Modern Shakespeare Offshoots

Modern Shakespeare Offshoots

by Ruby Cohn

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Shakespeare's plays have never had a larger audience than they do in our time. This wide viewing is complemented by modern scholarship, which has verified and elucidated the plays' texts. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's plays continue to be revised. In order to find out how and why he has been rewritten, Ruby Cohn examines modern dramatic offshoots in English, French,


Shakespeare's plays have never had a larger audience than they do in our time. This wide viewing is complemented by modern scholarship, which has verified and elucidated the plays' texts. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's plays continue to be revised. In order to find out how and why he has been rewritten, Ruby Cohn examines modern dramatic offshoots in English, French, and German.

Surveying drama intended for the serious theater, the author discusses modern versions of Shakespeare's plays, especially Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest. Although the focus is always on drama, contrast is supplied by fiction stemming from Hamlet and essays inspired by King Lear. The book concludes with an assessment of the influence of Shakespeare on the creative work of Shaw, Brecht, and Beckett.

Originally published in 1976.

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Modern Shakespeare Offshoots

By Ruby Cohn


Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10034-0


A Mishmash of Adaptations and Transformations

Rewriting of Shakespeare is known by an array of names — abridgments, adaptations, additions, alterations, ameliorations, amplifications, augmentations, conversions, distortions, emendations, interpolations, metamorphoses, modifications, mutilations, revisions, transformations, versions. In contrast, I use a looser and more neutral word, "offshoot," but I should like to indicate how far the shoots grow from the Shakespearean stem. (And that stem itself is problematical, since eighteen Shakespeare plays exist in Quarto versions of varying quality, as well as in the more carefully edited First Folio of 1623.)

Almost every professional production modifies a Shakespeare text, usually by cutting lines and /or emending words. So widespread is this practice that William Bridges-Adams, who produced many uncut Shakespeare plays at Stratford, was nicknamed Unabridges-Adams. I classify offshoots that are close to a Shakespearean text by the process that molds them: reduction/emendation. No examples are cited because reduction /emendations are properly considered as theater history rather than literary alteration.

Adaptation, probably the most overused term for a Shakespeare offshoot, will constitute the second group. Christopher Spencer supplies a definition: "The typical adaptation includes substantial cuts of scenes, speeches, and speech assignments; much alteration of language; and at least one and usually several important (or scene-length) additions." Additions are crucial in distinguishing reduction/emendation from adaptation, but my definition is wider than Spencer's, including plays that are relatively faithful to Shakespeare's story, however far they depart from his text. Spencer drew a line between Colley Cibber's Richard III, which is based on Shakespeare's text, and John Dryden's All for Love, which provides a new text for the old story of Antony and Cleopatra. I would classify both as adaptations.

Invention will be the basis for the third grouping, transformation. This "brightest heaven of invention" is studded with stars of varying brilliance. Shakespearean characters are of ten simplified or trundled through new events, with the Shakespearean ending scrapped. In transformations Shakespearean characters move through a partly or wholly non-Shakespearean plot, sometimes with introduction of non-Shakespearean characters.

This first chapter examines a mishmash of adaptations and transformations, including significant (and some insignificant) offshoots that do not fall into another rubric. History and Roman plays preponderate, probably because they are most easily convertible into contemporary commentaries. The plays are treated in an order of increasing distance from the Shakespearean source, but different offshoots of the same Shakespearean play are considered in sequence.

A. Adaptation.

The impetus to adaptation, as to reduction/emendation, is often a specific production. Orson Welles' Five Kings of 1938 is an extreme example of reduction, compressing Shakespeare's eight history plays into two parts for performance. The ambitious project never reached Broadway, for which it was intended, and the script was never published. In contrast, the Hall-Barton Wars of the Roses, an adaptation of the same eight plays, has received wide acclaim both on the stage and in print.

Peter Hall (b. 1930) then director of England's Royal Shakespeare Company, wished to celebrate the Bard's centennial year, 1964, by playing a full week of history plays, from Richard II to Richard III. Since eight plays had to be performed in seven days, he decided to compress the three Henry VI plays into two. He enlisted the aid of director John Barton (b. 1928), a friend from their Cambridge University days, who had a flair for composing pastiche Elizabethan blank verse. It is because of Barton's additions that The Wars of the Roses is classified as an adaptation.

Hall and Bar ton justify their "directorial interference" by three considerations: 1) The Henry VI plays are early and inferior examples of Shakespeare's drama, 2) The plays may not be entirely by Shakespeare (so that, the directors imply, a twentieth-century collaborator is as legitimate as a sixteenth), 3) The three Henry VI plays have never attracted sizable audiences, but, revised into two, Henry VI and Edward IV , and capped by Richard Ill, their stageworthiness might be enhanced.

The three plays of The Wars of the Roses abridge some 12,000 lines of Shakespeare to 7,500, of which about 6,ooo are Shakespeare's. The rest were written by John Barton and edited by Peter Hall. Each of the three new plays is more centrally focused: Henry VI on the relationship between Henry and old Gloucester; Edward IV on the York-Warwick plot; Richard III on the hateful monarch's machinations. Designer John Bury helped unify the plays visually, through a relatively bare stage on which were moved two walls of varying textures that could suggest various boundaries. Action was centered on such large significant properties as a throne, a bed, an altar, a council-table.

