Queen Mab Intervenes/How Much Artistic Liberty is Too Much?

I was browsing special collections two days ago and I found Romeo and Juliet Travestie: or, The Cup of Cold Poison, an 1873 version of the play with a surprising adaptation; this version is a burlesque, in one act. There are books that tell the stories of Shakespeare’s plays in condensed form, with modern language, and I have heard of plays (particularly Nahum Tate’s King Lear) that replace the ends of the plays with happier versions, or more family-friendly words and ideas (Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare). 

This strange copy did both: the play wrapped up in only six scenes, with Paris and Romeo laughing and singing as Paris dumps Romeo into the crypt, only for Romeo to jump out again seconds later. Of course, all the dead characters, including Shakespeare himself, come back to life, love, and music thanks to the magic of Queen Mab, who takes a star turn. This classic Shakespeare tragedy ends with a nice group song.
At first, I found myself spluttering mentally, astounded at the liberties people will take. The nerve! To write such a short, irreverent version of a classic play! Romeo and Juliet is far from my favorite Shakespeare – I tend to think it is overrated – but a burlesque version of the play seems completely at odds with the original, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. This reaction got me thinking about how important the purity of “original” Shakespeare is. I am far from a Shakespeare purist; although I would love to see the plays in the way he wrote them, I have thoroughly enjoyed many adaptations that are liberal with the ideas or words. Obviously, this interpretation is not meant to replace the original, unlike Tate’s Lear, which presumably replaced Shakespeare’s for 150 years. The burlesque is a comic addition to the long tradition of adapting Shakespeare to modern ideas, times, or interpretations.

Even though this adaptation inspired disdain (in me), I think its existence is symptomatic of the fact that, at least as I see it, Shakespeare is no longer “just a playwright,” and hasn’t been “just a playwright” for a long time. The plays no longer mean the same thing they may have at the time of their creation; thinking about any of his works comes with the baggage of his name, what it means as a student or an actor to read/perform, any adaptations or even pop references one may have heard, and even the difficulty that can arise in trying to read such old English. His work is more of a jumping-off point than the end of the road. It inspires people, either to push harder with research, thought, or creative outpourings. Setting aside this burlesque, which still inspires in me a bit of hoity-toity attitude, I think this sort of movement is impossible to avoid, and, in many ways, is a really important piece of change and growth.