“The Northman” is a Shakespherean adaptation — note the spelling — a retelling inspired by materials that aren’t Shakespeare’s texts but are widely known today in relation to Shakespeare.
But that earlier age of adaptation has now been enshrined as tradition. What once was radical is now passé. How will writers do something new with Shakespeare when adaptation has been done to death?
They will go deeper into the Shakesphere — the massive realm of sources, contexts, performances, criticism, adaptations and appropriations surrounding the plays and poems Shakespeare wrote. He is the sun that holds this system together but, in this new era, fly too close and you might get burnt.
Or, Shakespherean adaptations side-step his texts to go into the playwright’s life. Films like “All Is True” and television shows such as “Upstart Crow” and “Will” adopt the approach of “Shakespeare in Love,” reading plots and characters from the plays back into the biography of their author.
Elisions, refractions, speculative biographies, theatrical afterlives — these Shakespherean adaptations capitalize on the playwright’s cultural prominence to generate an audience but dodge his actual plays and poems. The push and pull of Shakespeare in these adaptations reflects the simultaneous nausea and enthusiasm many feel toward the author.
His stories are captivating, the language beautiful, the performances inspiring, but Shakespeare is also crammed down our throats in school. English teachers who have to sell “Hamlet” to high-school students every year are very grateful for Alexander Skarsgård’s finely sculpted Viking abs in “The Northman.”
Some will enjoy these stories without feeling like — without knowing — they’re being force-fed Shakespeare. Others revel in the opportunity to explore niche knowledge that goes beyond the plays to their sources and afterlives. And scholars like me love Shakespherean adaptations because they show the wild ways literature moves through history.
Typically, audiences engage with entertainment directly — did you love it or hate it? Adaptations can work differently. Audiences often tend to look beyond the story in front of them to consider it in relation to its source — what’s the same and what’s different? Attention shifts from the internal elements of the story — plot, character, and theme — to questions about how the artwork was created. The joys of Shakespherean adaptations come in tracking down and mapping out the complex, centuries-long literary histories behind them.
You may celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday every April 23 or want to slash him from the curriculum. Shakespherean adaptations call us beyond expressions of personal taste into understandings of how we got here. They help us ask why this 400-year-old English playwright remains such a massive cultural phenomenon in the modern world. They help us see how Shakespeare moves through time.