Although the Bard may have a longer history of such flattery, both Will and Jane have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous adaptations. In the 20th century, Austen joined Shakespeare in his entrance into modern media—film, television, and digital forms—as well as print spin-offs, fan fiction, radical modernizations, and even travesties.
Beginning less than a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, British playwrights played fast and loose with the Bard, re-writing his plays and even turning them into operas. The Tempest became The Enchanted Island (1677), in which Miranda was joined by Dorinda, a sister who had never seen man, and by a young man, Hippolyto (usually played by a cross-dressed actress), who had never seen woman. For nearly 200 years, some of our favorite Shakespeare plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were largely unperformed in versions that Shakespeare would have recognized, but grew in popularity as operas—such as Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen (1692) and David Garrick’s The Fairies (1755)—or farces like Pyramus and Thisbe (1745).
Most famously, Nahum Tate (1652-1715) turned Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear into a love story in which Cordelia marries Edgar and lives happily ever after. This oddly optimistic version dominated the stage from 1681 until well into the 19th century and was revered rather than reviled for tweaking Shakespeare’s original. The 18th-century English literary lion and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), for instance, preferred Tate’s happy King Lear because he found the original ending so deeply upsetting as to undercut the moral uplift he looked for from Shakespeare.
Similarly, Austen’s novels have been visualized in film and television, replete with period costumes and “authentic” English landscapes and stately manors, so as to deliver the “real” Austen. At the same time, they have also been modernized and set in locations that Austen would not have recognized. The film Clueless (1995) takes place in an American high school. Pride and Prejudice has been travestied in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) and eroticized in the novel Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes in Jane Austen (2003).
There are two sides to this treatment of Will and Jane. On one hand, we cringe at the audacity of meddling with the sacred texts of our authors. The late 18th-century turn to “original” Shakespeare was fueled by an emergent textual criticism and bibliographical approach to editing, coupled with the promotion, in the theaters and the press, of the Bard as sacred to British cultural identity. Regardless of the vagaries of differences between editions, let alone the looming suspicions cast by the collaborative nature of all theatrical art, the very idea of what Shakespeare wrote began to be treated with a reverence that would have been incomprehensible 100 years before. Similarly, we are quite clear about what is the true creation of “the divine Jane” and what merely copies or parodies her work. We want “authentic” Will and Jane, however amusing or even ingenious we find their adaptations.
On the other hand, adaptations are testaments to Will’s and Jane’s powerful capacity to speak to new audiences in an ever-changing world. Shakespeare, with a bit—or a lot— of tweaking, was seen as able to reach audiences that would never read his plays, as James Cartwright Cross knew when, circa 1808, he turned Macbeth into a spectacular ballet for the Royal Circus in London, with “every Information, to simplify the Plot; and enable the Visitors of the Circus, to comprehend this matchless Piece of Pantomimic and Choral Performance.”
Critically successful continuations such as Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) and Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn (2013) stand on their own merits—expanding the points of view of minor characters created by Will and Jane and thus breathing creative life into servants who occur off-page or in the wings of the original stories. Lately, Whit Stillman’s film version of Austen’s Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, has been praised for its contribution to the genre of screwball comedy, as well as being “one of the finest Austen adaptations in film history.”
Will and Jane are tough. They can take all the adaptations, fan fictions, parodies, and travesties, and come through like the literary superheroes that they have become. And their fans know it.
“Wanting More,” a section of the current Will & Jane exhibition in the Folger’s Great Hall, is devoted to the parallel urges to extend the work of these two beloved authors. In this section, you can see evidence from many of the triumphant adaptations just mentioned, as well as a fair number of comical modernization and outright travesties—be they great 20th-century films of Pride and Prejudice and Hamlet (both starred Laurence Olivier) or 19th-century “burlesques” of Richard III and Macbeth. One curious Macbeth burlesque was published in 1866 and brags on its title page that “Duncan is murdered, Banquo is murdered, and everything is murdered, for the entertainment of the young folks at merry Christmas time.”
If after seeing the exhibition you, too, crave more, perhaps the fabulous stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill, onstage at Folger Theatre Sep 13 through Oct 30, is just the ticket! (Update: Extended through Nov 13!)