ENGH 511: Graduate Literature Survey

ENGH 511-A01: Shakespearean Adaptations
(Summer 2023)

04:30 PM to 06:35 PM MTWR


Section Information for Summer 2023

For as long as Shakespeare has been around, there have been adaptations of his texts. Even before: the plays themselves were adaptations of earlier texts, whether chronicles, romances, or even other plays (e.g. Saxo Grammaticus and the hypothetical/lost Ur-Hamlet by Thomas Kyd). And in productions, all his plays were likely cut in myriad ways and even had passages of improvisation and non-theatrical performance like dancing and singing--all of that is, in effect, adaptation, and it’s a practice that continues today. Moreover, at earlier historical moments, the plays were drastically changed simply to suit tastes and preconceptions. Consider Nahum Tate’s History of King Lear (1681), which was the only version of the play to be staged for 150 years (!) and which features a love plot between Edgar and Cordelia—and the survival of Gloucester (“Gloster”) and Lear as well. In other words, it’s a comedy, in the sense that it has a happy ending.

How to make sense of this perhaps-shocking historical fact? Well, an earlier time’s attitude to Shakespeare was not unlike contemporary screen adaptations of (e.g.) novels that change major plot points. The source material becomes a jumping-off point, not a source of authority. This is in part because Shakespeare was not yet the sacred property he has become, the Supreme Writer whose every word is considered inviolate and so not subject to change.

In more recent times, the fact of adaptation asks us to engage first of all with a literary history for which Shakespeare is that Supreme Writer, the pillar of the canon--or, as the scholar Michael Bristol deemed him, a “tutelary deity” (i.e., a god we follow) for modern times. That literary history will demand we think about intertextuality, the dense web of signification within which all writing is imbricated and entangled. But it also invites us to think about the fitness of the term appropriation, which can suggest something like an act of theft. (If you don’t know what I mean, google Sherrie Levine and get an idea of what’s she’s done in “appropriating” the photographs of Walker Evans: she’s merely re-photographed them and claimed them as her own. We’d call it plagiarism in academia—except that her “stealing” Evans’s images is precisely her point, not something she tries to hide.)

Like theft, appropriation is often undertaken by those who claim to be lacking something they need. In this case, could it be the right to own Shakespeare? Who has that right—that is, who if anyone owns Shakespeare? If appropriation is akin to thievery, might there be something scandalous about appropriating Shakespeare? Or are appropriating and adapting just forms of survival and of conveying renewed significance in changing times for changing audiences?

As you’ll discover from reading Sanders, at its most basic, conceptual level, appropriation defines the occasions when an adapter takes on and uses a text for purposes other than those for which it was originally intended. As a result, appropriations can become a vehicle for critical engagement on matters of gender, race, and even history written large. That stance can be connected to the view that Shakespeare was understood to be highbrow—that, literally, that he represents the patrimony of the Northern European, Anglo-Saxon races, whose purportedly higher foreheads suggested greater cranial capacity and hence higher intelligence, at least according to the pseudo-science known as eugenics, which influenced American education at the turn of the 20thcentury (and, as you well know, led to Hitler’s racist promotion of the Aryan master race). Yet that patrimony is partly why almost everyone in the US studies Shakespeare in high school, or even earlier. Learning Shakespeare was a way to inculcate US culture (which was understood to be English in nature) to early 20th century non-English-speaking immigrants, such as Jews and Italians. Immigration was also one reason that filmed versions of Shakespeare go back about as far as there has been cinema. As you’ll see, Lawrence Levine paints a nostalgic picture of 19th century America, when, he says, “everyone” used to know Shakespeare. But our reading of how Othello was staged in the 19th century will raise troubling questions about whether “everyone” saw Shakespeare the same way.

It’s also possible to consider Shakespeare—now an inescapable element of pre-tertiary education—as common property: even more, the writings are a resource for thinking. So what thoughts does Shakespeare enable? What happens when the plays are read from the margins, or by writers from colonized cultures? Or when a filmmaker tries to reproduce Shakespeare’s art cinematically? Posing and trying to answer such questions are the agendas of this course.


ENGH 511-A01 is a synchronous distance education section.

Course Information from the University Catalog

Credits: 3

Advanced survey of selected genres, periods, areas, styles, and theoretical issues in literature. Notes: Baccalaureate degree highly recommended. May be repeated within the degree for a maximum 6 credits.
Recommended Prerequisite: 15 credits of advanced undergraduate work and approval of the department. Baccalaureate degree highly recommended.
Registration Restrictions:

Enrollment limited to students with a class of Advanced to Candidacy, Graduate, Junior Plus, Non-Degree or Senior Plus.

Enrollment is limited to Graduate, Non-Degree or Undergraduate level students.

Students in a Non-Degree Undergraduate degree may not enroll.

Schedule Type: Lecture
This course is graded on the Graduate Regular scale.

The University Catalog is the authoritative source for information on courses. The Schedule of Classes is the authoritative source for information on classes scheduled for this semester. See the Schedule for the most up-to-date information and see Patriot web to register for classes.