- Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation
"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" asks William Butler Yeats at the conclusion of "Among School Children."1 Among ever-proliferating versions of Shakespeare onstage, in film, digital media, and print, how can we distinguish what is true to Shakespeare from what isn't? Should we even try? Margaret Jane Kidnie addresses these questions in a bold, subtle, incisive book that takes in a dauntingly wide range of adaptations, including stage performances of Shakespearean texts, television retellings, contemporary plays inspired by Shakespeare, interactive Web sites, and printed editions of [End Page 265] the plays. She opens up the problem of adaptation in revealing, theoretically astute ways, forcing us to rethink the guises in which "Shakespeare" may take shape. Her book will attract not only readers interested in performance but also those working on television, digital media, and textual editing.
Kidnie argues that a Shakespeare play shouldn't be seen as a discrete, already knowable object "against which one can take the measure of its theatrical [or other] treatments," but rather as "a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users" (2). Similarly, she holds adaptation to be "an evolving category … closely tied to how the work modifies over time and from one reception space to another" (5). Both work and adaptation constitute a kind of Möbius strip, a labile, intertwining process inherent to drama, "situated at the intersection of text and performance, so forestalling any ready identification of adaptation with performance" (7). For this formulation, she is broadly indebted to new historicism and performance studies and more particularly to the work of Richard Wollheim and Joseph Grigely. From Wollheim, she adopts the idea of an artistic work as a "type," of which there may be many "tokens": Hamlet is a type, while the first quarto, Laurence Olivier's movie, or Tom Stoppard's play are some of its potentially infinite number of tokens. Acknowledging that this model doesn't explain how one comes to knowledge of the type as distinct from the token, Kidnie turns to Grigely's idea of "textualterity," the work as "an unfinished series of unique textual events" (25). The First Folio's Hamlet and Thomas Bowdler's version are each "events in the work's series," neither of which has more claim to authenticity than the other, and any performance is "itself a 'text' that shapes one's idea of the work" (25–26). Finally, a Shakespearean "work" (as opposed to a "play," which might designate editions, performances, or both) doesn't exist prior to its instances and productions but rather subsequent to them, through successive users' ongoing debates and provisional definitions of the relationship between type and token, or work and instance.
In the diversely instantiated Shakespearean works that she treats, the author is committed to a type of "thick description" (the phrase originating with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the method widely employed by new historicist critics) in which she charts the historical moments and clashing interests in which users' perceptions of works and adaptations are embedded. She performs this demanding kind of critical narration superbly, in richly detailed, highly illuminating accounts that demonstrate the viability of her theoretical models. First among them is her comparison of two Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions ideally suited for her purposes: Matthew Warchus's 1997 Hamlet and Gregory Doran's 2003 All's Well That Ends Well that starred Judi Dench. While the former prompted widespread uncertainty about whether it was really Hamlet, the latter was celebrated by John Gross as "'let[ting] Shakespeare's words speak for themselves'" (46). Warchus's production cut, rearranged, and incorporated material from all three extant texts of Hamlet, interpolated episodes not included in any texts, and excised Fortinbras—all to focus attention on fractured family relations rather than state politics. Doran cut 10 percent of All's Well and highlighted the relatively...