must serve as my
guinea pigs, have responded overwhelmingly positively to the
use of Looking for Richard in the classroom. Almost
all of the nearly eighty students I subjected to this movie
wrote that it helped them understand and appreciate Richard
III, and several students said that Looking for Richard
motivated them to seek out other Shakespearean films.
A surprising number of students even expressed to me that
without seeing Looking for Richard beforehand, Laurence
Olivier's 1955 film of Richard III would have been
completely inscrutable. Mission accomplished for Pacino! He
seems to be speaking their language. My students also had
some insights into the film that the critics seemed to miss.
Rather than viewing the actor's process portrayed in the film
as narcissistic and self-indulgent, students remarked that
watching actors they respected struggle with the interpretation
and understanding of Shakespeare made them more comfortable
with their own struggle for comprehension. The students empathize
with the often scruffy and haggard-looking cast as they grapple
with the text. A few students commented that seeing these
celebrities pursue Shakespeare with so much passion, and obviously
for little remuneration, has stimulated them to look at Shakespeare
in a new and more exciting light. (At one point Alec Baldwin
jokes, "We're doing this for forty dollars a day and
all the doughnuts we can eat.")
The human connection Pacino successfully makes between the
lives of the actors and those of the audience members (my
students) mirrors the metaphor connecting the actor performing
on stage and the person living this "whirly-gig"
life that pervades Shakespeare's canon. Pacino beautifully
illustrates this metaphor by opening and closing the film
with a slow motion, long shot of a Gothic-style cathedral
while a deep, male voice-over chants Prospero's legendary
speech, "Our revels now are ended. . . ."
Although the majority of my students found Looking for
Richard entertaining and helpful, there was, of course,
not a perfect consensus: one student sarcastically effuses,
"This film is a true jewel," and another drolly
states that "Looking for Richard was nothing more
than a movie based on Cliffs Notes." In fact, a number
of students have compared the film to Cliffs Notes, calling
it a video version of the same. It is clear that some students
feel that the "Cliffs Notes" style of explication
in Looking for Richard is condescending, while others
find this sort of hypertext explication more effective and
a lot more fun than the old yellow-and-black.
Also notable is the disappointment many students expressed
when they discovered that Pacino did not actually make a full-length
feature film of Richard III, that Looking for Richard
is an end in itself, not a documentation of the making of
a film. Personally, I am glad Pacino did not make the film
we see snippets of in Looking; it would have been, I believe,
too monochromatic, too dark, and too long; but the students
were excited by the prospect, more kudos for Pacino. On the
other hand, I can think of nothing more apropos to his fragmentary
filmic method, and certainly nothing more postmodern, than
to make a film about making a film that does not exist.
The teacher's guide issued by Youth Media International for
Looking for Richard dares to inquire, "What happens
when you shout the word 'Shakespeare' in a crowded room?"
It is an excellent question. Through this film, Al Pacino
intends to change the answer to this question. And he may
be succeeding. After all, it is certainly not often that those
ubiquitous American film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
give a limited-release, mass-market Shakespearean film "Two-thumbs
up! Way up!" Now perhaps you are one of the many critics
who hold that Looking for Richard is nothing more than
"Shakespearean snack food." But this film was not
made for the critics and the scholars. According to my experience
and observation, in the classroom Pacino serves his purpose
well, which is summed up perfectly in the last sentence he
speaks in the film. As he struggles to recall Hamlet's dying
words, Pacino humbly declares the overarching universality
of Shakespeare: "Whatever I'm saying, I know Shakespeare