In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adapting Shakespeare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Online Resources
  • Journals
  • Theorizing Adaptation

British and Irish Literature Adapting Shakespeare
Pamela Bickley, Jenny Stevens
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0196


Adapting Shakespeare is a worldwide phenomenon which now seems to be both ubiquitous and unstoppable: from angry, thought-provoking rewritings of The Merchant of Venice to hilariously parodic memes, Shakespeare is a thriving presence across literature and digital media. Sustained scholarly attentiveness to Shakespeare adaptation began in the 1970s, when film versions of the plays became available for both private and institutional viewing, allowing close filmic analysis. Being able to scrutinize film text minutely meant that studying Shakespeare on screen soon became an established practice—and topic—in university English, and increasingly dynamic academic engagement with the adaptive medium made it an obvious embarkation point for adaptation studies. That film has long been the most abundantly-treated adaptive medium in Shakespeare publications is proportionately represented in this bibliography. As the range of media employed to adapt Shakespeare’s work has widened, so concomitant critical theorizing of adaptation and appropriation has grown ever more diverse and complex, especially in relation to the unavoidable (and vexed) question: “Is it faithful to the original?” Notions of fidelity and authenticity are currently unfashionable but these are ever-shifting sands. Adapted works can be considered as autonomous art forms, with their own vibrancy and integrity. But is this disingenuous? Any expressive artwork referencing, say, two characters who resemble Romeo and Juliet is—potentially—inviting comparison with the play. Two key questions arise: firstly, how far does a knowledge of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet enhance understanding and enjoyment of the adaptation? Secondly, does Shakespeare’s play itself change as a result of participating in the adapted work? Jane Smiley desired that her 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres, would leave an indelible imprint on her readers, altering their perception of King Lear and their future experience of the play. Questions around adaptation are further complicated by political considerations, both current and historical: the nature of cultural capital; the historical imbrication of Shakespeare in the then British Empire and its colonial educational programs; feminist voices “talking back.” All these considerations prompt adaptations and appropriations to grapple with and subsequently dismantle cultural orthodoxies. Reimagining Shakespeare now means moving beyond 20th-century modes of resistance and rejection, rather claiming agency and empowerment through distinctive local or “glocal” manifestations. Shakespeare is peculiarly malleable, as recent neologisms demonstrate: Shakes-shifting, ShakesQueer, Shakespunk, Shakesploitation, Shakespop. It is a malleability that becomes ever more apparent as new digital technologies emerge. Social media platforms, for example, enable both Shakespeare’s work itself, and different iterations of that work, to be reconfigured, remixed and extended, allowing user-generated, often interactive, Shakespeares to be disseminated to a global audience.

General Overviews

This first section encompasses works that debate the nature of adaptation and appropriation together with studies exploring specific examples of Shakespearean afterlives. Almost all have been published in the 21st century, attesting to innovations in theorizing adaptation and appropriation in the context of Shakespeare’s writing. From the theoretical perspective Kidnie 2009 and Huang and Rivlin 2014 raise conceptual and ethical questions about adaptation itself; Burt 2002, Lanier 2002, and Fischlin 2014 explore Shakespearean adaptation through the lens of global digital media and modern cultural phenomena, a focus initially theorized by Bristol 1996. Shaughnessy 2007 also examines popular culture, but across historical time, beginning with Shakespeare’s theatrical world. Desmet and Sawyer 1999 focuses on case studies of specific adaptations and Henderson 2006 offers a theory of Anglo-American “Shake-shifting” together with exemplars. Edmondson and Holbrook 2016 includes a potpourri of cultural afterlives by way of a festschrift for the 2016 quatercentenary; Bickley and Stevens 2021 introduces key areas of adaptation study and examines thirty-six examples, across a range of media. Fischlin and Fortier 2000 presents, uniquely, an edited anthology of twelve dramatic adaptations with an insightful introduction. Iyengar 2023 draws on twenty years of adaptation theory and its changing metaphors, discussing analytical methodologies through specific Shakespearean plays.

  • Bickley, Pamela, and Jenny Stevens. Studying Shakespeare Adaptation: From Restoration Theatre to YouTube. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2021.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350068674

    Introduces key aspects of adaptation study from Shakespeare’s own adaptive practice and Renaissance ideas of emulatio, to present-day transmedial adaptation. Discusses thirty-six specific case studies, three for each of the twelve key plays selected, encompassing film, drama, prose fiction, ballet, the visual arts, and poetry. Examples are drawn from Anglophone and worldwide sources.

  • Bristol, Michael D. Big-Time Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1996.

    A much-cited work that was among the first to argue Shakespeare’s cultural authority in the present-day. Exploring the widespread appropriation of Shakespeare rather than specific adaptations of the plays, Bristol argues that Shakespeare is “the common possession of Western modernity” and, significantly, the “definitive expression of its experience.”

  • Burt, Richard, ed. Shakespeare after Mass Media. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

    Explores modern cultural afterlives through a broad array of mass media contexts, from marketing to kitsch. Burt theorizes a concept of “Schlockspeare”—rethinking assumptions around Shakespearean authority and modern cultural practices and querying the implications of a binary opposition between mass culture/passive consumerism and literature of complexity and difficulty. Highly influential on later studies of digital culture.

