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 ūüôā

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‚ÄĒlike fanfic‚ÄĒis both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‚Äėcanon.‚Äô 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‚Äôs musical sensation, ‚ÄúHamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it‚ÄĚ (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to ‚Äúargue with the canon‚ÄĚ can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd‚Äôs 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‚Äôs assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these ‚Äúrogue archives‚ÄĚ ‚Äúclose gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people‚ÄĚ, De Kosnik does argue‚ÄĒconvincingly‚ÄĒthat they are ‚Äúarchives of women‚Äôs digital culture and queer digital culture‚ÄĚ (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists ‚Äúpry open ‚Äėthe archive‚Äô‚ÄĒdigital cultural memory writ large‚ÄĒto include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice‚ÄĚ (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 ‚Äúintrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity‚ÄĚ (21).

De Kosnik‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúsites 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‚ÄĚ (135). As a result, ‚Äúfan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity‚ÄĚ (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship ‚Äúas 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‚ÄĚ (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‚ÄĒ‚Äúas explicitly queer spaces do‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ‚Äúas simultaneously ‚Äėsafe spaces‚Äô and spaces of targeting‚ÄĚ (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‚Äôs ‚Äúcontemporary translations‚ÄĚ 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 (‚ÄúPlay On!‚ÄĚ). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that ‚ÄúThe Play On translations will not be adaptations‚ÄĚ because ‚ÄúEverything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged [‚Ķ], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‚Äėfixed‚Äô in any way‚ÄĚ (‚ÄúFurther Reading‚ÄĚ). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of ‚Äúexperimentation, exploration, and changing the language.‚ÄĚ As an adapter of Shakespeare, I‚Äôm intrigued by this deliberate separation between ‚Äúexperimentation‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúadaptation.‚ÄĚ Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work‚ÄĒan effort that will appropriately ‚Äúcelebrate Shakespeare‚Äôs masterworks.‚ÄĚ Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or‚ÄĒworst of all‚ÄĒtrendy, informed by ‚Äúpop-culture references and contemporary slang.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄėBlack.‚Äô From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‚Äėtranslating‚Äô Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to ‚Äúargue with its canon,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúHamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.‚Ä̬†Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

‚ÄúPlay on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.‚ÄĚ Oregon Shakespeare Festival.¬†[accessed 3 Jan 2017].

‚ÄúPlay On! Further Reading.‚ÄĚ Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].


Thesis/Existential Crisis Moments

It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.

“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).

But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible¬†and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.

So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all?¬†

I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis¬†crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon¬†is,¬†even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare¬†is¬†a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t.¬†To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also¬†a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s¬†Measure for Measure.¬†I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century¬†feminism without reference to¬†Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?

I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?