Better Than Shakespeare (10): A Comparison With Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman’s best twenty-one films are better than Shakespeare’s worst twenty-one plays, and only a fool would deny that. Some of them are better than some of Shakespeare’s best thirty-two plays. Here is the list.

Summer With Monika. Sawdust And Tinsel. A Lesson In Love. Smiles Of A Summer Night. The Seventh Seal. Wild Strawberries. So Close To Life. The Magician. The Virgin Spring. Through A Glass Darkly. Winter Light. Persona. Hour Of The Wolf. Shame. The Rite. Cries And Whispers. Face To Face. The Serpent’s Egg. Fanny And Alexander. The Best Intentions. Faithless.

Shakespeare’s worst twenty-one are, probably:

Timon Of Athens. A Comedy Of Errors. Henry VIII. Edward III. King John. Cymbeline. Pericles, Prince Of Tyre. The Yorkshire Tragedy. Love’s Labour’s Lost. A Winter’s Tale. Troilus And Cressida. Measure For Measure. Coriolanus. Antony And Cleopatra. The Tragedie Of Sir Thomas More. Two Gentlemen Of Verona. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. Titus Andronicus. The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Each of Bergman’s films is better than each of these, with the possible exception of So Close To Life. It is probable also that Smiles Of A Summer Night is better than As You Like It, The Seventh Seal than Macbeth, Sawdust And Tinsel than Much Ado About Nothing, Wild Strawberries than The Tempest, Through A Glass Darkly than Richard II … and, yes, there’s Hamlet and Lear and Richard III and Romeo And Juliet he didn’t overtake but on average, overall, he’s probably the better dramatist.

And there you are.

And it’s blasphemy to say so, is it?


Leave a comment ?


  1. You seem to be arguing against a Straw Man. Of course it’s not blasphemy to say so.

    Shakespeare didn’t attain his extraordinary position in the culture until towards the end of the 18th century, and he did so as much for reasons of nationalism as literary merit. A National Literary Genius was required, and he seemed to have the qualifications.

    None of this detracts from the exquisite quality of his best work.

    But Edmund Spenser was a better poet. And the problem with Shakespeare’s unique cultural lustre is that it obscures other good writers of the period, like John Webster, or Ben Jonson - who wrote at least two comedies that are funnier than any of Shakespeare’s.

    I wouldn’t preference any Shakespeare film over any of the Bergman films on your list, with three possible exceptions.

    But is Seventh Seal a better film than Throne of Blood? I guess you could make an argument either way. But with films of such quality, does it matter?

    • The Seventh Seal is special. It charts the beginning of agnosticism in medieval Europe when the Plague, which had no meaning, killed so many and the Crusades proved to be mindless bloodbaths.

      Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s Macbeth, is about a struggle for power and the blood-guilt of a particular warlord, a not unusual theme after Oedipus, two thousand years ago, pioneered it.

      Boty are equally well made and the last image of the stricken warlord are unsurpassed in cinema. But thematically I’d vphave to give the victory, in a narriw contest, to the Bergman.

      • You’ve made me think about Bergman again. You’re right; Seventh Seal was not a good example to pick. It is a pretty extraordinary picture.

  2. A most interesting polemic Mr Ellis.

    Allow me a fox amongst the chickens:
    I believe Peter Brooks’ “King Lear” with Paul Scofield as lead, to be as good, if not better, than all but 3 of Bergman’s.

    • Strangely enough, that is just what JG Cole told me in November last year. :lol:

      • Why strange?
        Almost all who have seen it call it a masterwork.

        I am well aware of Cole’s opinion on the film. I share it.
        He has written extensively on it for quite some time now.

        And he sits not ten feet from me as I type.
        Would you like to say hello?
        Second thoughts, better not.
        At the very mention of your name he explodes into a riot of laughter!

        • ie, YOU are Cole as is every other pretended book club idiot you fondly care to imagine. Look in the mirror and tell yourself to fuck off.
          Often, and keep doing it ad infinitum. It may work. :lol: :lol: :lol:

  3. Few of the Shakespeare plays that I have seen here, have not had the best actors performing them, and that has tended to take some shine and pleasure away…
    As for Bergman movies, I love them all,and especially Wild Strawberries.
    I leave anything to do with Shakespeare to our Shakespeare expert, DQ.

    • A Bronte Reader

      Comprehension and judgement was never your strong suit Helvi.

        • hudsongodfrey

          I’d think that if you could extend the argument to say that the top 25 films of all time are probably better than the top 25 plays then it would truly turn into an argument about the nature of the medium of film as opposed to the stage. So if you compare the pure creative output of Bergman with Shakespeare then I find Bergman far more interesting but possibly only because he explores contemporary ideas that speak more to my modern sensibilities. Take those away and if you’re left with Cecil B. DeMille then Shakespeare’s looking amazing.

  4. A Bronte Reader

    Hmmm, several of Shakespeare’s “worst twenty-one are better that Bergman’s “best twenty-one”.

    I think.

    • A Bronte Reader

      ooops, should read:

      “better than several of Bergman’s twenty one”

      • Explain yourself.

        Say which.

        • A Bronte Reader


          Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, Measure For Measure,Antony And Cleopatra - better than Serpent’s Egg, So close to life, The Best Intentions (written), Summer with Monika,

          My favourites?
          Seventh Seal, Persona, The Silence.

          But what are we doing here?
          I mean really doing here with this??
          Comparing apples to oranges?

          Give me a break!

          I think Tom Waits 1975 to 1985 better than Pissaro’s 1874 to 1882;
          I think Mondrian 1920 to 1944 better than Peter Carey…

          This game of yours is a patent absurdity.

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