Rewriting is most extensive in Henry VI. In the final scene the Cardinal of Winchester dies; Queen Margaret, cradling Suffolk's bloody head, cries for revenge, and inept Henry closes the play with the new lines:

Come, wife, let's in and learn to govern better: For yet may England curse my wretched reign.

The very title Edward IV signals Henry's failure, since Edward of York is crowned while Lancastrian Henry lives. More pointedly than in Shakespeare, the French wars of the first play give way to the civil wars of the second — the Jack Cade rebellion and the rivalry of the nobles. And this emphasizes the change from ceremonial death to butchery; the heroic deaths of Talbot father and son degenerate to young Clifford's killing a child (Rutland), a nameless son slaying his father, and a nameless father his son. Over the end of Edward IV, as over the end of Shakespeare's Henry VI , Part 3, hovers the crooked shadow of Richard of Gloucester. Both plays end with a scene celebrating Edward's victory, but Barton invents lines for him:

And for the last, my thanks to you, dear Gloucester,
Our partner and our second in these wars,
And now our chiefest minister in peace. (154)

When the court exits with a flourish, "Gloucester remains."

At the opening of the third Royal Shakespeare Company play peace is threatened by Gloucester's desire to be crowned Richard III. Of the three Hall-Barton adaptations Richard II I is closest to Shakespeare, Barton's main task being the abridgment that has been usual from the time of Colley Cibber's 1700 version. Barton's cutting tends to be linear rather than scenic, and what suffers is the Satanic humor of Richard's role-playing. Linear cutting also compresses Shakespeare's Act V, Scenes 4 and 5 into a swift scene that diminishes Richmond's prowess on the battlefield. The very end — and the end of The Wars of the Roses — returns to Shakespeare, for a shortened version of Richmond's final ceremonial speech.

The new structural clarity of The Wars of the Roses resembles Shakespeare's mature style, but Barton's new lines conform to Shakespeare's early verse style-restricted in vocabulary and thin in imagery. The continuity of The Wars of the Roses is stressed by inserted adverbs of time and place. Moreover, in Barbara Hodgdon's words: "Other links, such as tense changes which focus both language and action in the present; lines which point to comings and goings, and to future meetings; and transitional introductions and 'wrap-up' lines clarify the general movement of the plays for their audience." These unifiers, along with excising minor characters and lines that do not further the plot, yield a swiftly moving series of actions. The wars drive more directly to the final. establishment of order, for the Hall-Barton Wars of the Roses presents the Elizabethan world picture as adumbrated by such scholars as E.M.W. Tillyard. Shakespeare's form and content teeter on the disturbance of order, and though Richmond (later Henry VII) triumphs in both versions, that triumph seems more tentative in Shakespeare because of the ubiquity of the preceding disorders.

Peter Hall decided to adapt the Shakespearean plays when he felt he had "only deeply understood Shakespeare's philosophy of order in the last few years.... As a student I never felt there was much life in this theory — perhaps because I learnt it as a mechanical set of rules. But as I worked year in and year out on Shakespeare I began to see it not as a relic of medievalism but as a piece of workable human pragmatism, humanitarian in its philosophy and modern and liberal in its application." (x) As he matured, Peter Hall claimed Shakespeare as his contemporary.

The most obvious reason for adapting Shakespeare is to modernize him, even when the language remains Elizabethan, as in the Hall-Barton Wars of the Roses. Modernization of the language can be accomplished more easily in translation than in the original English, and the history of translation-faithful and unfaithful-is rather different in French and German.

Classicism reigned in seventeenth-century France, and this was the wrong climate for Shakespeare appreciation. French taste pervaded cultured Europe well into (and sometimes beyond) the eighteenth century. But dissident voices arose in Germany. The influential critics, Johann Gottfried von Herder and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, praised Shakespeare despite his "irregularities." Between 1763 and 1766 the poet Christoph Martin Wieland translated (and sometimes adapted) twenty-two Shakespeare plays into German prose. The actor-manager Friedrich Ludwig Schröder staged his own adaptations. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, sometimes called the Shakespeare of Germany, praised the Bard as early as his Strasbourg student days and late in life as the Sage of Weimar. Of primary and lasting importance was the project of A. W. Schlegel, who translated sixteen Shakespeare plays between 1797 and 1801, then Richard III in 1810, with observance of the Bard's prose-verse divisions. Ludwig Tieck, who translated The Tempest while still a student, supervised translation of the remaining nineteen plays (including Macbeth and King Lear) by his daughter Dorothea and her husband, Wolf Graf Baudissin. This uneven collection gradually acquired the status of a German classic, though it did not inhibit other translations.

