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date: 22 July 2019

Adapting Shakespeare’s Comedies

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the ways that Shakespeare’s comedies have been reshaped over the last 400 years, in response to various cultural, historical, and social changes, and in reaction to various aesthetic concerns, including theatre personnel, literary fashions, and stage features. The topic of adaptation raises a number of theoretical questions. First, what is ‘Shakespeare’? Is ‘Shakespeare’ a set of plots, characters, stories, or poetry? If one of these items is removed or drastically changed, can the work still be called ‘Shakespeare’s play’? If a work has the same characters as Shakespeare’s original text, but in a modern setting, is it an adaptation? What if the language is modernized, but the plot and characters remain exactly the same? What if some characters are omitted, and others are added? These are some of the questions that this chapter will address as it chronicles more than three centuries of reshaping the comedies.

Keywords: Shakespeare, comedy, adaptation, music, spectacle

The history of adapting Shakespeare dates all the way back to the plays themselves, with some of the earliest adaptations taking place during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It has even been argued that Shakespeare himself engaged in the process of adaptation, by using source texts and remaking them into pieces of his own creation. The question of what exactly constitutes an adaptation is a much-discussed topic, particularly in regard to Shakespeare. Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier offer a comprehensive theory of adaptation, calling it any work that ‘through verbal and theatrical devices, radically alter[s] the shape and significance of another work so as to invoke that work and yet be different from it—so that any adaptation is, and is not, Shakespeare’.1 As M. J. Kidnie points out, this definition collapses ‘adaptation into production’ and neglects ‘the widespread critical ability to discriminate between Shakespeare and Shakespearean adaptation’.2 Linda Hutcheon has argued that adaptation is both a product and a process, and that adaptations are not necessarily derivative or secondary texts, but rather may be the primary contact a reader or audience has with a work, rather than the source text.3

This chapter focuses on the ways that Shakespeare’s comedies have been reshaped over the last 400 years, in response to various cultural, historical, and social changes, and in reaction to various aesthetic concerns, including theatre personnel, literary fashions, and stage features. In so doing, I follow M. J. Kidnie’s understanding of adaptation as ‘an evolving category’ that is ‘closely tied to how the work modifies over time and (p. 440) from one reception space to another’.4 Thus, adaptations of the comedies can take several forms, including stage plays, films, novels, burlesques, and musicals.

The topic of adaptation raises a number of theoretical questions. First, what is ‘Shakespeare’? Is ‘Shakespeare’ a set of plots, characters, stories, or poetry? If one of these items is removed or drastically changed, can the resulting work still be called ‘Shakespeare’s play’? Can ‘Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’ still be ‘Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’ without Olivia? If a work has the same characters as Shakespeare’s original text, but in a modern setting, is it an adaptation? What if the language is modernized, but the plot and characters remain exactly the same? Or what if some characters are omitted, and others are added? Where are the boundaries between being an adaptation of Shakespeare, and being a separate work? How does the issue of authorship work in adaptation? Are adaptations of Shakespeare still considered ‘Shakespeare’, or do they belong to the adapter, and can he/she claim them as their own? These are some of the questions that this chapter will address as it chronicles several centuries of reshaping the comedies.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Early Experiments

Even during Shakespeare’s own lifetime, plays were written in response to Shakespeare’s works. John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tam’d, or the Woman’s Prize (1611), is the most obvious example. Fletcher takes up where Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew left off, using Shakespeare’s characters to create a sequel to the original play. In Fletcher’s work, Katherine has died at the beginning of the play, and Petruccio has remarried. His new wife, Maria, carries out a taming process on her husband, including staging his own funeral and tormenting him with a group of citizen wives. Fletcher invokes Shakespeare’s play in the title of his sequel, and performance records indicate that the two plays were performed in tandem. This early example raises the question of how these works are related to one another—audiences may have seen Fletcher’s play first, and then Shakespeare’s, or Shakespeare’s play may have sparked their interest in seeing Fletcher’s. While Fletcher does not try to improve Shakespeare’s text, using it only as a starting point, his work nevertheless reflects back on Shakespeare’s work, providing a fuller story for the characters that Shakespeare created. This early example also suggests that even during Shakespeare’s own lifetime, audiences enjoyed texts that reworked his characters and plots in new ways, and that offered novel and different angles to what may be familiar characters and stories. As Linda Hutcheon points out, part of the pleasure gained from adaptations is the fact that they work ‘through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation’. Audiences who know the prior text ‘always (p. 441) feel its presence shadowing the one we are experiencing directly’, and the resulting effect is ‘the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight and surprise of novelty’.5 Fletcher’s The Tamer Tam’d can stand on its own and be understood without prior knowledge of Shrew, but those who know Shakespeare’s play would experience delight at the prospect of seeing Petruccio tamed by a new wife. Since Fletcher and Shakespeare were collaborators, Shakespeare himself may have even offered feedback, or at least, shared his reaction to the play with Fletcher. While Fletcher writes a new plot and adds characters, he still relies on the premise of Shakespeare’s play and on his central characters of Katherine and Petruccio.

