Jennifer Flaherty and Deborah Uman, eds, Liberating Shakespeare: Adaptation and Empowerment for Young Adult Audiences

Jennifer Flaherty and Deborah Uman, eds, Liberating Shakespeare: Adaptation and Empowerment for Young Adult Audiences (London: Bloomsbury, 2023), 215pp. PB £21.79. ISBN 978-1-350-32024-3

Flaherty and Uman emphasise in their introduction, ‘Taking Young Adults Seriously’, that Young Adult (YA) Shakespeare is not about ‘dumbing down’ Shakespeare’s work: ‘fun is not synonymous with inconsequential or frivolous. Contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare for young people address the darker and more uncomfortable aspects of adolescence’ (3). Specifically, at this early point, they announce the book’s focus on ‘how Shakespeare can be used to address trauma for young adult audiences’ (4). The editors explain how the book arose from a lockdown seminar at the 2020 Shakespeare Association of America conference about young adults reading Shakespeare’s works in the USA’s current social climate (conversation topics included Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo). Liberating Shakespeare is a worthwhile read for anyone thinking about how to take trauma into account when teaching Shakespeare, and for both general readers and scholars interested in Young Adult Shakespeare adaptations. I associate this book with other pandemic-era publications on Shakespeare, including the discussions of technology and inclusivity in Lockdown Shakespeare ed. Gemma Kate Allred et al, Erin Sullvan’s work on digital Shakespeare performances, Pascale Aebischer’s Viral Shakespeare: Performance in the Time of Pandemic, and Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi’s Teaching Shakespeare With Purpose (this last-mentioned features in the citations of Liberating Shakespeare). The book is divided into two sections, ‘Trauma and Survival’ and ‘Empowerment and Education’, with considerable thematic overlap between the two. Three key themes emerged for me: trauma, intersectionality (specifically in terms of race, gender, and queer sexualities), and technology.

Ariane Balizet’s innovative chapter ‘Teaching Romeo and Juliet in Plague Time: A trauma informed approach’ focuses on the Covid-19 pandemic and racism in US society. Balizet argues that because Romeo and Juliet is a play about trauma, educators should take a trauma-informed approach to teaching it: ‘Romeo and Juliet’s suicides are both traumatic and traumatizing events’ (18). Balizet suggests parallels between the current pandemic and the bubonic plague in Romeo and Juliet; she writes, ‘the ubiquitous rhetoric of plague, contagion, and pestilence in Renaissance literature draws students’ attention to historical experiences of suffering and disease’ (18), noting that while both the Renaissance and the contemporary plague events are potentially traumatising, not everyone will/did respond in the same way to them. Balizet usefully provides several practical exercises and questions to consider in the classroom; for example, is the prologue to Romeo and Juliet like a trigger warning preparing Shakespeare’s audience for the play’s theme of parents losing their children? She underscores the difference between teaching about trauma as a theme in Shakespeare’s works and teaching in a trauma-informed way, stating that ‘teaching about trauma as an aesthetic category can, in some cases, ignore or even promote traumatic effects’ (19). Though Balizet does not explicitly make this connection in her chapter, her definition of the pandemic era as ‘plague time’ for me echoed the phrase and concept of ‘crip time’: the temporalities of existence shaped by disability.

Several other chapters in this volume make trauma their focus. Sarah Morrison’s ‘Self actualization after trauma’ discusses representations of women and girls’ recovery from trauma in The Winter’s Tale, its source-text Robert Greene’s Pandosto, and E.K. Johnson’s 2017 YA novel adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, Exit Pursued by a Bear which narrates its teenaged protagonist’s experience of sexual assault and abortion, and the medical, legal, and (im)personal aspects of these experiences. Morrison contrasts Johnson’s depiction of healing, collaborative counsel with the ‘unidirectional’ counsel offered to Hermione by Shakespeare’s character Paulina (58). Morrison concludes that whileGreene representstrauma as fatal to women, Shakespeare seems unable to imagine ‘a holistic recovery’ from trauma, and Johnson offers a ‘rosy’ view of healing from trauma with the aid of one’s community; she reflects that perhaps such an optimistic outlook is necessary ‘to reach students and communities’ (61).M Tyler Sasser also analyses Exit, Pursued by a Bear alongside a number of other YA Shakespeare adaptations featuring a variety of medical and mental health themes. His fascinating chapter examines how YA adaptations often represent Shakespeare as a maturation tool for US youth, ‘promoting an idealized image of trauma that can be overcome merely through engagement with Shakespeare’, something Sasser deems ‘naive' (93). Sasser argues that such an approach trivialises trauma, too glibly suggests that Shakespeare might provide mental health care, and gives a false perception to young adult readers that their traumas can have neat resolutions (102-3).

