SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged […], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.

 

De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].