In the century following Shakespeare’s death, his comedies enjoyed relative popularity, both in their original form and in adapted versions. One of the earliest known adaptations of a Shakespeare comedy is the droll Bottom the Weaver, a brief comic piece first printed in 1661, but acted earlier when the theatres were closed during the Commonwealth period. The first adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy performed on the newly opened Restoration stage was Sir William Davenant’s reworking of Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure, into a new play called The Law Against Lovers (1662). Davenant passed off the work as a new play (it is even included in the Folio printing of his works in 1673), adding song, dance, music, and a role for a popular young actress.

Shortly after the theatres were re-opened in 1660, the first of many adaptations of Shrew appeared—actor John Lacy’s adaptation entitled Sauny the Scott (1667). Designed to feature his own acting, singing, and dancing talents in a comic dialect part, Sauny the Scott was a reworking of Shakespeare’s comedy to focus on the Scottish servant of Petruccio, here renamed Sauny. Lacy’s play was performed in tandem with Fletcher’s Tamer Tam’d, showing that the history of Shakespeare adaptations was already characterized by a layering process where the original source text is reworked and revised multiple times, and the revised versions are then reworked. Throughout the eighteenth century, Shrew was reshaped multiple times, in response to changing theatrical preferences and performers. In 1716, two separate adaptations of the Sly Induction material, both called The Cobler of Preston, appeared as afterpieces, short pieces performed following a full-length play, or mainpiece, and featuring song, dance, and popular actors. Written by Charles Johnson and Christopher Bullock, these two farces were performed at competing theatres, and employed popular actors and substantial music, in part as a response to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.

Two more of Shakespeare’s plays were reworked in the latter seventeenth century to feature extensive music and spectacle, in connection with developments in English opera. The 1674 operatic Tempest premiered at the Dorset Garden Theatre, featuring music, dance, and scenic effects. This visual extravaganza paved the way for subsequent operatic adaptations of the comedies, notably the union of Henry Purcell’s music and Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in The Fairy-Queen (1692) (p. 442) (see Figures 27.1 and 27.2). This piece foregrounded Purcell’s music, giving Shakespeare’s play secondary status to lavish spectacular and aural additions. Dream served only as a skeleton for musical, visual, and spectacular additions, and Shakespeare’s name did not even appear in any of the advertisements for the play.

Adapting Shakespeare’s ComediesClick to view larger

Figure 27.1 Sally Dexter as Titania in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd/ArenaPAL.

Purcell’s music also played a major role in another adaptation, Charles Gildon’s Measure for Measure (1700). Gildon uses Purcell’s music to augment the plot of Shakespeare’s play, interspersing his opera Dido and Aeneas within each act to reform the character of Angelo. In his dedication to the printed version of the play, Gildon described it as ‘much more Shakespears than Mine’, even though he added substantial music to the playtext. Gildon’s work illustrates the multi-layered nature of Shakespearean adaptation, where adapters are not only working with Shakespeare’s play, but also with previous adaptations and with current popular forms of entertainment. The result is not just a reworking of a Shakespearean comedy, but rather a text that incorporates a variety of influences from the literary culture of the day.

In addition to Gildon’s adaptation of Measure for Measure, three other adaptations of the comedies clustered around the first few years of the eighteenth century display the variety of ways that Shakespeare was reworked to suit aesthetic taste. George Granville (Lord Lansdowne) adapted The Merchant of Venice in 1701 as The Jew of Venice, cropping the original twenty scenes to only nine, but adding music and enhancing the role of Shylock for popular actor Thomas Doggett. Granville’s work was one of the more (p. 443) successful adaptations of his day; it was revived throughout the first few decades of the eighteenth century.

Adapting Shakespeare’s ComediesClick to view larger

Figure 27.2 In a peapod boat, in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd/ArenaPAL.

William Burnaby was not as fortunate in his reworking of Twelfth Night into Love Betray’d in 1703, even though he added a masque to suit current taste in music and reworked the comic elements in line with the trend for amiable humour and more humane, compassionate forms of comedy. The failure of Burnaby’s play could be attributed to performance conditions; he blamed the theatre for not providing music for the masque, instead substituting a pre-existing masque (which was cheaper to perform) in its place. A second adaptation from the same time period further underlines the role that theatre personnel could have on the success or failure of an adaptation, regardless of its content. John Dennis’s The Comical Gallant (1702) was an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it likely failed due to the incompetence of the actor playing Falstaff, who had difficulty learning his lines. Dennis added scenes for Falstaff, which may have compounded the performance problems, and created a new character, Captain Dingboy, designed as a breeches role for the actress playing Mrs Page.

