Shehrazade Zafar-Arif: Why I've still got time for good Shakespeare adaptations

Shakespeare mural

Shehrazade Zafar-Arif  Shehrazade Zafar-Arif

Shakespeare mural by Jimmy C - image courtesy of Ungry Young Man

Shehrazade did her Masters in Shakespeare Studies, a programme taught jointly between King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe.


The Royals is a modern drama series very loosely inspired by Hamlet and featuring all the murdered kings, vengeful sons and power-hungry uncles you might expect. In a self-deprecatingly ‘meta’ moment, one character notes, ‘It’s so Shakespearean it’s almost disappointing.’

This highlights the double-edged sword that is the Shakespeare retelling – the themes are almost too recognisable. Shakespeare has been performed and adapted for centuries, in a variety of mediums. When looking for something ‘new’ to do with a play, adapters inevitably turn to the tested model of setting it in the modern day. This can range from updating the setting, but leaving the language and names as they were, to completely revamping everything except the bare bones of the story and character relationships. But has this trend been so overused that ‘Shakespearean’ has become synonymous with ‘cliché’? Does the bard really need another 21st century update?

I believe that Shakespeare’s modernisers still have plenty to offer. And here’s why:

First, we enjoy the familiarity of an old story. Familiar characters and tropes are accessible to us, even in a new context. Reborn against the backdrop of American high schools in teen movies such as She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), Shakespeare’s stories are recognisable. Indeed, the comedic misadventures of would-be lovers map perfectly onto the modern rom-com model. It’s an easy framework to use because a lot of what we’d call ‘Shakespearean’ is entrenched in our own media.

Second, there’s something delightfully uncanny about hearing Shakespeare’s language spoken by people dressed like us or seeing iconic characters in mundane settings – such as Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet giving his ‘to be or not to be’ speech in a Blockbuster video store. Shedding the confines of the time period and the limitations it comes with proves that the story can stand without it. Forbidden Planet recreated The Tempest in space – the furthest you could get from what we’d imagine Shakespeare to be. But the idea of a distant planet is as fantastical to us as a magical island would have been to Shakespeare’s audiences.

At the same time, modernisation creates a new lens through which to look at the plays. In 1995, Ian McKellan played Richard III as a fascist dictator sporting a Hitler moustache. Such visual cues and parallels – politicians instead of kings, guns instead of swords – resonate with modern audiences and allow them to empathise with the characters in a different way.

The Globe Theatre, London
The Globe Theatre hosts many Shakespeare adaptations

The modern setting also becomes a storytelling tool. Vishal Bhardwaj retold Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet as Maqbool, Omkara and Haider – the de-Anglicisation of these iconic names reflects how the stories mirror their predecessors. But the image is distorted by the political nuances of modern India. Shakespeare’s works were a product of his time, and similarly, retellings of his work are products of our own. Ivo van Hove, speaking of his Kings of War – an amalgamation of Henry V, Henry VI 1-3 and Richard III set in modern times – cited his inspiration in real world events such as Brexit and the US elections, and the search for strong leadership in an unstable political climate.

And so the Shakespeare retelling continues to thrive even after the hundredth attempt – because as the world changes, so does the way we use Shakespeare to respond to it.

In Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, a novelisation of The Tempest, the island becomes a prison, the magician Prospero becomes theatre director Felix and the plot becomes a performance of The Tempest by the inmates. Felix changes the play, its language and its characters in order to suit his audience, unusual space and unorthodox actors. He recreates Shakespeare, just as Atwood does, and just as any adapter inevitably does, each time producing a new way to consider the work.

Perhaps we have come to the point where we cannot adapt Shakespeare without an ironic nod to the adaptation’s place in the Shakespearean canon. But why should that stop us? Shakespeare himself borrowed from folklore, classical myths and his contemporaries’ works, adapting stories that would have been familiar to his audiences and making them something new. It’s likely he would have approved.


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