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Dividing the Kingdoms: Interdisciplinary Methods for Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates: Adaptation

Overview: Adaptation

This module introduces undergraduate students to the fundamentals of adaptation.  The three activities and two assignments should allow students to encounter various adaptations of King Lear, to put these adaptations into conversation with each other and Lear, and to create their own adaptations of the Lear story.  After mastering these skills, students can use the service learning exercise in this module to introduce middle or high schoolers to the basics of adaptation.

The goal of this module is for students to gain a greater appreciation of how adaptations can give us deeper insight into a source text by allowing us to see what different authors, filmmakers, and other creators—as well as different audiences—have valued in a narrative over time.  Studying adaptation also offers us a lens for exploring how stories are changed to accommodate different circumstances, how views on things such as race, gender, and class (among others) change according to historical and national context, and what role these contexts can play in shaping how and why we tell a particular story in the way that we do.

To that end, there are some terms and concepts that will be especially important for students to learn:

  • Medium specificity is, at its most basic, the characteristics or qualities that are specific to a particular medium.  In other words, even with the same basic narrative, the way that the medium of a play will tell a story is necessarily different from how the medium of a film will tell that same story.  Each medium has different modes of enunciation and different modes of address to the reader/viewer/player, and that shapes the story being told.
  • Broadly speaking, intertextuality refers to the interconnectedness of texts—the references that texts make to each other that serve to color our understanding of them.  If, for instance, a character in a film says, “Nothing will come of nothing,” and the viewer understands that as a reference to Lear, then their understanding of the film has just been broadened.  Intertextual references can be made intentionally on the part of the author, but they can also be made by the reader/viewer/player as they consume a text.
  • Related to intertextuality is the concept of the paratext, which is any text surrounding another text that shapes how we read/view/play that text (e.g. the dust jacket of a novel, the trailer for an upcoming movie).  These are the texts that color our expectations of another text and give us an indication of what to expect from it.

As a supplement to this module, we have digitized Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation of the play, The History of King Lear (see Digital Texts).  The exercises in this module would also work well with the following adaptations of Lear: House of Strangers (Mankiewicz, 1949, Film); King Lear (McCullough, 1953, TV movie); Broken Lance (Dmytryk, 1954, Film); King Lear (Brook, 1971, Film); Ran (Kurosawa, 1985, Film); King Lear (Godard, 1987, Film); A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991, Novel); A Thousand Acres (Moorhouse, 1997, Film); My Kingdom (Boyd, 2001, Film); King of Texas (Edel, 2002, TV movie); Empire (Fox Network, 2015—, TV series).

Assignments (out of class)

Assignments (service learning)

King Lear Detail from Mardi Gras Poster (1898)

King Lear Detail from Mardi Gras poster, featuring twenty Mystick Krewe of Comus floats representing a total of eighteen Shakespeare plays (1898). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection. Digital Image File Name: 119628. The Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.


About the Scholar


Chera Kee
Associate Professor
Film & Media Studies
Room 10407,
English Department,
5057 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48202

Chera Kee is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department at Wayne State University where she teaches courses on film and media history, horror, censorship, and adaptation.  Her book, Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks, was published by the University of Texas Press (2017), and her latest research delves into the ways that fans use intertextual references in adapting source texts into fan art and fan fiction.