The next wave of adaptations of the comedies was around 1716, when the Induction material from Shrew and the Pyramus and Thisbe section of Dream were reworked as afterpieces. The two plays using the Sly material were both called The Cobler of Preston, performed by rival theatres. Pyramus and Thisbe, written by popular singer Richard Leveridge, incorporated English opera as a critique of the growing fanaticism for Italian opera.

(p. 444) Following these afterpieces, none of the comedies was adapted until seven years later, when Charles Johnson incorporated material from five Shakespeare plays around the plot of As You Like It. Designed to make a political statement about poaching, Johnson mixed in scenes from Richard II, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, and Dream. None of these plays had been performed regularly, and Johnson’s knowledge of them thus derived from reading Shakespeare. He presented his play as a rescued work of Shakespeare, simply polished for his own generation, and his effort received moderate success.

Before actor-manager David Garrick tackled Shakespeare’s plays, two other significant adaptations appeared in the 1730s. James Miller mixed material from Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Molière’s Princess d’Elide, into a play called The Universal Passion (1737). Newspaper critics derided Miller for producing a play that was ‘most miserably hacked and defaced’, though it received a respectable number of performances.6 John Carrington’s The Modern Receipt (1739), on the other hand, was written only for his ‘private Amusement’, and this adaptation of As You Like It was not designed for public performance.7 Carrington’s adaptation is one of the earliest examples of a writer wrestling with Shakespeare for his or her own personal motives, outside of trying to please paying audiences. This process extends through the twentieth century; when asked to write a contemporary novel based on Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson remarked about her choice of play, ‘All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years’.8

Actor-manager David Garrick was known as a champion of Shakespeare, and undertook three adaptations of the comedies as part of his campaign to solidify Shakespeare’s place on the English stage. Two of his adaptations reworked Dream, first as an opera called The Fairies in 1755, and then under its original title in 1763 (both are discussed later in this essay). A third, entitled Catherine and Petruchio (1756), condenses Shakespeare’s Shrew into three acts; it eclipsed the original play from the stage for nearly 100 years.

The Nineteenth Century: Prose and Burlesque

In the nineteenth century, as interest in Shakespeare’s characters began to grow, so too did interest in expanding their stories and adapting them to new literary forms. Mary Cowden Clarke, who compiled the first concordance to Shakespeare’s plays and was the (p. 445) first woman to edit all of Shakespeare’s plays, also undertook a project to adapt them as prose stories designed for young readers. Entitled The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines in a Series of Tales (1850–2), these works imagined prequels for sixteen of Shakespeare’s female characters.

Cowden Clarke takes details from the plays as her inspiration, and then imagines a childhood for each character to explain the trajectory from youth to the mature character who appears in each play. Cowden Clarke includes adaptations of characters from fifteen plays, including Portia from Merchant; Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well; Meg and Alice (as the Merry Maids of Windsor); Isabella from Measure; Katharine and Bianca from Shrew; Rosalind and Celia from As You Like It; Beatrice and Hero from Much Ado; and Olivia and Viola from Twelfth Night. Cowden Clarke’s work has recently been seen as more subversive and complex than it initially appeared; Sarah Annes Brown has argued that ‘only in the gap between text and intertext does the full subversive force of her championing of women and resentment of male-dominated society emerge; she repeatedly engages in antagonistic struggle with Shakespeare’s male characters, even with Shakespeare himself’. Brown argues that Cowden Clarke’s ‘prequels are partisans rather than neutral witnesses’ in their interest in male sexual predators, and in her invention of new male characters who ‘seem to throw the good qualities of the original Shakespearian heroes into relief, but who in fact may undermine them’.9

In Cowden Clarke’s chapter on Twelfth Night, Viola hears about Orsino from her father as a young girl, explaining her line from the play, ‘Orsino. I have heard my father name him’ (1.2.24).10 Portia from Merchant learns the legal trade from an uncle named Bellario, a lawyer who has no faith that women can succeed in the legal profession. He tells her that the skills required of a lawyer are ‘more consonant with the operation of a man’s mind, than suited to the eager, impulsive nature of woman’ (I.52). Portia’s father Guido initially sets her up to marry the Marquis of Montserrat, but later devises the casket scene to weed out similarly unsuitable suitors. In Cowden Clarke’s prequel to Shrew, Katherine grew up in a convent, where she was labelled a rebel early on; the Abbess remarks, ‘Tie that little vixen’s hands behind her’ (II.122).

Cowden Clarke takes the liberty to invent characters in order to explain the prehistory of Shakespeare’s women. In the chapter on Isabella from Measure, a new character named Nanni is a prostitute, who confesses that her death is due to ‘my own fatal weakness’ (II.296) of alcohol and prostitution; she helps explain Isabella’s moral stance in the play. Likewise, Olivia from Twelfth Night has an adopted sister named Astrella and her unnamed brother in Shakespeare’s play here is called Cynthio. Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, has a friend named Chevalier Dorfaux, who seduces Olivia’s sister Astrella, marrying her and subjecting her to a life of gambling and cheating. Prose fiction was ideally suited for adapting material from Shakespeare’s comedies, and as we shall see, (p. 446) continued to be a venue for women in particular to ‘talk back to Shakespeare’ through their writing.

