Barthes and the Bard - scriptibilité and two adaptations of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. (Re)Writing a Film with Roland Barthes
2.1. Scriptibilité / Lisibilité
2.2. Application on Film: The Third Meaning
2.3. Summary

3. Hoffman and/or Noble
3.1. Additions of Character(istic)s
3.2. The Mise-en-scène
3.3. The Cupid-Scene
3.4. Sex and Eroticism
3.5. Stage vs. Screen

4. Conclusion: It's still a Shakespeare Movie

1. Introduction

In the 1990s a family member of the Shakespeare industry was rejuvenated, and only a short time later it was in full bloom again: the adaptation of Shakespeare on screen. Like in the early days of motion pictures the bard became a popular screen-writer, his scripts high concepts (literary texts that guarantee success at the box office – if only equipped with the right budget and the right people). Many plays were models for film versions but only a few of them were produced more than once: Beside the notorious Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream is the only play of which two versions were produced in a short period: Adrian Noble's TV production from 1996 and Michael Hoffman's Hollywood film from 1998.[1] The appropriation of Shakespeare on film is very enlightening concerning the relation between the text and the time it is reproduced. "It acknowledges that by simply changing the context in which Shakespeare words appear – without changing the words themselves – we radically alter their meaning." (Lanier 2002: 5) However, in the case of temporal closeness the issue becomes even more remarkable because it offers different readings of a text in one period, so that it is not only Shakespeare we evaluate but also ourselves and what our occupation with his texts signifies.

There are several different ways to approach the analysis of a Shakespeare film. At present, the classification of such an adaptation in the field and with the methods of cultural studies, with special regard to the space of popular and/or high culture, is a frequent practice. One of the major contributors to cultural theory from France is Roland Barthes, whose literary studies mainly embrace a semiological, poststructuralist background. His critical "call to arms" (Burke 1998: 29), The Death of the Author, became a common idiom in literary theory. One of his concepts, however, the scriptibilité of texts which indicates the degree of its capacity to be rewritten by a reader, has hardly been used for literary and even less for film analyses. In his application of that theory, Barthes uses it as a means to assess how open or predetermined a text is, which for him is closely linked to the degree of dependence and perpetuation of dominant ideology. Therefore, it can be used to find an answer some of the questions students of film should address to their subject: How does the film interact with its audience? "Is there not a danger in the hypnotic quality of the film image, an inherent danger because it is a lure to passivity?" (Dyer 2000: 6) And what must a film contain to make its audience an active one?

This paper will examine the two A Midsummer Night's Dream s to consider their position in the system of Shakespeare appropriations. The study of the Dreams will also exemplify those general questions to film with regard to Barthes's conception and whether it works on film at all. Therefore, first, there will be an analysis of central terms from two texts of Barthes, S/Z and The Third Meaning; in a second step, they will be tested on specific examples of the two films that constitute their communication of meaning and their processes of signification: the presentation of character, of mise-en-scène, of acting, of sexuality and, finally, of their treatment of the opposite features of film and stage.

2. (Re)Writing a Film with Roland Barthes

2.1. Scriptibilité / Lisibilité

Among those poststructuralist critics who in and around 1968 were determined to employ critique as a means to dissolve the traditional author concept, Roland Barthes was one with a major influence.[2] His writings in literary studies go back to the early 1960s, however, in the year of the revolutionary Parisian Spring he published his radical essay La mort de l'auteur and two years later, in 1970, his analysis of Balzac's novella Sarrasin, S/Z. Both this application that reads the text after the disappearance of the author as well as the theory itself are very much an "attack on the commodification of literature and the socially sanctioned association" explicated by traditional criticism that was looking for the one intention of the author (Allen 2003: 88). Barthes criticises the monopoly of literary critics, who endeavour to determine meaning and thus create an elitist understanding of what is good literature, of what should be read. This hierarchical system creates a dichotomy between author/critic and the audience that leaves the reader in a completely passive place of mere reception.[3] It is the aim of poststructuralist literary theory in general to change the reader's status of a consumer into that of a producer; in her 1976 application of S/Z to film theory, Julie Lesage states: "In an implicit general attack on the abusive structuring of leisure in advanced capitalist societies, Barthes insists that we must create, not consume, aesthetic meaning." (Lesage 2004: 195).

In S/Z, Roland Barthes tries to achieve this by introducing five codes (the hermeneutic, the actional, the semic, the symbolic, and the cultural) with the help of which he approaches Balzac's novella in a new way, tracing different meanings, circumstances, and symbolisms. The aim of this new mode of analysis is to determine the value of the text or, in other words, to find out about its scriptibilité. Together with its contrary, lisibilité, this coinage is one of the oppositions for the two extremes into which Barthes separates literature: scriptible and lisible, writerly and readerly[4], reversible and irreversible, or classic and avant-garde.

