What should be done with canonical works of literature that offend today’s moral sensibilities? In recent years, a growing faction of scholars and theater practitioners have argued that some of Shakespeare’s plays should no longer be performed. In my dissertation, “‘Tell it again, but different’: Using Adaptation to Rethink Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays’,” I examine contemporary adaptations of the three plays most often at the center of this debate: The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, which have received considerable critique for how their narratives voice and rely on sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. The phrase “problem play” was given in the late 19th century to those Shakespeare plays that seemed to defy conventional expectations of genre; in the 1980s feminist critics appropriated the term to explore the unsatisfying conclusions of Shakespeare’s “romantic comedies.” As Ayanna Thompson has observed, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice are our problem plays now. By examining adaptations (such as films, stage plays, novels, etc.) of these three plays, my project reworks this debate by focusing our attention away from Shakespeare and towards our contemporary moment; in other words, I am less interested in what Shakespeare does than what we do with him. Examining adaptations of these plays allows me to explore more deeply how their problematic content is repurposed for a contemporary audience. Doing so, I argue, enables a more nuanced understanding of the way medium, form, and genre affects how we read and reflect on “Shakespeare” in relation to our own cultural moment.
I presented research from my first chapter, “‘No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en’: The Pop-Feminist Paradox of Shakespeare’s Shrew,” at the 2020 Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting, and will present research from my second chapter, “‘Black love of Shakespeare’: The ‘Vexed Object’ of Shakespeare’s Othello,” at SAA’s 2021 meeting.