A second popular literary form in the nineteenth century, burlesque, was less suited to adaptations of the comedies, likely because the form ‘typically enacted ludicrous versions of serious events’ and the comedies’ ‘humour already verged on the burlesque’.11 Thus, Merchant was the only comedy adapted in this fashion. E. L. Blanchard’s The Merchant of Venice (very far indeed) from the Text of Shakespeare (1843) includes an updated opening scene in a market similar to Covent Garden, beginning with a chorus of ‘chimney sweeps, costermongers, and flower girls’, meant to be a ‘London burlesque version of picturesque operatic peasants who lighten their labours with song’.12 Antonio, Salarino, and Solanio encounter them on the way back from a night of drinking, part of an ‘urban sub-culture’.13 Here Portia is a barmaid, Shylock is a pawnbroker, and Antonio is a fishmonger. Likewise, Francis Talfourd’s Shylock; or, the Merchant of Venice Preserved (1853) included a mockery of London’s Bohemian culture, and an Antonio whose ‘solid flesh is to melt, thaw, and resolve itself unto a Jew’.14 Shylock, played by popular actor Frederick Robson, performed a comic song about daughter Jessica’s betrayal, with Robson exaggerating his ‘strong Jewish dialect, with the twang and lisp pushed to the last degree of exaggeration’.15

The Twentieth Century: Films, Novels, Musicals, and Other Forms

The various literary forms of the past century have been ideally suited for reworking Shakespeare’s comedies, and adapted versions have appeared in nearly every fashion, from musicals to teen films. Both musicals and films have opened up the audience possibilities for works based on or inspired by Shakespeare and have increased the possible audience base from only readers and theatre-goers to a broader public of filmgoers and those of more diverse ages.

The most prominent Broadway musicals based on Shakespeare’s comedies are The Boys from Syracuse (1938), based on The Comedy of Errors, and Kiss Me, Kate (1948), inspired by Shrew and by the quarrels of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in a 1935 production of Shakespeare’s play. As Fran Teague points out, the form of the stage musical aims to ‘take what is perceived as an elite legitimate form and restore it to a popular audience’. Shakespeare has been a key figure in this enterprise, since he is ‘certainly at the (p. 447) heart of the legitimate stage, but he has been a key figure to be joked about and with’.16 As with the adaptations of comedies in the Restoration, where the top composers of the day provided music, so too here. Cole Porter composed the music for Kiss Me, Kate; and The Boys from Syracuse included songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Both musicals have met with great success, including film versions and numerous revivals throughout the twentieth century. This was not the case for the other Shakespeare musical from 1939, Swingin’ the Dream. With music by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodwin, and others, the show used African-American performers but was not a success.

A second musical version of Errors, Bomb-itty of Errors (1999), was an off-Broadway rap version of the play by four white actors, and it was later performed at the Edinburgh Festival, in London’s West End, and elsewhere. Fran Teague points out that the audience’s pleasure likely derives from ‘the unlikely juxtaposition of the old white Anglo-American text and the lively African-American rap coexisting and connecting’.17 This version inspired a hip-hop Boys from Syracuse entitled Da Boyz (2003), directed by Philip Hedley, and performed in the West End. An Indian film adaptation of the play, Do Dooni Chaar (1968), featured Bollywood star Kishore Kumar as the twins in a musical. A later Indian Bollywood film in Urdu, Angoor (1982), was inspired by Do Dooni Chaar and places the story in Mumbai. Los Gemelos Alborotados (1981) is a musical version set in Mexico. The musical Play On! (1997), with music by Duke Ellington, sets the play in Harlem of the 1940s.

The popularity of film has encouraged more international adaptations of the comedies, circulating these works to a broader audience than ever before. To cite just a few representative examples: Leila Hipólito’s As Alegres Comadres (2003) is a Brazilian film adaptation of Merry Wives, set in the nineteenth century, where two rich housewives outwit the soldier Joko Fausto. Merchant was adapted in New Zealand as Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weniti (2002), a Maori version of the play set in Renaissance Venice. Jírí Trnka adapted Dream as Sen Noci Svatojanske (1959), a stop-action puppet version from Czechoslovakia. It was re-released in 1971 with narration by Richard Burton.18