  • Desmet, Christy, and Robert Sawyer, eds. Shakespeare and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 1999.

    Cogent series of essays by major figures in the field covering appropriation in theory and practice. The case studies discussed move from 19th-century representations of Lady Macbeth, Othello in Calcutta 1848, and Robert Browning, through the fictional adaptations of Gloria Naylor and Jane Smiley to Branagh’s Hamlet, and Disney. Part 1: Theorizing Shakespeare as cultural capital; Part 2: Appropriation as an act of resistance.

  • Edmondson, Paul, and Peter Holbrook, eds. Shakespeare’s Creative Legacies: Artists, Writers, Performers, Readers. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

    A celebration of Shakespearean afterlives for the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Essays on stage and screen, together with poetry and fiction, music and dance, cultural and intellectual life. Also includes personal reflections by prominent contemporary practitioners and writers, including Michael Bogdanov, Kenneth Branagh, Gregory Doran, Yukio Ninagawa, Janet Suzman, John Ashbery, David Malouf.

  • Fischlin, D., ed. OuterSpeares: Shakespeare, Intermedia and the Limits of Adaptation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

    Fischlin embraces global digital media as a “brave new world” of opportunity and revolution, discussing a wide spectrum of adaptation and appropriation, including (among others) Julie Taymor’s The Tempest in the wake of 9/11; Tom Magill’s Micky B; 1930s American radio.

  • Fischlin, Daniel, and Mark Fortier, eds. Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Ground-breaking anthology of twelve theatrical adaptations across time and from around the world, prefaced by a lucid and influential account of adaptation. The collection begins with Shakespeare’s contemporary dramatist, John Fletcher, and includes Nahum Tate, Keats, Lorca, Brecht, Marowitz, Müller, Osment, Djanet Sears, and Elaine Feinstein and the Women’s Theatre Group. Each play is accompanied by a concise and informative introduction and the volume concludes with a list of further adaptations.

  • Henderson, Diana E. Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

    Focuses on four exemplary instances within Anglo-American culture where Shakespeare’s plays have been “reconceived within distinctively modern narrative forms”—a process of diachronic collaboration which has transformed both Shakespeare and ourselves. Introduction: “Shake-shifting” explores theoretical notions of collaboration. Part 1: Novel Transformations; (Scott’s Kenilworth/Othello; Mrs Dalloway/Cymbeline). Part 2: Media Crossings (“The Return of the Shrew,” “Modern Performances of Henry V”).

  • Huang, Alexa, and Elizabeth Rivlin, eds. Shakespeare and the Ethics of Adaptation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    An important contribution to the discussion of adaptation and appropriation: Huang and Rivlin explore intersections of ethics, aesthetics, authority, and authenticity to address the question of how globalized and diversified Shakespeare constructs ethical value. Includes Douglas Lanier’s significant essay “Shakespearean Rhizomatics,” Christy Desmet’s “Rethinking Fidelity,” which the editors position as a paired examination of the adaptational process, and discussion of Bollywood, Sulayman Al-Bassam, and Japanese Othello, among others.

  • Iyengar, Sujata. Shakespeare and Adaptation Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2023.

    Focusing on the key conceptual metaphors of adaptation criticism, Iyengar begins by harnessing post-structuralist linguistics as a methodology for the enabling and empowering conversations that can accrue around Shakespearean adaptations and appropriations. Individual chapters discuss the rhetoric of different theoreticians, focusing on a specific play by way of elucidation, thus The Tempest is aligned with rhizomes: plants, off-shoots, and genes; Pericles is explored through ideas of relocation, hybridization, and tradaptation. Draws on wide-ranging illustrations; includes helpful glossary.

  • Kidnie, Margaret Jane. Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Draws on the theoretical writing of Hutcheon to interrogate ideas of adaptation in the context of theatrical productions and debates a number of aesthetic definitions of the “work.” Kidnie suggests that a play should be seen as a dynamic process, evolving over time “in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.” Explores the role of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the BBC’s Shakespeare Re-Told series, Djanet Sears and Robert Lepage; concludes with a discussion of modern editorial practices.

  • Lanier, Douglas. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Concise study in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series, the first book-length consideration of “Shakespop” as a cultural phenomenon. Lanier argues that Shakespeare’s diffuse presence in mass media and popular culture is a form of theoretical engagement whereby popular culture negotiates its relationship with high culture. Opens—strikingly—with Star Trek VI (“Where No Bard Has Gone Before”) and concludes with the politics and marketing of Shakespeare’s new Globe Theatre (London).

  • Shaughnessy, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Innovative study covering four centuries of popularized Shakespeare and exploring the multiple “other Shakespeares” that have coexisted with Shakespeare’s high-cultural status, moving from the festivities and folk customs of Shakespeare’s own time to modern adaptations, reinventions, and borrowings—whether respectful or scurrilous. Twelve chapters by key writers explore wide-ranging adaptations and reinventions of the plays, poems, and Shakespeare himself.

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