Difference vs. Change: A Theory of Configuration
University of Bergen
and reconfiguration are conceptual terms that have shown a surprising versatility
and usefulness in many kinds of studies of Shakespeare, as this collection of
essays demonstrates. For my purposes, configuration has become useful as my
research has entered the sprawling and often contradictory field of adaptation
studies. Working with Shakespeare and the appearance of his plays in and as
comic books and manga provided me with some problems that I sought to remedy by
looking to adaptation theory. It presently occurred to me that adaptation
was limited and inaccurate both when applied to a discussion of what
Shakespeare did with his sources in order to create his plays, and to what has
been done with Shakespeare’s plays over the past four hundred years. Not only were
the word and the implications of adaptation problematical, but related terms
such as original, source and appropriation presented other
challenges and limitations to my analyses.
the relationships between related art works in different media is severely
restricted by the nomenclature of traditional adaptation studies. I will try to
explain what the problems consist of before I move on to describe and discuss
the possibilities opened up by (re)configuration.
Yet this leaves me, and adaptation
theoreticians who have made similar conclusions, without a terminology. Once I
came to the conclusions I have outlined above, I found the deliberations of the
Shakespeare configuration conference proved to be particularly helpful.
- Scholars disagree about when adaptation is a suitable description of a work of
put, scholars (not to talk of theatre reviewers, film writers and audiences)
tend to use adaptation to describe an act or a process of change, but it is not
clear whether we are talking of an “artistic” change, such as new thematic
emphases, alterations of plot, language or style – or whether we are talking of
a change of medium, making, say, a film out of a play. Some reserve the abovementioned
term appropriation for more radical changes, while others see little reason to
make such distinctions (reasoning that any form of adaptation unavoidably
implicates appropriation). All in all the nomenclature is confused and
sometimes contradictorily applied.
- Adaptation is historically inaccurate,
or at the least severely limiting when applied to discussions of transfers,
rewriting, bowdlerisations, stagings, translations and so on in an historical
context. There are different mechanisms determining these various processes,
and they cannot be subsumed fruitfully as parts of this concept, since
adaptation is both too equivocal and too specific in its meanings. Hence, our
current conception of adaptation (albeit already variegated) may often be at
odds with earlier meanings of the word.
- Adaptation has a bad reputation. Surely,
the thoughtful scholar can write of adaptations and still treat them with
serious thoroughness, but the fact remains that the term has been badmouthed
for decades, usually by those critics who always prefer “the original” or “the
book.” Current theoreticians of adaptation express a levelling impulse,
desiring a discourse in which “original” and “adaptation” be treated laterally
and equally, yet they fail to see that their problems are bound up with the
words they use.
- Adaptation is self-contradictory. The
trio of problems that I presented initially may all be circumnavigable, but
this one cannot be ignored. Allow me to explain: the word adaptation implies
that something has been changed. This is exactly what does not happen. A work,
such as a play by Shakespeare, is not a lump of narrative clay that can be
shaped into a new thing; it is not a battered old Toyota that can be rebuilt
into a race car. An adaptation is a new, materially individual thing, built or
created as some sort of replica of the so-called original. We think of it as
changing something only because it is different from this something, and we are
aware of this difference only because we have knowledge of both objects. Hence,
what we know as adaptation is a serious misnomer, because the determining
factor in this process is not change but difference. Even used
metaphorically, adaptation remains fatuous and misleading, and should be
avoided. Original is flawed too. If we think of a Shakespeare play as an
original, how do we cope with the fact that most of his plays were “adaptations”?
And what are the originals anyway? Hardly anyone who stages one of his plays or
makes a film based on one of them uses the F or any of the Qs as a point of
departure. The Derridean critique of origins is well known: any original
reverts to something even more original in an endless chain of nearly similar
iterations; hence the shedding of this nomenclature.
the risk of repeating what other contributors to this collection might have
done, I would like to present two definitions from the OED in order to
explain where the appeal of configuration lay for me.
a verb, “to configure” is “to fashion according to something else as a model.”
Furthermore, “a configuration” is a constellation of elements, a structural
matrix that may be juxtaposed and compared with other such constellations. The
beauty of the term is that not only does it do away with the misleading
connotations of adaptation, but the OED definition also suggests an
alternative for original, namely model. I am aware that I am probably
not the first to use model in this way (it is after all part of everyday
parlance), but the use to which I am putting it, as part of a new, systematic
terminology, is different from what I have been able to find anywhere else.
