Shakespeare and Social Justice

AdaptationMany screen and stage adaptations of the classics are informed by a philosophical investment in literature’s reparative merit, a preconceived notion that performing the canon can make one a better person. Inspirational narratives, in particular, have instrumentalized the canon to serve socially reparative purposes.

Social recuperation of disabled figures loom large in adaptation, and many reparative adaptations tap into a curative quality of Shakespearean texts. When Shakespeare’s phrases or texts are quoted, even in fragments, they serve as an index of intelligence of the speaker. Governing the disability narrative is the trope about Shakespeare’s therapeutic value.

There are two strands of recuperative adaptations. The first is informed by the assumption that the dramatic situations exemplify moral universals. The second strand consists of adaptations that problematize heteronormativity and psychological universals in liberal humanist visions of the canon. This approach is self-conscious of deeply contextual meanings of the canon. As a result, it lends itself to the genres of parody, metatheatre, and metacinema.

Historically the Western canon has always been given mystical moral authority to some degree, though reparative interpretations of the canon have taken different forms. An early example of the post-Victorian moralized readings of literature is Matthew Arnold’s formulation that the high culture represents ‘the best that has been known and said in the world’ and thus ‘the human spirit’. In the twentieth century, Northrop Frye has traced the formation of myth to archetypal patterns of narrative, stories ‘in which some of the chief characters are … beings larger in power than humanity’. He further theorizes that this narrative is ‘very seldom located in [factual] history’ but is often used as ‘allegories of morality’. In the twenty-first century, Martha Nussbaum has written extensively about how literature makes readers better people by enabling ‘the good life’ of self-reflection. Adaptations of inspirational narratives, in particular, have instrumentalised the canon to serve socially reparative purposes.

Reparative interpretations of the classics have been rekindled—in a social justice turn in the arts—by recent movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, which began in 2013, and #MeToo, which began in 2006 and returned in redoubled force globally in 2017. As adaptations on screen and on stage seek to reclaim the classics from ideologies associated with colonial and patriarchal practices, they use words such as redemption, social justice, and empathy in their mission statements. Some creators of reparative adaptations believe that they can revive declining genres of performance, such as attracting a larger audience, and improve personal and social circumstances, such as addressing sensitive issues. For example, renowned for their all-female productions, London’s Donmar Warehouse (led by Phyllida Lloyd) aims to ‘create a more … functional society [and] inspire empathy’, because they ‘believe that representation matters; diversity of identity, of perspective, of lived experience enriches our work and our lives’.

Recuperative adaptations are works that engage with reparative interpretations of the classics. Reparation in the context of liberal humanism is not religious in nature, for liberal humanism regards religious beliefs as private affairs. Liberal humanism is primarily concerned with social cooperation and the responsibility of individuals as bourgeois citizens, but it has some blind spots. Writing in the context of tragedy, Catherine Belsey argues that, despite its claims, liberal humanism promotes ‘inequality of freedom’, for ‘while in theory all men are equal, men and women are not symmetrically defined. Man, the centre and hero of liberal humanism, was produced in contradistinction to the objects of his knowledge, and in terms of the relations of power in the economy and the state. Woman was produced in contradistinction to man, and in terms of the relations of power in the family’ (9). The second strand of reparative adaptation exposes such universalist assumptions behind liberal humanist readings of the canon.

The popularity of reparative readings of literature lies in the duality of a simultaneously distant and personal relationship to the words. During the global pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020, numerous articles circulated on social media that probed what Shakespeare could teach us about living with the ‘plague’. Adaptations of African-American minister Malcolm X’s life, such as Malcolm X (dir. Spike Lee, 1992), have played key roles in American civil rights movements and current struggles for racial equality. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play Angels in America has been an iconic and important text in the gay movement. Adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid are a constant point of reference among young trans girls in mainstream media.

Literature gives language to victims of psychological trauma who lose speech. By being able to talk indirectly about their situation through literary narratives, victims regain a sense of agency.

