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Adapting Shakespeare

"What a hack!"

"I can't believe he just stole it straight from someone else. If we did that, we'd get kicked out for plagiarism!"

"Everyone builds him up as such a great writer, and he didn't even have his own original ideas! I am so disappointed."

Reactions to the latest copyright scandal at The Wall Street Journal or Newsweek? No, these are the responses of a class full of high school seniors who have just been told that "As You Like It", the play they are half-way through reading and analyzing, is actually based on a pastoral romance written ten years earlier. I have everyone's attention, and the room is filled with consternation, but the atmosphere becomes positively electric when I point out that the romance, written by Thomas Lodge, is actually entitled "Rosalynde" and includes such characters as Rosalynde, Celia, Phebe, Corin, and Silvius.

"He even used the same names?! He didn't copy the story too, did he? What is the original story about?"

When I explain that the plots of the two stories are remarkably similar, and add that just about every play Shakespeare wrote had its source in a pre-existing story that was often quite well-known, a couple of the students are ready to walk out. Several are genuinely disgusted. This is, after all, the first play of the course, and many of these students know no more about Shakespeare than that oft-repeated tag, "the greatest playwright who ever lived." Their unspoken assumption is clearly that if he didn't make up the story originally, then whatever he did has no value.

They are primed and ready for the next leap in understanding: the plot is not the end in itself, it is only the vehicle. And what do vehicles carry around? People! Shakespeare's plays are about people, and we still read them and perform them and argue about them 400 years later simply because no one in written history can craft a character quite as well as The Bard. I explain that Shakespeare used familiar plots precisely because his audience was familiar with them, and knowing the story allows one to pay closer attention to the innumerable nuances of character development, relational interplay and cultural commentary.

We don't have time in class to read "Rosalynde" and compare the two works side-by-side, but I explain that Lodge's romance was a simplistic story about some very flat and stereotypical characters falling in love. There is little doubt, even in just the first couple of acts, that Shakespeare's characters are anything but flat, and he doesn't just trot out a bunch of tired old cliches about true love, but rather digs into the issue philosophically from many different perspectives. By way of example, I remind my students about the 1998 film "Ever After," starring Angelica Houston and Drew Barrymore. A majority of the students have seen it, and several respond with comments like, "Oh, I love that movie!" I show a quick ten-minute snippet of the film, usually the part where the stepmother tells Danielle (the Cinderella figure) why she dislikes her so much.

"What did they do with that film?" I ask. "They took a very common and simplistic story, known by probably ever person in the free world, and told it again, only this time they filled in some details and fleshed out the characters and actually even managed to slip in a fair amount of social commentary. Did all that diminish the fairy tale that has been known and loved for centuries?"

Alicia responds, "No at all! They made it much more realistic and believable. I loved how the emphasis was not on how beautiful she was, but on how smart she was."

"My favorite part," adds Mark, "is when the prince says, 'It's time for my father to move into the sixteenth century!'"

"So all Shakespeare did," I say, "is take a common two-dimensional story and make it contemporary and relevant to his day. It's not plagiarism, it's adaptation. So here is your assignment." (See handout)

About the Author

Ron Clark teaches Shakespeare to 12th grade students at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins Colorado.

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