Furthermore, the OED definition suggests a way in which to think of how
the process hitherto known as adaptation might work: one configures after
something else. Model truly is a versatile word. It can mean both
something that is the point of departure for something else, such as a
blueprint or a small-scale version of something which is to be built, or it may
be the exact opposite: a replica of a church, say, or an airplane. In fact, in
some ways it would be more accurate, and certainly more egalitarian, to use the
word model to describe both the so-called copy and the so-called source, were
it not for the fact that in practice it would be utterly bewildering for the
reader. It remains tempting but untenable, which is why configuration remains
to describe the most recent work.
- As I have noted, my emphatic opinion is
that this is not a process of change, but of difference. This is no new idea,
but people seem to have had problems with how to describe it. Robert Stam’s Literature
and Film lists a large number of the various terms that have been suggested
over the years. Among them we find words such as resuscitation, reimagining,
reinterpretation, rewriting, rebuilding, rethinking, reproducing, recombining
and several other words beginning with re- (25). The prevailing notion that
something that exists is being created again is problematical, for it tends to
obscure the actual workings of configuration, or so it would seem.
Philosophically speaking, it is impossible to repeat anything (if we are to
believe Heraclitus), but even from a more practical viewpoint it is hard to see
what one may gain from thinking about an artwork as a form of reiteration. If
your house burns down you may rebuild it, but if it has not burned down and you
build an identical house next to it, the effect would be entirely different. I
will extend the metaphor a little further: a Shakespeare comic book is not
built on the foundations of a play, but is adjacent to it.
- The fact that the concept of configuration
effaces the concept of repetition is one of its strengths, because the word
configuration has no such connotation. It may certainly be that structures,
plots, themes and tropes seem to reappear throughout history. Such
structuralist assertions, however, tend to kill intellectual momentum when
applied to discussions of the relations between similar artworks: the structure
is the same and that is that. But the endless chain of deferred signifiers (as
one may perhaps call the stories, plays, films, and other works of art that
pertain to this discussion) is interesting only if we look at the individual
links in it. Assuming that all these “links” are essentially identical is both
depressingly futile and probably wrong. Therefore, it could be argued that “reconfiguration,”
like any other “re-” word should be used sparingly, if at all.
then, is a much broader concept than adaptation, because it enables one to
discuss not only instances of one work (such as a film) aping another (such as
a novel), but instances of synecdochic and metonymic transmediations. I shall
endeavour to explain what I mean by this.
principle of configuration is imitation. Not copying or imitation in the
derivative sense (so, not aping, then), or in the sense that the works involved
are perfectly identical, but rather in the classical sense, where imitatio is
or should be an erudite, creative, and productive activity.
This imitation – at its most comprehensive level – would involve immersing
oneself in the technical, spiritual, philosophical, political and stylistic characteristics
of one’s model in order to create something that would be both in homage (as it
were) to some predecessor, and contemporarily relevant and appropriate. This
may sound like an idealized version of reality, when in fact many Shakespeare
films and productions fail on multiple levels, both as films, theatrical events
and as “adaptations.” The principle remains the same, however, even if its
realisation may sometimes disappoint.
is not what Margaret Jane Kidnie would call a type-token setup.
My descriptions of models and imitations might lead one to believe that a model
can be seen as a blueprint or a musical score from which many different
versions may emerge. That is not my intention. Though it may seem natural to
think of a theatrical text, like a Shakespeare play, as a score of sorts, a
quick mental experiment demonstrates why this is not a good way to look at how
configuration works: if you imagine that the model is a novel it should become
obvious that it cannot be “played” or “performed” in any straightforward
manner. On the contrary, such configuration relies on the interpretive and
creative mind-set and manner of production associated with imitatio. Now
that Lukas Erne has made it tenable that Shakespeare can be thought of as a
literary dramatist, and if we consider the transmediation that often occurs in
configuration, one must conclude that describing “originals” or models as
musical scores or blueprints is simplistic and surely reductive.
moreover, is not analogy, at least not exclusively. For decades, theoreticians
of adaptation have tended to prefer the analogy model as an explanation of how
a transmediation might be viewed.