Some scholars are more sceptical of the efficacy of reparative performances. The idea that adaptations remedy social conditions does not always work in neoliberal economy, though there is a symbiotic relationship between reparative adaptation and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism tends to privatise the human endeavour including emotional labour which becomes part of emotional capitalism.

Guided by free market principles, neoliberalism uses ideas of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency to redefine many areas of life not previously considered part of the economic domain, such as private emotions and self-identity. Going hand in hand with neoliberalism is emotional capitalism which commodifies private emotions. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault observes that neoliberalism uses market principles to measure and regulate human worth.

Some reparative adaptations employ the logic of self-help books, because, in the neoliberal logic, the burden of combating inequality rests on the individual and is to be compartmentalized and isolated.

The moralist approach is informed by the therapeutic self-help ethos, while the parodic approach sometimes challenges the neoliberal logic by questioning the canon’s capacity for emotional transformation. As much as conventional reparative adaptations celebrate each individual’s struggles and subsequent triumphs, they also compartmentalize social inequality by aestheticizing suffering in figures that are presented as larger than life. These figures, in turn, provide inspiration porn in emotional capitalism for voyeuristic pleasures. Coined in 2012 by activist Stella Young, inspiration porn portrays disabled individuals’ otherwise ordinary life as extraordinary solely on the basis of their disability. In a broader context beyond disability studies, reparative adaptations run the risk of creating one-dimensional saints out of suffering individuals whose existence serves to warm people’s hearts. The narratives and emotions become marketable consumer products.

There is a long history of tapping into a curative quality of Shakespeare’s narratives. Reparative adaptations are allegedly based on Shakespeare’s hypercanonical status as readily available reference points in popular culture. Shakespeare as a hypercanon is ubiquitous and thrives on other writers’ allusions. Within the history of global performances of Shakespeare, the perceived moral authority of the Shakespearean canon has led to an impression that the works are both period-specific (as our contemporary) and beyond history (‘timeless’). The works empower individuals as well as threaten the status quo.

Douglas Lanier has raised questions about performances of socially conscious, inspirational narratives that use Shakespeare as their centrepiece. Such works ‘invest Shakespeare with a magical reformational’ capacity to empower the socially marginalized, such as refugees, women of colour, and inmates. Lanier connects reparative Shakespeare as a mode of performance to politically oriented literary criticism.

Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale is a classic example of reparative film adaptations that dramatise actors’ life. It features a group of aspiring British actors’ effort to stage Hamlet during Christmas, traditionally a time of reconciliation. Adding to the film’s reparative value is the venue of their performance: a church symbolizing religious redemption.

Adopting a similar strategy, The Last Lear depicts the trepidations of actors. Harish “Harry” Mishra (Amitabh Bachchan), an aging stage actor being edged out by the advent of cinema, reluctantly takes up performing in films. His vulnerability parallels that of the two father figures in King Lear. Harry’s fall and injury during filming echo the blinded Gloucester’s imaginary fall at the Dover Cliff. At the end of the film, Harry awakens from the coma induced by the fall to remember his life. He dies reciting Lear’s lines from act 4 scene 7 in a profound moment of self-recognition (“Pray, do not mock me / I am a very foolish fond old man,/ Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.”).

Likewise, Julius Caesar plays a healing role in Caesar Must Die. As inmates in a theatre rehabilitation program in a high-security prison in Rome prepare for a performance of the Roman play, they reflect on their life choices and arrive at moments of self-recognition.

Documentary films follow a similar, recuperative trajectory. A Dream in Hanoi documents the making of an American-Vietnamese bilingual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hanoi in 2000. Following a trajectory typical of reparative interpretations of the canon, the documentary follows members of the American and Vietnamese companies through trials to their eventual triumph (from the American filmmaker’s perspective) over cross-cultural misunderstanding. Lorelle Browning, co-producer of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, intended it to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War, though the goal was not achieved because Vietnamese politeness was misread by the American crew as affection.

