Adapting Shakespeare, Part II

In many ways, Shakespeare’s plays ask essential questions about what it means to be human. In the comedies, many of those questions have to do with love, and while the plays are funny, their themes are decidedly serious. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, asks if love is really just an illusion. Twelfth Night raises questions about the meaning of gender, the limits of faithfulness, and the places our journeys take us. In the comedies, it is often his female characters who struggle with such issues; they are fully realized women, and I have come to think of a couple of them as friends. Much Ado about Nothing, on which I based my first novel, features my favorite Shakespearean heroine. To me, the question in that play is rooted in Beatrice’s experience:

what happens when a seriously smart woman, chafing under the conventions of her time and station in life, meets her intellectual match in a man she claims to hate? Kate, of The Taming of the Shrew, lacks Beatrice’s “merry heart,” but shares her intellectual gifts. Unlike Beatrice, who uses humor to mitigate her situation, Kate has a white hot core of anger—but it’s an anger borne of loneliness. While it’s easy to write Kate off as a shrew, Shakespeare doesn’t give us a one-dimensional character, but a frustrated woman who resents living in the shadow of her younger, prettier, and much more compliant and conventional sister. So I asked myself: what would happen to a Kate or Beatrice or Viola in a modern setting with modern problems? Strangely enough, it’s pretty much what happened to the heroines of several centuries years ago. They struggle with finding their identities as women. They have anger with few outlets for it. Sometimes they fall in love with men who don’t deserve them. Sometimes they fall in love with men who do. And just as in real life, all of them are different people in Act Five than they were in Act One. I teach my students a simple formula about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies: in the tragedies, people die. In the comedies, people get married. And while I don’t marry my heroines off, I do give them what they deserve—a happy ending.