Charlotte Speilman considers racialised trauma, and the violence of racial and homophobic slurs in both YA adaptations and the classroom in her chapter ‘Exposing Hate: Violence of racial slurs in Young Adult adaptations of Shakespeare’. Speilman sensitively tracks the different ways in which educators and adaptors reproduce and/or approach slurs; she pinpoints, for example, how the avoidance of racist language in an adaptation that uses homophobic language can signal that certain types of slur are more acceptable than others. Lawrence Manley’s chapter on ‘Adaptation and Intersectionality’ examines multiple levels of intersectionality in Aoibheann Sweeney’s YA adaptation of The Tempest. In his incisive discussion of Shame the Stars by Guadalupe García McCall, Jesus Montaño deploys metaphors of appropriation as a ‘cannibalistic feast’ to examine how ‘the intermixing of Shakespeare and Latinx young literature provides young Latinx readers a mirror for seeing themselves’ (88). Montaño contextualises his discussion in terms of the lack of racial diversity in the books currently available to adolescents in the USA, and of the fact that Tejano history and culture is not currently taught as widely or justly as it should be. Montaño highlights how works like García McCall’s are ‘changing the lens of history’ to focus on marginalised groups rather than their oppressors (84). Natalie Loper’s ‘Ophelia: A New Hope’ examines Lisa Klein’s YA novelisation of Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective, and Claire McCarthy’s filmed version of the novel, exploring the gendered possibilities that are elided in the move from novel to film. Melissa Johnson’s ‘You Should be Women’ examines witches in adaptations of Macbeth in the context of the current popularity of witches among young adults.

            A group of chapters in Liberating Shakespeare discuss digital technology’s role in Shakespeare adaptation. Laurie E Osborne’s ‘Nothing/Something’ deals with online shaming and Much Ado About Nothing, explaining how ‘evolving digital manipulations of reputation/identity enable increasingly complex depictions of how social media and instant communications both harm and benefit adolescents’ (35). Both Osborne and Jane Wanninger in her chapter ‘Hello People of the Internet’ discuss the literary inspired web series Nothing Much to Do created in 2014 by the (then) group of young adults The Candle Wasters. Wanninger lays out the ways in which The Candle Wasters used YouTube vlogs supplemented by Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram to re-imagine the story of Much Ado About Nothing. Like Osborne, Wanninger points to the flexibility of digital media as being neither inherently good not bad, documenting how in Nothing Much to Do,YouTube can be used to ‘slut-shame’ but also to give a platform to teenaged girls who want to be listened to. Wanninger explores the literary inspired web series as a relatable YA form of consuming and producing media, and Jules Pigott’s chapter is a great example of this. Pigott describes how Nothing Much to Do provided her with inspiration and connection with other young adults as she made her own Shakespearean web series.

Laura Turchi’s final essay, on pedagogy, ‘Promoting Companion Texts for Reading Shakespeare Plays’, is methodologically distinctive as unlike the preceding chapters it primarily offers a critique of the ways in which YA Shakespeare is taught. Nevertheless, Turchi has several themes in common with the preceding chapters including race, queerness, and the medical (in her discussion of the popularity among trainee educators of ‘sick chick lit’) (180). Turchi documents training Pre-Service Teachers and appraises the truisms that she found were frequently involved in the teacher training classroom: the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language, the relatability of modern YA adaptations, and the teacher’s role as moral guide. In considering the highly nuanced relationships between Shakespeare and adaptations, this chapter shared a strength with several other essays in this volume, like Balizet’s as discussed above. Alexa Alice Joubin’s Afterword continues this pedagogical motif, advocating practices of ‘radical listening’ and outlining assignments that educators can use in our classrooms to put radical listening into practice: communal writing, contextualised pedagogy where the students interpret a variety of evidence, and inclusive and interactive exercises using video and translation. Joubin’s anti-bardolotrous framework emphasises diversity and cooperation among students.

I found the case studies and reflective (and sometimes autobiographical) examples in this volume interesting; I personally enjoy and feel especially connected to work that documents real-world dialogues about literature, and applications of literary studies methodologies. Liberating Shakespeare’s focus on intersectionality is valuable. One thing I felt the book could have done more of is defining what trauma is. Though one essay provides a citation defining collective trauma (66), I felt that the authors tended to write as if readers already know what trauma is, perhaps having identified it in the classroom. I think it is important for educators who currently do not consider themselves au fait with trauma-informed teaching to feel able to begin exploring it; precise explanations of the basics could have helped such readers. Liberating Shakespeare left me with several questions about boundaries and the professional competencies of educators: while we often are confronted with traumatised individuals in our classes, to what extent should we intervene, and how should we ethically do so? As Margaret Price discusses in Mad at School, insidiously, even when educators might think we are on neutral ground and not engaging at all with students’ trauma, many of the pedagogical practices we have learnt to use have been designed to exclude and (re-)traumatise Mad, disabled, and neurodivergent students and colleagues.Though Exit, Pursued by a Bear features a multidisciplinary group of professionals supporting the protagonist, one thing Liberating Shakespeare elides is the relationships between literature educators and other professionals in academia who are specifically trained to work with trauma and disability, like disability advisors, harassment advisors, and school counsellors, and those involved in students’ lives beyond their school or university including carers, disability activists, rape crisis workers, and therapists. I appreciate my list may sound more authentic to a UK context, as this is where I work, so I ask readers to adapt this for themselves for their own society. In my opinion, it is essential clearly to theorise how educators can work togetherwith other trauma-informed professionals, for the best benefit of our students and colleagues, and to put this into practice.

Dr Laura Seymour, St Anne's College, Oxford