The idea is that even if a play and a film have radically different means and
forms of realisation, they may resemble one another through some kind of
equivalence. So, even if Rosencrantz, played by Gary Oldman in Tom Stoppard’s
film version of his own play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990),
is essentially different from “Rosencrantz,” the speech header outlining a role
in Hamlet, they remain analogies: one is like the other. The
relationship between the two (which was chosen at random: I could have
juxtaposed Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s painting of Yorick (The Young Lord
Hamlet, 1868) with the Yorick talked of in the 1603 Q of Hamlet,
for instance), in other words, is that of a simile. Configuration, on the other
hand, assumes a different underlying tension between the configuration and its
“tension” may be summed up as metaphor. Independently from me, Kamilla Elliot
has reached a similar conclusion, arguing that metaphor represents a more
suggestive and dynamic idea of how the relationship between two or more works
in such a constellation can be seen (Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate
230). She neglects to mention why metaphor is so suitable, though. In one of
the most widely known definitions of the term, M. H. Abrams’ Glossary of
Literary Terms describes metaphor in a way which reveals its present
utility: “In a metaphor, a word or expression which in literal usage denotes
one kind of thing or action is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing
or action, without asserting comparison” (67). The clue lies in Abrams’ last
clause: one thing is not like the other (as is suggested in a simile);
instead they enter into a dialogue which generates new, formerly non-existent
meanings. So, while it may sometimes be useful, and often quite unavoidable, to
think of one thing in the configuration as the equivalent of a similar thing in
the model (or, more holistically, the whole of the one as an equivalent of the
whole of the other), it is ultimately more productive to think of one as a
“vehicle” and the other as “tenor.”
The details as well as the wider implications of using metaphor to describe the
relationship between models and configurations are too many and too
considerable to be discussed here, but suffice it to say that things are more
complex than what I have outlined, and that “metaphor” must itself be a
metaphor in this context. What is important is that it can be used to make the
relationship between works clearer. Furthermore, as I have mentioned, there are
two other tropes which may be used to explore how works or fragments thereof
relate to one another: synecdoche and metonymy.
being broader than adaptation, it allows one to discuss numerous subjects, some
of which are abstract, such as the identity of a work that is shared among a
potentially endless number of configurations, and some of which are material,
such as explorations
of editions of Shakespeare through the discipline of book history. The list of forms configurations may take
is long and diverse and includes: paintings of single characters (Hamlet being
a perennial favourite) or scenes, or a series of illustrations depicting
selected scenes from a play (such as Frank Howard’s so-called outline
engravings), or poems based on certain aspects of the plays (such as W. H.
Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror”), or attempts to illustrate Shakespeare’s
figurative language (such as William Blake’s colour print Pity) or
general references and allusions to Shakespeare (which one can find almost
anywhere). As a result, the relationship between the model and the
configuration reaches a level of complexity that, while it may be described as
metaphorical, needs more specific terms to begin to be understood. This is why
synecdochic and metonymic configuration are helpful terms.
a work refers, partially or completely, to a fragment of something in Shakespeare
(be it a line of text, one or more characters, a scene or a title) there is
clearly no one-to-one relationship between the model and the configuration.
Yet, these are references that evoke and invoke the whole, momentous presence
of Shakespeare as cultural authority and historical figure. A synecdochic
configuration, then, may be a passing allusion in a literary work, or it may be
a work in and of itself. A very good example of this is John Wooton’s 1750
painting Macbeth and Banquo meeting the Weird Sisters. Even though it
ostensibly depicts only the scene of its title, it is full of details that in
their iconography foreshadow events and themes that occur in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The birds in the middle of the picture, for instance, evoke a “rooky wood” (Macbeth
3.2.51) (and are hence an example of metonymic configuration, based on a
principle of nearness) even if it is difficult to tell if they are in fact
crows, and despite the relative scarcity of trees in this particular stretch of
wood. While the various elements in the painting may be described as symbols,
metaphors or metonyms of the Shakespearian model, their overall function is
synecdochic, since, as Stuart Sillars has pointed out, these are fragments and
parts that together suggest an outline that is both a spatial representation of
a temporal unfolding and an exploration of the ethics of Macbeth. The
latter point is strengthened when one is aware that in this configuration or
constellation of elements there is a reference to the Choice of Hercules, a
visual trope signalling a moral choice, seen in the poses of Macbeth, Banquo
and the witches; Banquo is good, the witches are bad and Macbeth is in the
middle (Sillars 3).
