Recently I have been looking into Shakespeare adaptations for youth, anything from picture books to young adult novels, and it seemed to me that a disproportionate amount of these adaptations are of the same plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are outliers, of course; there are at least a few Macbeth adaptations, at least one of The Tempest. Histories, however, are definitely missing representation, as well as plays like The Merchant of Venice and Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Why is this?
In general, I think it has something to do with people perceiving particular plays as more relevant to teens than others. They then teach those plays more often in high schools. And then there’s an educational market for adaptations of those plays that makes them easier to sell than adaptations of other plays.
But is Romeo and Juliet actually more relevant to teens than, say, King Leer? Below, I try to tease out why some people might think so.
Romeo and Juliet
This is the ultimate “teen” Shakespeare play. The protagonists are very clearly marked as teens, and they deal with problems that many of today’s youth can potentially relate to: differences of opinion with their parents, feeling stifled by family expectations, engaging in a forbidden love. Sure, the shotgun wedding and suicides are a bit over the top, but this is drama; stuff happens. The important part is that some of the themes are relatable; not all of them need to be.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
This has a lot in common with Romeo and Juliet. The play opens with a daughter disagreeing with her father over what man she should marry and subsequently denying his authority over her. From there, it’s a mad mess of romance—both returned and unrequited. If the argument is that teens can relate to love stories and to fights with parents, this play provides everything an educator could ask for to keep students engaged. Even better, it doesn’t have the awkward suicide ending.
Ophelia aside, this one stands out for its distinct lack of romance. However, it seems to deal with the same questioning of parental authority figures that Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream do. And while Hamlet’s exact age is often debated, a lot readers feel he at least gives off the vibe of being an angst-ridden teen. The idea that Hamlet’s identity is uncertain, something he needs to sharpen and define, may also add to the sense that teens can particularly relate to him.
So what happens when other Shakespeare plays are adapted for teens?
Some adaptations, like Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, essentially construct a companion story, where teens and teen concerns are the focus—even if they never were in the original play. Other adaptations try to rewrite the story in the modern age with youth protagonists, but this approach risks losing the themes and “feel” of the original play almost entirely. For an example, check out Krysta’s disappointed review of Exposure, which changed Macbeth from a murderous soldier trying to usurp a country into a modern-day teen running for prom king. Somehow, the stakes just don’t seem as high in that scenario, and the focus on the danger of hubris starts fading away. Can someone write a believable teen Macbeth? Possibly, but it makes sense that authors have had more success with teen Hamlets and Juliets.
What do you think? What Shakespeare plays did you read in high school? Do you think some plays are easier to adapt for teens and children than others?