Ever hear of Romeus and Juliet? Unless you’re an English major with a yen for obscure renaissance poetry, you probably think I just misspelled the name of a play by Shakespeare. But no — Romeus and Juliet is the title of a poem by one Arthur Brooke. It was first published in 1562, then reprinted in 1587 — roughly eight years before Shakespeare’s play.
How about “A merry jeste of a shrewde and curst Wyfe“? This was a poem printed around 1580, based on a number of popular Elizabethan ballads about “wife taming.” About eight years later, Shakespeare began work on a play later published as The Taming of the Shrew.
Or The Jew of Malta? This is a play Christopher Marlowe wrote around 1589, which he referred to as “the tragedy of a Jew” who, unlike the other characters in the play that cheat and plot against him, is unflinchingly honest about his desire to get revenge. Around 1596 Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, where in the opening act of the play, the Jewish moneylender Shylock vows to “feed fat the ancient grudge” he has against the Christian Antonio (MV 1.3).
Are you beginning to get the picture?
It’s not that Shakespeare was a plagiarist. Far from it. It’s just that he “borrowed liberally” from other writers, in the words of Norrie Epstein, who writes about Shakespeare’s sources in her excellent book The Friendly Shakespeare. Shakespeare then went on to adapt, rework, and make the material his own.
Romeus and Juliet, for example, was a foot-dragging bore of a poem, referred to by Ryan McKittrick as “rambling…hypnotic and long-winded.” But when Shakespeare got hold of it, the prose became more lively, the characters more interesting. Compare the way the two writers handle Juliet, for example, and you’ll see the point. Before Juliet drinks the potion that will make her appear dead for three days, both Brooke and Shakespeare have her speak aloud about her fears. In Brooke’s version, the first two lines out of Juliet’s mouth establish an awkwardly whiny tone:
What, is there any one, beneath the heavens high, / So much unfortunate as I? so much past hope as I? (Romeus 2349-50)
In Shakespeare, however, you can feel Juliet’s fear and conflict, as she calls out for her mother and her nurse, then reconsiders:
Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,
That almost freezes up the heat of life:
I’ll call them back again to comfort me:
Nurse! What should she do here?
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Come, vial. (RJ 4.3)
This was the sort of thing Shakespeare did with the material he “lifted.” He found good stuff, then made it his own.
Which is why I have to cut contemporary Shakespeare movie remakes like 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You a lot of slack.
It’s easy to hate on some of the contemporary remakes and adaptations of some of the Shakespeare plays. Consider this scintilating exchange from the opening of 10 Things, in which the Bianca character expostulates on the true meaning of love:
BIANCA Yup, see, there's a difference between 'like' and 'love'. Because I like my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack. BIANCA'S FRIEND But I love my Sketchers. BIANCA That's because you don't have a Prada backpack.
Makes you want to read more, don’t it? When Shakespeare wrote about his “eternal lines,” I don’t think this is what he expected.
And yet, they do fit into the tradition of adaptation that Shakespeare himself followed by taking previously written material and adapting it for his own purposes.
I’m not saying all adaptations are inherently equal — or that just because it’s based on a play by Shakespeare, ergo it’s good.
But I am saying those of us who love Shakespeare have to be very careful to not fall into a pattern where we broadly criticize pop-culture riffs on the Bard’s work. Particularly those of us who are not in the 14-25 demographic at whom these films are targeted. Part of Shakespeare’s genius was that he wrote for a broad audience in his time period. I wonder if today he wouldn’t focus exclusively on the groundlings.
In any case, without the tradition of Shakespeare adaptation, think about what we wouldn’t have. Kiss Me Kate. Akira Kurosawa’s exceptional films Throne of Blood and Ran — based respectively on Macbeth and King Lear. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. West Side Story.
I’m not certain I agree with the core of Steinbeck’s reasoning — but I do see his point. Some of the greatest works of world are less than original. They pay respect to the knowledge of the past by putting it in language of the present.
I suspect that’s something Shakespeare himself would appreciate.