Similar to Caesar Must Die, Mickey B documents performances of Macbeth by serving inmates in a maximum security prison in Northern Ireland. It is one of the growing number of films and documentaries about rehabilitation-through-the-arts programs in correctional facilities in the U.S. and U.K.

The Road to the Globe chronicles a different kind of unlikely heroes. It documents the challenges faced by a New Zealand production of Troilus & Cressida in Te Reo Māori, which toured to London to open the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 during the London Olympics.

The Hobart Shakespeare tells an inspirational story of an inner-city Los Angeles teacher who helps his mostly non-native-English-speaker fifth-graders stage Hamlet. The documentary builds toward the ultimate, triumphant moment when renowned actor Ian McKellen’s attends the underprivileged students’ performance.

While not all works in the reparative genre succeed in building bridges, the works briefly discussed here share several features in common. All of them belong to the genre of films about theatre-making, and several of them feature fictional or real-life inmates seeking rehabilitation.

These reparative films, in particular, feature aspiring but under-privileged actors who are social outcasts, serving inmates, aboriginals, and marginalized students. They overcome social prejudices, financial obstacles, and personal difficulties to succeed in a high-stakes performance. The process is valued more than their production which is invariably imperfect.

For example, the theme song of A Midwinter’s Tale points to the actor-characters’ perseverance. The title of the song, by Noël Coward, takes the form of a rhetorical question, “Why Must the Show Go On?” All of these films have Shakespeare front and centre as an enabler and healer.

It is through rehearsing, reciting, and performing—no matter how imperfect—Shakespeare’s plays that these actor-characters find redemption, reconciliation, or peace with themselves. Shakespeare inspires and emboldens the characters on their quest for self-education and self-empowerment.

One genre stands out in reparative imaginations: performances that appear to diagnose and recuperate disability. Adaptations of the classics are energized by the evolution of an iconic text rather than a static image. As a result, dramaturgical recuperations of disabled figures loom large in adaptation.

I focus on vocal disorders here in order to examine the rich layers of significance in the dramatisation of an invisible form of disability. Having a voice and being heard are key factors in the formation of self-identity. Vocal disorders are an invisible form of disability. One does not notice it until one is unable to communicate verbally or is otherwise silenced. The act of listening itself is not innocent, either. Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s research has shown unconscious biases in listening for racialized accents. She theorizes that ‘listening operates as an organ of racial discernment, categorization, and resistance’ (4).

Along similar lines, representations of deviances from normative voices encode and enact visualisation of cognitive differences. If speech is assumed to be what makes us human, individuals with speech impairment are sometimes thought to have low intelligence. In this context, Shakespeare is recruited to vouch for the disabled figure’s civilized status.

There are several cinematic instances in which Shakespearean texts are credited with curative power of the condition of stuttering. As the stuttering Chorus (a tailor named Wabash, played by Mark Williams) in Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, Universal Pictures, 1998) moves along in delivering the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet, his stammer gradually disappears and he gains confidence. Eventually he is able to finish reciting the speech in front of a packed house.

To heighten the tension, the film juxtaposes close-up shots of Wabash’s straining lips as he stutters on a thrust stage with medium shots of Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) wringing his hands backstage, the hands whence the play-text flows. The uncomfortable silence and Wabash’s stuttering is accentuated by the audiences’ impatient sniggering as the camera—taking Wabash’s perspective—pans over the crowds in the pit and galleys that surround him in a multi-sided, three-tiered, open-air theatre with a central, uncovered yard.

Wabash exemplifies the aforementioned archetype of unlikely heroes in reparative narratives. The tailor of stage manager Philip Henslowe, Wabash wishes to act on stage for personal enjoyment even if it would jeopardize the production. Henslowe has no choice but to oblige because he owes Wabash ‘a few debts here and there’. Despite Wabash’s stammer and Will’s disapproval, Wabash lands the role of the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet.


Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, “Screening Social Justice: Performing Reparative Shakespeare against Vocal Disability.” Adaptation: The Journal of Literature on Screen Studies, October 2020: 1-19. Full text freely available.