Shakespeare’s comedies have also been adapted as stage plays, mainly with political resonance. Bertolt Brecht’s Roundheads and Peakheads: Rich and Rich Make Good Company (1933) is based on Measure, with reference to the rise of the Nazi party and issues of dictatorial leadership. The play was printed in English in 1935, but was banned in Germany. The same play was adapted in 1972 under its original title by Howard Brenton, but set amid the class struggles of England in the 1970s. Charles Marowitz adapted three comedies in the 1970s. His Measure for Measure (1971) similarly adapts the play to reflect contemporary political and sexual issues. The Shrew (1974) remains (p. 448) faithful to Shakespeare’s original, but relocates the Sly material to the end of the play and increases the violence of Petruccio’s taming methods, so that he goes as far as to rape Katherine at one point. Marowitz also adapted Merchant in 1977, setting the play in 1946 and including parts from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Just the previous year, Arnold Wesker wrote The Merchant (1976), inspired by Laurence Olivier’s Merchant at the National Theatre. Stage adaptations of Twelfth Night include Emlyn Williams’s war-time play Spring, 1600 (1945), set in Shakespeare’s time with added characters; and James Grant Benton’s Twelf Nite o Wateva! (1974), a pidgin version of the play set in Hawaii.19

A spate of teen films centred on Shakespeare’s comedies appeared in the decades around 2000. Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man (2006) was inspired by Twelfth Night, starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. Set in a high school, the film deals with the story of a teenage girl who wants to play on the boys’ soccer team, and pretends to be her brother in order to play on the team. Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) starred Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in a modernized version of Shrew, set in a Seattle high school. These teen versions displace Shakespeare’s concerns to a high school setting, making the stories accessible to the target audience. The position of major Hollywood stars in main roles, especially Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, further increased the audience base for these films.

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies have been adapted as novels in various ways, though as Annalisa Castaldo notes, ‘there are few surprisingly wholesale adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays’ into works of fiction, but many fictional texts that ‘reference the works directly, through quotation, character, or individual scene’. Several novelists have used the genre as a way to engage in ‘rethinking Shakespeare’, especially his works that feature women and minority characters.20 Virginia Woolf’s 1919 novel Night and Day includes a ‘feminist rewriting’ of the female characters in As You Like It, where the Celia character (Mary) is not matched up with a man to marry.21 Myra Goldberg’s novel Rosalind: A Family Romance (1996) evokes As You Like It in a modern setting, with a main character named Rosalind who is banished to Arden. Andrew Matthews’s The Flip Side (2003) uses the plot of As You Like It to explore gender issues, setting the story in a high school classroom, where a male student named Rob gets to cross dress as Rosalind, continuing to wear women’s clothes even when not in character. Erica Jong’s 1987 romance Serenissima takes Merchant as its starting point, transporting an American actress named Jessica back in time to meet the author. When she returns to her own time, she gives birth to Shakespeare’s child. Simon Hawke’s The Merchant of Vengeance (2003) is a historical mystery that explores the circumstances surrounding the writing (p. 449) of Merchant, including drawing Shakespeare into a murder of a Jewish boy, where the Bard has to use his trial skills to defend an innocent merchant. Hawke’s Much Ado About Murder (2002) includes main characters Molly and Ben, involved in a verbal feud, and the two work to redeem a falsely accused woman (like Hero). The Mystery of Errors (2000) and The Slaying of the Shrew (2001) continue Hawke’s focus on Shakespeare for historical mysteries. In the latter, both the shrewish bride Catherine and her sister Blanche are murdered. Alan Gordon’s mystery Thirteenth Night (1999) takes Malvolio’s exit line ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ (5.1.374) as inspiration for a sequel to Shakespeare’s play, where the characters from Twelfth Night band together to find the murderer of Orsino.

Exploring productions of Dream seems to be the most common way this play has been adapted into novel form. In Elizabeth Ashton’s The Player King (1975), an actress playing one of the fairies falls for the actor playing Oberon. Carole Buck’s 1985 Love Play also involves romance connected to a production of the play, with a character named Nick as director. Both Lauren Henderson’s Freeze My Margarita (1998) and Philip Gooden’s The Pale Companion (2002) set a murder amid a production of the play. Marilyn Singer’s young adult novel The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth (1983) uses a high school production of the play to explore relationships between the characters inside and outside of the play, and David Bergantino’s A Midsummer Night’s Scream (2003) uses college students as the four lovers in a horror version of the play.

Several romance novels rely on Shakespeare’s comedies as inspiration for their plots. Valerie Thian’s Oh, Kiss Me Kate (1970) involves a main character Katherine and a Petruccio who is turned on by her disobedience. Carla Kelly’s 1993 romance Miss Billings Treads the Boards uses a production of Shrew as a backdrop for the love story. Elizabeth Ashton’s My Lady Disdain (1976) involves a feuding couple like Beatrice and Benedick, here Jacqueline and Gino, whose love story runs parallel to Shakespeare’s. Ashton’s Sigh No More (1973) also involves Much Ado, but here her character Imogene is inspired by watching the play on TV, specifically with her new life motto, ‘Men were deceivers ever’ (see 2.3.62). Twelfth Night is adapted in Joan Wolf’s Fool’s Masquerade (1984), where the main character is disguised as a boy to meet an earl, who is in love with another woman. Margaret Porter’s Toast of the Town (1993) involves a character named Flora, who plays Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night.

