Updating Shakespeare: How To Adapt Shakespeare Plays To The 21st Century

One of the reasons that William Shakespeare is known as the greatest poet and writer of all time is the fact that his sonnets, tragedies, comedies and history plays remain just as popular today as they were in the 16th century. His plays are still performed in England’s The Globe theatre just as they were in his day, but there are also plenty of theatre companies around the world who have adapted Shakespeare to suit the contemporary. If you’re thinking of performing Shakespeare for your next school play, why not update it a bit? Here are some tips on how to do that:

Update the Premise First

Background and context are extremely important in Shakespearean plays. It’s clear that the Bard put a lot of thought into setting the scene before he let the story unfold, so a story that worked back in the day might not necessarily work now. If you’re doing Richard III, it might make more sense if it was pre- election and all the political players backstabbing each other vs. a post- war power grab. Midsummer Night’s Dream might have to be an inter- ethnic marriage to be convincing, while Hamlet is actually perfect as is for its portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but the setting would have to be modernized to a wealthy, high- class family.

Update the Characters

Once you have the premise in place, you’ll find that the characters don’t need a lot of tweaking. Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will have to a scheming power couple in a corporate hierarchy with Duncan as the CEO. Shylock would have to be a licensed money lender who is bitter about being outshined by the competition, “Tony” – who might be new to the game besides. Romeo and Juliet could be a couple that tries to push their class differences aside, but fails to do so.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare had his own prejudices in writing characters, so stereotypes have to be updated too: a authorized fund bestower like Shylock in the ‘updated’ Shakespeare cannot be discriminated for being Jew, which blatantly happens in the original play.

Updating the Costumes

This is, in fact, not 100% necessary as it makes a nice contrast to be in period costume and deliver fresh lines that still reference Shakespeare. At the same time, it’s an even bigger contrast when everyone is in modern clothing like suit and tie, and then delivers Old English lines. Whatever you decided to do, make sure it is appropriate for the premise as well as the characters and be mindful of the colours that Shakespeare originally picked; each costume colour had symbolic value back in the day so don’t ignore it completely.