A Moment about “Still Star-Crossed” – and other Shakespeare adaptations

Countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays span hundreds of years, and the likely candidate for most adapted play is Romeo & Juliet. Most recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator and prolific TV producer Shonda Rhimes explores the world of Shakespeare’s classic post tragic deaths.  Aptly named Still Star-Crossed (the show draws its name and plot from author Melinda Taub’s 2013 young-adult novel), Rhimes’s latest work joins the consistently expanding realm of film and television adaptations of Shakespeare.

In her book Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Margaret Jane Kidnie terms adaptation “an evolving category…closely tied to how the work modifies over time and from one reception space to another”. Accessible to audiences beyond academia, Still Star-Crossed does an admirable job of staying true to the play’s dramatic pathos, while keeping intact the flesh of well-scoured soap-operatic fascinations with shifting alliances that have characterized Rhimes’s evolving television repertory.

The show focuses on named characters Rosaline and Benvolio, who take the place of Romeo and Juliet as Verona’s eponymous star-crossed lovers, and explores their connections to both warring, shambling families.  Still Star-Crossed lifts characters’ names and statuses from both the “original” work (“original” in quotes because even Shakespeare lifted from other sources), and Taub’s book.  

Though it lacks iambic pentameter, there’s a lot about Still Star-Crossed Shakespeare enthusiasts can find to love: integrated casting (an enduring, welcome fixture of Rhimes’ shows), central female characters, brewing political intrigue, and varied romantic relationships.

The show follows a female character who has little to do in the original and is therefore ripe for development. Rosaline (who in Shakespeare’s work was discussed but is not even included in any stage direction, much less possessed of any lines,) is the show’s main female protagonist.  She exhibits qualities evident from Shakespeare’s other heroines while maintaining her own story arc.  As played by actress Lashana Lynch, Rosaline is headstrong, independent, pragmatic, and loyal.  

As in As You Like It, the show features more than one strong female, and she shares qualities with characters such as Lady Macbeth and Volumnia (of Coriolanus). Princess Isabella, the sister of the feud-frustrated ruler of Verona, as played by Iranian actor Medalion Rahimi, is exacting, ambitious, and operates from Verona-walled shadows.

The concept of copyright was foreign to the people of early modern England (approximately the late 15th century to the 18th century).  Plays were licensed, but were ultimately the property of the playing troupe – not of a single author (a practice which fellow early modern playwright Ben Jonson heavily challenged during his time and beyond).  Plays vibing off of Shakespeare’s work proliferated from the early modern period onward. Two examples include John Fletcher’s 1647 The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (a continuation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Nahum Tate’s 1681 The History of King Lear, (in)famous for its happy ending.  Adaptations have also carried over to films in the early 1900s.  Although the mediums are different, observing the plot-related elements present in Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s trilogy Throne of Blood, Ran, and The Bad Sleep Well (adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet, respectively) next to Tate’s Lear shows the similarities in the practice of adapting.  Beyond, similarities, though, the choice to include distinct elements, such as some from Japanese Folklore, in the films, influences the action, if not necessarily the events from the plays they borrowed or re-purposed.  Though not influenced by folklore, by contrast, the direct changing of a plot point in Tate’s Lear–that of going from a tragic to a happy ending–subverts the conclusion in ways that can be both shocking and delightful”.

The adaptation train shows no sign of slowing down.  Indeed, our own Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project at the ASC seeks to build of modern canon of contemporary companion plays that vibe off and are inspired by Shakespeare’s work.  Recent concern has been expressed of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries being cast out of theatres in favor of their modern day kin, perhaps most notably after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Initiative launched in 2015. But there’s no cause for concern, dear friend. Past and future adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are beautiful reflections of his masterpieces, and they can only help us recover the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays.

Still Star-Crossed airs Saturdays at 10|9c on ABC.  Full episodes are online at ABC.

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