Recently, Hogarth Press commissioned a series of adaptations in novel form dubbed ‘The Hogarth Shakespeare’, enlisting contemporary novelists to ‘reimagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience’.22 Among the commissioned works are two comedies (and Jeanette Winterson’s version of The Winter’ Tale). Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (2016), an adaptation of Shrew, is set in Baltimore, where Katherine got kicked out of college for her rebellious ways, and now is a preschool teacher with a perky younger sister named Bunny. Petruccio is renamed Pyotr Scherbakov, a Russian (p. 450) lab worker in her father’s lab at Johns Hopkins, who will be deported unless Kate can help save him. Booker-prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson took on The Merchant of Venice in Shylock Is My Name (2016), where Shylock lives in Manchester, England, and befriends the father of a daughter engaged to a gentile soccer player.

Two recent initiatives push the boundaries between adaptations and translations. First, in connection with the 2012 Olympics, The Globe Theatre in London launched the Globe to Globe Festival, hosting a production of all of Shakespeare’s plays, each in a different language. Only one of these productions, Henry V, was in English. The remaining thirty-six were translated into the native language of the performers, and then retranslated back into English subtitles for the benefit of the audience. Thus, with the exception of Henry V, none of these performances included Shakespeare’s original language, and most had added music and dance, as well as cuts or alterations to the text. A few examples should suffice to represent the comedies. All’s Well was performed with added music and dance by a company from Mumbai, translated into the Indo-Aryan language of Gujarati. Character names were changed (Helena became Heli and Bertram became Bharatram). The name changes were ‘not merely conceptual’, but rather created another layer of humour, where ‘the name changes allowed plentiful occasions for rhyming in the script, with the rhymed words often generating ironic humour’.23 Even with these changes, according to one reviewer, ‘the order and content of the scenes were broadly recognizable’, though the production relied heavily on song, dance, and gesture ‘centrally and effectively, to do much of the storytelling work’, resulting in ‘a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions’.24 Errors was performed in Dari Persian; this production had a number of differences from Shakespeare’s play, including renamed characters, a new setting of Kabul, Afghanistan, and an emphasis on the ‘collision of East and West’ that aligned the audience ‘very much with the westernized outsiders in this culture’.25 Shrew was performed in Urdu, with Katherine and Petruccio renamed Kiran and Rustun. This Pakistani production maintained most of Shakespeare’s plot, but ‘the primary adaptation [was] the play’s springtime-Pakistan setting, evoked through costume, music, dance, and Laila Rehman’s set’.26 Merry Wives, set in Kenya and translated into Swahili, was described as a production that celebrated ‘the wit and independence of urban African women’.27 Despite the language barrier, the production was praised for ‘the way in which the actors captured a variety of characters’ essences through their mannerisms, facial expressions and intonation in a way that attempted to transcend (p. 451) language and appeal to a global community’.28 Dream was performed in Korean; it included music, song, dance, and mime, and was described as ‘an exhilarating adaptation of Shakespeare’s inventive and glittering comedy’.29 Given that they were performed without a single word of Shakespeare’s original English language, it is difficult to see these examples as productions of Shakespeare’s plays rather than adaptations of them.

A second project involving Shakespeare’s plays offers even more provocative material for analysing what qualifies as an adaptation. A new initiative by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival entitled ‘Play on!’ and underwritten by patron and businessman Dave Hitz, will commission thirty-six playwrights to write thirty-nine plays. The project will enlist major playwrights and dramaturgs, including David Ivers for As You Like It; Amy Freed for Shrew; artist and activist Virginia Grise, who has worked with immigrant, Chicano, and queer youth, for All’s Well; Minneapolis playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, of Bulgarian and Indian descent, for Measure; and Elise Thoron, who has done extensive work in Yiddish theatre, with Japanese performance, with classical Indian dance, and with Russian theatre artists, for Merchant. Tony award winner Jeff Whitty was chosen for Dream; British author Ranjit Bolt, OBE, whose adaptations and translations have appeared at the Old Vic, the Chichester Festival, the RSC, and the National Theatre, for Much Ado; Calcutta-born Dipika Guha, who did an M. F. A. at Yale University under Paula Vogel, for Merry Wives; Alison Carey, co-founder of Cornerstone Theatre Company for Twelfth Night; Yale M. F. A. candidate Josh Wilder for LLL; and Australian-born Amelia Roper, a graduate of Yale whose work has appeared at the Old Vic, in Moscow, and across the United States, for Two Gentlemen.