The first of those two poles, the scriptible, is rooted in the poststructuralist understanding of a text. Firstly, following Derrida, a text, must be seen as a construction of words or signs (which are constructions themselves) that do not have an independent meaning but work in a socially conventionalised context only. Consequently, they are not stable signifiers and depend very much upon the reader and his decoding preconditions. Secondly, following Kristeva, a text is a patchwork of other preceding texts. What is called intertextuality is first of all no conscious quotation of other works but the basic condition of language. No utterance can be genuine; instead, it is always a product of its circumstances, in Foucauldian terms of the discourse, whether literary text or everyday statement.[5] The scriptible, therefore accepts and even stresses its constructed situation, it yields its own deconstruction to the readers and their intertext. In S/Z, Barthes calls this the plurality of texts ("die Pluralität der Zugänge, die Offenheit des Textgewebes"; Barthes 1976: 9), which in this respect can be paraphrased with polysemy, an abundance of different possible meanings. Texts "are scriptable, or 'writable', because the reader as it were rewrites them as he reads." (Sturrock 1979: 71) Reading, therefore, is connected with an activity (Barthes speaks of lexeographic action)[6], a process of production in which the reader becomes a producer himself. This activity goes beyond interpretation, since it is unique in its progress, very subjective and, as the repetition leads to a new reading, un-replicable.

The second term, the lisible or readable, is a finished product, "irreversible in all its features, [it] leaves the reader with no productive work" (Allen 2003: 88). Barthes describes the readable text as a cupboard in which meaning is orderly stapled and packed to the top ("in diesem Text geht nichts verloren: der Sinn greift alles wieder auf"; Barthes 1976: 198); he takes up this threat and calls the readable 'full literature'. Another important feature of the lisible is the naming of meaning. As soon as the meaning of a text is 'pointed out', secured and fixed, both meaning and text are subjected under this act. A certain group or institution claiming the sovereignty over meaning indicates an appropriation that brings about an exclusive control over what is read and the probable exclusion of insubordinate texts.[7] So the readerly text cannot contain a meaning that a single reader assumes, but what a person, group, or ideology determines to be meaning: "Der lesbare Diskurs ist aus vor-demonstrativen Nennungen gewebt, die die Unterwerfung des Textes sichern" (Barthes 1976: 131). A Subjection of meaning implies the subjection of those who receive and accept the meaning. Barthes's concern here is to support a kind of literature and to introduce a way of literary criticism that works more democratic, more independent from ideology than it used to do. He aims at shifting responsibility from institutions to individuals, i.e. to the reader.

However, Barthes was not as unrealistic and naïve as to suppose that literature develops in but two categories – even more unlikely the two categories he established, the scriptible and the lisible. Even further, he acknowledged the difficult realisation of a writable text, yet not without mentioning its potential to change reading: "Das Schreibbare ist ein utopisches Objekt, das unseren Gebrauch von der Lektüre ins Schwanken bringt." (quoted from Brune 2003: 154f) Maybe this is one of the reasons (together with the object of his analysis, Sarrasine) why in S/Z he introduces the gradual quantity "eines vom Text in Bewegung gesetzten Mehr oder Weniger" (Barthes 1976: 9). So the job of the reader or the critic is to evaluate this more or less of how plural a text is, how much freedom it leaves for individual lexeographic work. A partial reversibility is possible (as Sarrasine proves) and allows the reader "to indulge in limited rewriting" (Allen 2003: 90). In effect, S/Z is despite its fierce support of the writable "in pursuit of the scriptible in the readerly" (Plotnitsky 1997: 246). This latter concession Barthes makes, however, is not contrary to the already mentioned democratisation of art and the attempt to 'deconsumerise' audiences and to encourage the individual's work on literature – or on film, as the following will show.

2.2. Application on Film: The Third Meaning

If one compares the features of the scriptible with the capacities of film, a negative conclusion seems inevitable:

Its dependence on narrative codes and the manner in which it generates a passive identification in its viewers make cinema a medium which, for Barthes, has little relation to the radical plural text, to signifiance and thus to a productive, potentially blissful (re)writing on the part of the audience (Allen 2003: 122).