The French have no translation of comparable authority. Voltaire boasted of introducing Shakespeare to France, but he later turned against him, engaging in a literary duel with the Bard's defender, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu. When Pierre Le Tourneur published his prose translation with an enthusiastic preface on the Bard (1776), Voltaire thundered in a famous letter to the Académie Frarnçaise:

Figurez-vous, messieurs, Louis XIV dans sa galerie de Versailles, entoure de sa cour brillante; un Gilles couvert de lambeaux perce la foule des heros, des grands hommes, et des beautes qui composent cette cour: il leur propose de quitter Corneille, Racine et Moliere, pour un saltimbanque qui a des saillies heureuses, et qui fait des contorsions. Comment croyez-vous que cette offre serait reçue?

However Louis XIV would have reacted, Shakespeare found French defenders at the end of the eighteenth century, and the Bard stumbled onto the French stage in several adaptations, transformations, pantomimes, tableaux, and musical comedies. With the 1810 publication of Mme. de Stael's De l'Allemagne, the Voltaireans were defeated (though she was not uncritical of the Bard). In 1814 A. W. Schlegel's lectures on dramatic literature were published in Paris, laying a theoretical basis for embryonic French Romanticism. Revision of Le Tourneur's translation began in 1821, but in 1822 Penley's English company, playing Hamlet and Othello, were hissed off the Paris stage.

"Shakespeare" became a battle cry of the French Romantics, with the poets Alfred de Musset and Alfred de Vigny offering translations, with Alexandre Dumas père and Ludovic Vitet dramatizing history, after Shakespeare. The nineteenth century provided eight different translations of Shakespeare's complete works, the most esteemed being that of François-Victor Hugo, whose father wrote of its genesis (years after he himself had invoked Shakespeare to justify a union of the sublime and the grotesque):

Tout à coup le fils eleva la voix et interrogea le père:

- Que penses-tu de cet exil [de Ia France]?

- Qu'il sera long.

- Comment comptes-tu le remplir?

Le père rèpondit:

- Je regarderai l'Ocean.

Il y eut un silence. Le père reprit:

- Et toi?

- Moi, dit le fils, je traduirai Shakespeare.

François-Victor Hugo produced a scholarly version in prose, but the theater relied on the transformations of Jean-François Ducis. Knowing no English, Ducis nevertheless composed a verse Hamlet with a happy ending (first version 1769, but revised for some thirty years thereafter), King Lear with a happy ending (1783), several different versions of Macbeth that obeyed the unity of place while ennobling the hero at the expense of his wife, a Jean-sans-Terre, a Romeo and Juliet with two different endings, an Othello with two different endings and the offending handkerchief transformed into a diamond bracelet.

Dumas' Hamlet displaced that of Ducis in 1847, and by the twentieth century Dumas too was laid to rest, for Shakespeare was translated by poets such as Pierre-Jean Jouve, Jules Supervielle, Yves Bonnefoy; playwrights such as Maurice Maeterlinck, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Pagnol, Andre Obey, Jean Anouilh, André Gide, and Jean Vauthier; or even directors such as Gaston Baty and Roger Planchon. With differences in approach and quality, these men tried to be faithful to Shakespeare, and such fidelity is not my concern. Instead, I begin my foray into foreign adaptations with the French Coriolan of a lesser figure, René-Louis Piachaud (1896-1941).

The fourth longest of Shakespeare's plays, Coriolanus has attracted audiences mainly in times of political unrest. The earliest recorded performance — 1681 — is of Nahum Tate's adaptation, and James Thomson's version served John Philip Kemble and Mrs. Siddons for their triumph at the turn of the nineteenth century. Though most stars of the English and American stage played some form of Coriolanus, it did not achieve the popularity of other Shakespeare tragedies, and it was less favored in France and Germany, whose dramatic literature sports other versions of the Coriolanus story. After World War I, however, Coriolanus took on a new timeliness. T. S. Eliot's "Coriolan" poems of 1931 and 1932 imply a plague on both "a press of people" and "a tired head among these heads," but play-wrights were more partisan.

Of all Shakespeare offshoots the Coriolan of Rene-Louis Piachaud is the only one that led to bloodshed — in the Paris riots of February, 1934· The Swiss journalist, poet, critic, theater amateur had already penned versions of A Midsurnmer Night's Dream, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor — all "traduite et adaptée" into modern French prose. His adaptation of Coriolanus does not seem to be Fascist-inspired, as is sometimes charged. It was apparently undertaken in 1929 at the suggestion of French actor Léon Bernard, who later played Menenius. The director Aurélien Lugné-Poe recommended Piachaud's version to the Minister of Education, who in turn recommended it to the reading committee of the state-subsidized Comédie Française, who accepted it unanimously. Nevertheless nervous about possible repercussions in a politically divided France, the Minister of Education submitted the text to Shakespeare experts, who found that Piachaud "avait suivi scrupuleusement le texte de Shakespeare et que certaines expressions, loin de dépasser la pensée du génial dramaturge anglais, se trouvaient plutôt adoucies par notre langue." The head of the Comédie, Émile Fabre, directed the play, which opened on December 9, 1933·


Excerpted from Modern Shakespeare Offshoots by Ruby Cohn. Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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