Some of the key components of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s initiative highlight the current state of Shakespeare adaptation in contemporary theatre. Playwrights are not allowed to cut or edit scenes, and they ‘may not add their personal politics’.30 Playwrights are tasked with examining the plays ‘line-by-line and translat[ing] into contemporary modern English those lines that need translating’. Oregon Shakespeare Festival director Bill Rauch claims that ‘these translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged’. Patron Dave Hitz seeks to ‘attract a new audience to Shakespeare and lead them back to his original words as well’. But despite Rauch’s assertion, the fact that this project articulates its distance from the original plays suggests that ‘adaptation’ is actually the better term for them. Further, this initiative begs the question of whether Shakespeare’s plays have always needed some sort of adjustment to align them with the audience of the moment. The involvement of prominent writers and artists in the project harks back to the earliest adaptations, when (p. 452) prominent authors and actors like William Davenant, John Lacy, and David Garrick took on the task of updating Shakespeare’s comedies for the audiences of their day.

Case Study: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

So far this chapter has taken a chronological view, looking at adaptations of the comedies as a whole under changing theatrical and aesthetic conditions over the course of several centuries. In order to see how these changes work on a particular play, we might take the adaptation history of one play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as emblematic of the variety of ways Shakespeare’s comedies have been reworked over the last 400 years. Dream was first adapted during the Commonwealth period as a droll, a brief comic piece, entitled The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver, where the Pyramus and Thisbe section of the play was excerpted and performed independently on its own. Taken out of its original context, this piece was acted in the later seventeenth century ‘in London at Bartholomew Fair, in the country at other Faires. In Halls and Taverns. On several Mountebanks’ stages, at Charing Cross, Lincolns-Inn Fields, and other places. By several strolling players, fools, and fiddlers, and the Mountebank’s zanies. With loud laughter and great applause.’31 Likely written by comedian Robert Cox, Bottom the Weaver was printed in 1661 but performed earlier when the theatres were closed, and then later reprinted in 1673 in Francis Kirkman’s collection The Wits, as a text that was performed publicly and privately, at fairs, halls, taverns, and by strolling players. Shakespeare’s name did not appear in the printed versions, and instead, the title page to the 1673 printing attests that the authorship is unknown.

Then, popular composer Henry Purcell reworked the play as an opera entitled The Fairy Queen to respond to audience demands for music and spectacle, especially in connection to English opera. This adaptation only includes the fairies and the rustics from Shakespeare’s play, leaving out the lovers. Shakespeare’s name was not promoted in connection with The Fairy Queen, and it was printed in 1692 with a reissued version in 1693, which supplied more songs and additions (adding a fifth masque to the original four). The highlight of The Fairy Queen was Purcell’s music, and the author of the libretto itself still remains uncertain. Various candidates include Elkanah Settle, John Dryden, Thomas Betterton, and Jo Haynes. The production costs were apparently exorbitant, and included oriental settings, working fountains, monkeys, swans, an Italianate symphony, and gods arriving in machines. The longevity of The Fairy Queen is difficult to assess, because the score disappeared shortly after Purcell’s death in 1695, and did not reappear until the early twentieth century.

This process of extracting relevant components and giving them a life of their own would continue, especially for this play. Popular English singer Richard Leveridge (p. 453) used the Pyramus and Thisbe material as the basis for a satire on Italian opera in his 1716 afterpiece The Comick Masque of Pyramus and Thisbe. Performed after a five-act mainpiece, afterpieces were usually comic pieces involving additional song and dance. Leveridge staged Pyramus and Thisbe as a benefit for himself, and used it to comment on the fad of Italian opera. He creates an additional character, Mr Semibreve, the composer of the work, who has the piece performed for his friends Crotchet and Gamut. Leveridge himself played Bottom, opposite some of the most popular comic actors and singers of his day. Unfortunately, Leveridge’s music does not survive, but the script clearly demonstrates that part of Shakespeare’s play was enlisted in a nationalistic attempt to mock foreign entertainment. The success of Leveridge’s piece can also be gauged by the fact that J. F. Lampe reworked it in 1745, as Pyramus and Thisbe: A Mock Opera.

Under David Garrick’s management at Drury Lane, J. C. Smith’s 1755 opera The Fairies took the title characters and the court characters, supplemented with extensive songs and drastic cuts to the text, with the fairies performed by children. Eight years later, in 1763, Garrick staged another version of the play with its original title, undertaken by George Colman the Elder. A heavily cut version of the first four acts of Shakespeare’s original, it was deemed by one reviewer as ‘very flat and uninteresting’.32 Colman soon adapted this version into an afterpiece called A Fairy Tale, focusing only on the fairy children and the Mechanicals, and this version was performed throughout the later eighteenth century.