Yet, Roland Barthes was a very fond cinema-goer. Furthermore, he also wrote numerous critical texts about film, for example his critical assessment of the 'beauty' of the actress Greta Garbo in his prominent early Mythologies (1959) and, among many more, an essay that appeared in the programmatic French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma the same year S/Z was published: The Third Meaning.[8]

In this text Barthes explores three layers of meaning: the first, operating on the level of direct communication, is the informative meaning. It operates, straightforward, for the arrangement into the narration. The second is the symbolic level of significance; it implies the intentional message transferred by the film. As it contains closed evidence, it is also called the obliging meaning or: obvious meaning (le sens obvie). The third, and essentially new, is the not communicated meaning, the symbolic level of connotation, or the obtuse meaning (le sens obtuse). The difference between the latter meanings is similar to the one of scriptibilité and lisibilité. Since it is intended, the first, i.e. the obvious, is not polysemic but clear in its purpose.[9] The example Barthes chooses from the Eisenstein film Iwan is the young emperor covered with gold, which conveys the connotation of ascending power and wealth. This scene is supposed to fulfil the purpose the director anticipated – the ideal is a one-to-one relation of the producer's coding and the audience's decoding. Instead of disseminating meaning, the obvious stresses it; its economical function is, as Barthes puts it, to announce the truth (cf. Barthes 1990: 51).

The obtuse meaning, on the other hand, has a plural character. In this case, the sens obtuse is exemplified by the courtiers in the same scene who pour the gold over Iwan's head. Barthes's connotation of the two is very subjective, emotional and determines his reading of the scene. His interpretation, however, is not valid in general, as it employs his personal experiences with for example black hair, pointy noses, or features that resemble close friends. Since it draws on a subjective intertext, this "second-order connotation" (Allen 2003: 122) has plural entrances and is therefore a signifier without a signified (cf. Barthes 1990: 60). Strangely enough, as a consequence, the third meaning "is not really a meaning at all", as "it is not so much 'read' as received'" (Attridge 1997: 77,78).[10]

The opposition of third meaning and lisibilité also becomes clear, when Barthes contrasts the obtuse with the passivity of naming: "in ihm mündet das Begehren, nicht in jene Zuckung des Signifikats, die gewöhnlich das Subjekt lustvoll in den Frieden der Benennung zurückfallen läßt." (Barthes 1990: 61) The obtuse meaning, that for Barthes constitutes the 'filmic', is the ambivalence that enables the audience to read the film differently than everyone else.


[1] There is another play with two very close adaptations. While McKellen/Loncrain produced a regular film about Richard III. (1995), Al Pacino attempted a meta-dramatic study of the play with his Looking for Richard (1996).

[2] Other theorists would be a. o. Jaques Derrida and Julia Kristeva on the poststructuralist side, as well as the philosopher, historian, etc. Michel Foucault, who, although explicitly not a (post)strucuralist, shared important features with his fellow critics and was in constant exchange with them.

[3] "Ein solcher Leser ist in einem Nichtstun versunken, in einer Undurchdringbarkeit, kurz in einer Art Seriosität: anstatt selber zu spielen […], bleibt ihm nur die armselige Freiheit, den Text entweder anzunehmen oder ihn zu verwerfen: die Lektüre ist nichts weiter als ein Referendum." (Barthes 1976: 8).

[4] The French original, as well as the German translation schreibbar / lesbar and the article of Adam Plotnitsky (Plotnitsky 1997) also suggest the version 'writable and readable'. For simplification and clarity, however, I will mainly use the original terms.

[5] John Storey describes the circumstances of intertextuality as follows: "Which codes will be mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment and the cultural formation of the reader." (Storey 1993: 80)

[6] "Lesen ist jedoch keine parasitäre Geste […]. Es ist eine Arbeit (deshalb sollte man von einem lexeologischen, ja lexeographischen Handeln sprechen, denn ich schreibe mein Lesen)" (Barthes 1976: 15).

[7] "Lesen ist um das Benennen kämpfen und die Sätze eines Textes einer semantischen Transformation unterwerfen." Barthes also speaks of: "Aneignung des Sinns im lesbaren Text" (Barthes 1976: 95, 259).

[8] Though the identical year of publication is not meant to signify anything extraordinary, the temporal closeness serves this paper well, for it offers some consistency in Barthes's theoretical framework that altered profoundly throughout his career.

[9] "Er wählt Sinn aus, bewältigt ihn, rafft die Mehrdeutigkeit hinweg" (Barthes 1990: 51).

[10] A problem that arises from this description is that the obtuse meaning ceases to be one as soon as it is exemplified. Because, being Barthes very individual associations, when illuminated or subjected by words they lose their character of being subjective. As Barthes communicates the example he makes it an obvious meaning. The third meaning does not survive a secondary reading: "Der dritte Sinn, den man theoretisch situieren, aber nicht beschreiben kann" (Barthes 1990: 63).

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Barthes and the Bard - scriptibilité and two adaptations of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Shakespeare on Screen
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Barthes, Bard, Midsummer, Night, Dream, Shakespeare, Screen
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M.A. Thorsten Leiendecker (Author), 2004, Barthes and the Bard - scriptibilité and two adaptations of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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