Bending the Plot Arc Towards Justice: Adaptation as Rebellion Against the Shakespearean Status Quo

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Numerous works of recent scholarship have persuasively argued that Shakespeare’s work can serve as a springboard for urgent discussions regarding the nature of and the need for social justice. Yet rather than modeling resolutions that are fair or endings that are equitable by contemporary standards, Shakespeare’s plays often force us to consider the jarring differences between our own and Elizabethan audiences’ definitions of justice. Confronted with the unjust power dynamics inherent in certain Shakespearean texts, some adapters and directors make the radical choice to re-write key parts of the plot to better harmonize with contemporary audiences’ conceptions of justice and equality. This article explores three such adaptations: a Nigerian version of The Winter’s Tale from 2012, in which Hermione refuses to reconcile with Leontes; a 2014 Saudi riff on Hamlet, in which a marginalized actor rebels against his domineering director; and a 2016 Emirati response to King Lear, in which the demented king is granted no final moments of grace, reconciliation, or sanity, but instead dies in stony, self-inflicted isolation. In all three productions, the re-written script gives characters who resist unjust, tyrannical authority figures significantly greater power to rebel, and/or punishes those authority figures much more severely than does Shakespeare’s text. The act of re-writing Shakespeare thus constitutes a form of rebellion against the systems of order that permit injustice, both in the imagined worlds that Shakespeare created and the real ones that the adapters inhabit.

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Shakespeare Bulletin

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