The palimpsestic nature of adaptation is apparent in the later history of Colman’s piece. In 1816, Frederic Reynolds used Colman’s 1763 version as the basis for his adaptation, adding music, dance, and spectacle, but also adding Shakespeare’s name to the piece. William Hazlitt’s review in The Examiner (21 January 1816) judged that ‘all that was fine in the play was lost in the representation’. Even with Hazlitt’s condemnation, Reynolds’s piece was revived in 1833–4 in Drury Lane as an afterpiece, and it was ‘the last [version] systematically to rework and rewrite lines, plots and characters on a large scale. Thereafter the play would be made theatrically viable by editing the text rather than replacing it’.33 Subsequent nineteenth-century productions cut the text and added scenery and spectacle, but not to the degree of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen or Leveridge’s Pyramus and Thisbe, and usually with Shakespeare’s name attached, as a production of Shakespeare’s play, not a separate artistic entity under the name of a new author/adapter. Even Charles Kean’s 1856 production, which only maintained 60 per cent of Shakespeare’s text, added dances, and augmented the number of fairies and spectacular effects, was considered by contemporaries to be a play by Shakespeare, not an adaptation.34 Likewise, Peter Brook’s ground-breaking 1970 Stratford production, with its white box setting, characters on trapezes, and lack of elaborate set, was still described by contemporary reviewers as ‘a historic landmark in the interpretation (p. 454) of Shakespeare’s plays’.35 Recent versions of the play that more clearly qualify as adaptations include Woody Allen’s film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), which includes fairies and confused lovers, alongside Mendelssohn’s Overture composed in 1826; and Peter Whelan’s Shakespeare Country (1993), which focuses on a production of Dream, with the actors playing Oberon and Titania. Even this play, often described as one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, was mined for performance material to excerpt throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and continues to be adapted in our own day.

Adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies do not exist in a vacuum, but rather survive alongside new plays of the day and revived older plays. Thus, adaptations of the comedies do not necessarily reflect something intrinsic in Shakespeare’s source text itself, and may instead offer commentary on the current state of comedy in general. Through the ways that Shakespeare has been reworked for later generations, we can trace changing aesthetic taste, shifts in literary forms, and developing ideas about Shakespeare himself.

Suggested Reading

Burt, Richard, Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture, 2 vols. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007).Find this resource:

Fischlin, Daniel, and Mark Fortier, eds., Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (London: Routledge, 2000).Find this resource:

Kidnie, M. J., Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London: Routledge, 2009).Find this resource:

Scheil, Katherine West, The Taste of the Town: Shakespearian Comedy and the Early Eighteenth-Century Theater. (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003).Find this resource:

Schoch, Richard, Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).Find this resource:


(1) Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, eds., Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (London: Routledge, 2000), 4. For discussion of terminology related to adaptation, see the introduction to Fischlin and Fortier’s anthology; Randall Martin and Katherine Scheil, eds., Shakespeare/Adaptation/Modern Drama (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); and M. J. Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London: Routledge, 2009).

(3) Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn, A Theory of Adaptation, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006; 2013).

(6) Daily Journal, 5 March 1737.

(7) John Carrington, Preface to The Modern Receipt (London, 1739).

(9) Sarah Annes Brown, ‘The Prequel as Palinode: Mary Cowden Clarke’s Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines’, Shakespeare Survey 58 (2005), 96.

(10) All references to Shakespeare’s plays are to Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, gen. eds., The Oxford Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(11) Richard Schoch, Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 11.

(16) Fran Teague, ‘Shakespeare and Musical Theatre’, in Mark Thornton Burnett, Adrian Steele, and Ramona Wray, eds., The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 186, 188.

(18) Courtney Lehmann provides an extensive list of film versions in ‘What is a Film Adaptation?, or Shakespeare Du Jour’, in Richard Burt, ed., Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 1:74–131.

(19) For a complete catalogue of stage adaptations, see Amy Scott-Douglass, ‘Dramatic Shakespeare: Stars and Spin-Offs’, in Richard Burt, ed., Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 2:733–812.

(20) Annalisa Castaldo, ‘Fictions of Shakespeare and Literary Culture’, in Richard Burt, ed., Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 2:409, 412. See Castaldo’s essay for a comprehensive and extended discussion of Shakespeare’s plays in novels.

(21) Castaldo, ‘Fictions’, 415.

(22) Sarah Crown, ‘The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson Review—An Elegant Retelling of Shakespeare’,

(23) Sarah Olive, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, in Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott, and Erin Sullivan, eds., A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 34.

(24) Olive, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, 34.

(25) Stephen Purcell, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott, and Erin Sullivan, eds., A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 45.

(26) Thea Buckley, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, in Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott, and Erin Sullivan, eds., A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 188.

(28) Sarah Olive, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, in Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott, and Erin Sullivan, eds., A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 134.

(30) ‘OSF Launches Three-Year Shakespeare Translation Commissioning Project’, Oregan Shakespeare Festival,

(31) Frances Kirkman, The Wits (London, 1673).

(32) Trevor R. Griffiths, ed., A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 17.

(35) Robert Speaight, Tablet, 12 September 1970.