Can You Do That to Shakespeare?

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Photo: l Rollerna

In the Raspberry Hills Library English Book Circle the question has often been raised of how much we can accept things done to the classics. Can Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law really do that to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?  Can Laurie R. King really have a feisty young Marry Russell marry an aging Holmes?  Can Jean Rhys really tell Bertha’s story of how she went mad and ended up in Rochester’s attic?

Views often differ sharply in our friendly group.  “No!” say some.  “Yes!” say others.

This discussion slides easily into Shakespeare.  Can Caliban really be played by a twitchy grunge Goth behaving like a speed freak? Can Richard III really be a Hitler-like charmer in the 30’s?  Can Romeo and Juliet really live in a machine gun mafia run disco Catholic Miami? Can Othello really be played by a short skinny white girl? Can Twelfth Night really be set in a tire factory with a 60’s pop soundtrack?  Can Love’s  Labour’s Lost really be a Hollywood 30’s song and dance musical? Can Hamlet really be about a cyber-techno-capitalist corporation battle?

Well, yes. Obviously.  All of these have been done. You’ve seen some of them.  I’ve seen all of them. Some people have hated them.  I am one of those who loved these productions, or at least found them interesting.

The question is not really should it be allowed to do this kind of spin-off on Shakespeare, but how can it not be. If all we had to look at was four hundred years worth of people standing around a stage in Renaissance or Roman clothes reciting the plays, Shakespeare would now be one of those old poets like Spenser that only literature majors bother to read.  Instead, everybody in the world knows Shakespeare (only a small exaggeration, don’t you think?)

Admittedly the productions that got me addicted to Shakespeare were quite straightforward adaptations:  Branagh’s Henry V, a simple performance at the Roundhouse in London of Henry IV, Part Two, Branagh’s Hamlet (well, that was set in the 1800’s for some reason but that was hardly noticeable). However some of the radically changed concepts of several of the performances mentioned above have really fired that addiction.

What Shakespeare wrote is so big, so deep, so complex, so significant to so many people and eras in the past four hundred years and probably the next four hundred years that there is no way that his plays can’t be brilliant no matter what’s done to them. Or if not brilliant or even successful, at least the experimentation enriches the canon immeasurably. And we must remember, Shakespeare’s plays themselves were mostly spin-offs of earlier works.

So I say spin-off away!  I’m waiting for a sci-fi intergalactic Macbeth.  Or The Comedy of Errors set in apartheid South Africa of the 50’s.  Or why not Sherlock Holmes and his young wife Mary Russell incorporated into Richard III to find out if he’s really guilty of killing those kids? Or Jane Eyre deciding that Mr. Rochester is an old fogey and running off with Hamlet, thus saving his life (maybe that’s already happened; I haven’t read all of Jasper Fforde yet).

So don’t be so nervous, all you sceptics of spin-offs!  Shakespeare can take it! Shakespeare thrives in any interpretive environment in which inspired creativity rules.


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Author:Ruby Jand

Ruby Jand has an MA in English literature and history from the University of Stockholm. She teaches history and English at grade school and high school level at the Sundbyberg School of Adult Education in a suburb of Stockholm. Her interest in Shakespeare has emerged recently, developing within the last year into an ongoing project on the blog Shakespeare Calling.
  • Pamela Berkman

    Shakespeare can hold up to anything, and if you Google you should be able Hamlet in Klingon. Really.

  • HungryShakespeare

    Shakespeare’s writing is so filled with anachronisms (such as clock towers in Ancient Rome, and books in the pockets of togas) that is hard for me to understand the problems people have with these reinventions. Drawings from the Elizabethan era show characters in Elizabethan outfits in plays set in ancient Egypt. These anachronistic productions are not an insult to Shakespeare–they are a tribute to him. –

  • Peter Kirwan

    There is apparently a sci-fi film adaptation of Measure for Measure currently in the works…

  • Caitlin Griffin

    I eagerly await those spinoffs with you! And until then, I’ll be content with the novels, the films, the TV episodes, the new plays, and the storybooks. I love what people discover in these adaptations!

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