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Shakespeare & Beyond

Will and Jane continued: adaptations, modernizations, and fan fiction

WillandJaneAdaptationsAlthough the Bard may have a longer history of such flattery, both Will and Jane have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous adaptations. In the 20th century, Austen joined Shakespeare in his entrance into modern media—film, television, and digital forms—as well as print spin-offs, fan fiction, radical modernizations, and even travesties.

Beginning less than a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, British playwrights played fast and loose with the Bard, re-writing his plays and even turning them into operas. The Tempest became The Enchanted Island (1677), in which Miranda was joined by Dorinda, a sister who had never seen man, and by a young man, Hippolyto (usually played by a cross-dressed actress), who had never seen woman. For nearly 200 years, some of our favorite Shakespeare plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were largely unperformed in versions that Shakespeare would have recognized, but grew in popularity as operas—such as Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen (1692) and David Garrick’s The Fairies (1755)—or farces like Pyramus and Thisbe (1745).

Most famously, Nahum Tate (1652-1715) turned Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear into a love story in which Cordelia marries Edgar and lives happily ever after. This oddly optimistic version dominated the stage from 1681 until well into the 19th century and was revered rather than reviled for tweaking Shakespeare’s original. The 18th-century English literary lion and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), for instance, preferred Tate’s happy King Lear because he found the original ending so deeply upsetting as to undercut the moral uplift he looked for from Shakespeare.

Similarly, Austen’s novels have been visualized in film and television, replete with period costumes and “authentic” English landscapes and stately manors, so as to deliver the “real” Austen. At the same time, they have also been modernized and set in locations that Austen would not have recognized. The film Clueless (1995) takes place in an American high school. Pride and Prejudice has been travestied in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) and eroticized in the novel Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes in Jane Austen (2003).