my emphasis on difference rather than change, a notion remains that something
must have changed. Certainly, the Shakespeare that we refer to today is not
identical with the Shakespeare of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth or
even twentieth centuries. This is because there are essentially two kinds of
models for a configuration of any Shakespeare play. On the one hand there is
the model as material object, what I call a tangible model. This could be a
Folio or a modern edition, or both of the above, or something else, a
mid-twentieth century Penguin edition, say. It does not really matter. On the
other hand there is the notional model. To borrow a point from Sillars: if the
term “memorial reconstruction” had not already been taken, this is what we
could have used it for. Any reader of Shakespeare is bound to have certain
ideas regarding the identity of the plays, and tends to react in different ways
to stagings or film versions based on how good their memories are and how
conservative their outlooks. A configuration, which itself is a material object
and an abstract conglomeration of ideas, will exert some kind of pressure on
the notional model, an influence which the audience may or may not dismiss or
accept, wholly or partially. While the materiality of the tangible models does
not change, the collective idea of what Shakespeare is remains in constant
flux, and every new configuration exerts some kind of pressure on the direction
it may take. Although it may seem tenable to use the word adaptation to
describe this ever-changing stream of Shakespeare identities (which is essentially
what Margaret Jane Kidnie does in Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation),
the word seems to indicate something which is made to suit some occasion or
format. The reality, however, is quite out of control and the field has long
since become immeasurably vast.
terms such as symbol, allusion, allegory, parody, pastiche, homage, reference,
influence, and intertextuality already exist, one may ask why there is any
point in introducing yet another set of terms. The answer is that configuration
and model can be used to describe processes that these other concepts cannot
(and that adaptation and original certainly cannot). Intertextuality, for its
part, is not really designed to address the same problems or processes, even if
there are aspects of intertextual theory that very usefully can be included
into analyses of configurations: Julia Kristeva’s claim that a work (a text) is
both itself and an(d)other is especially apt for describing the way a
configuration behaves (Orr 32).
A comic book Shakespeare play, for instance, is itself simply by virtue of
being a comic book (although there is nothing simple about that), yet it cannot
escape being Shakespeare’s play too.
- While there are still many things to test
and many challenges ahead, I firmly believe that the theoretical nomenclature I
have described in this short paper has great potential, even though there is no
doubt in my mind that there are several, probably major, differences between my
framework of configuration and the approaches of the other contributors to this
issue. It will be interesting to see to what extent we can speak to each other
and where this dialogue might take us.
 In Modern
Shakespeare Offshoots Ruby Cohn presents three levels of difference, or
three types of “offshoot” from a common ancestor: “reduction/emendation,”
“adaptation” and “transformation” (3-4). This usage is different from that of Julie
Sanders, which is different from that of Roger Chartier, which is different
from that of Margaret Jane Kidnie, which is different from that of Linda
Hutcheon, and so on.
 I cite one example that
may illustrate some transhistorical problems: according to Laurie Maguire,
Thomas Drant’s translation of Horace, made in 1566, is what “the Restoration
called ‘adaptation’ and what we call ‘(re)appropriation’ ” (Maguire 60).
Drant, Maguire explains, calls this “translation,” since “for his age,
translation was a creative act, a dialogue between the past and the present, a
cultural linking, an intertextual moment” (60).
 See Sanders, especially
page 160, where she writes that we need “to restore to the subgenres or
practices of adaptation and appropriation a genuinely celebratory comprehension
of their capacity for creativity, and for comment and critique.”
“reconfiguration” could be suitably applied to cases where we know that
Shakespeare revised his own plays, for instance, but since this evokes
questions about authorial intentionality while assuming that we know who in
fact revised the various different Qs and Fs even this kind of usage is
possibly best avoided.
 For an extremely
comprehensive exploration of imitatio and many other issues of classical
rhetoric in connection with Shakespeare’s learning and works, see Baldwin.
 See Kidnie 17-18, for a
discussion of types and tokens in the context of adaptation studies. Kidnie
dismisses such theories of adaptation, basing her dismissal on the
non-existence of authoritative “types” or originals.
 See, for example,
 See Richards, chapters
 See Kristeva, Barthes and
Orr, for more a more detailed overview of intertextuality in this context.
- Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of
Literary Terms. 6th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers,
- Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William
Shakespere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke. 2 vols. Illinois: U of Illinois
P, 1944. U of Illinois Press, 2007. Web. 4 Apr. 2010.
- Barthes, Roland. “From Work to
Text.” Rpt. in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Poststructuralist
Criticism. Ed. Josue V. Harari. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979. 73-81. Print.
- Bluestone, George. Novels
into Film. (1957) Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.
- Chartier, Roger. Forms and
Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer. Philadelphia:
U of Pennsylvania P, 1995. Print.
- Cohn, Ruby. Modern
Shakespeare Offshoots. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976. Print.
- Elliot, Kamilla. Rethinking
the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
- Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as
Literary Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
- Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of
Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
- Kidnie, Margaret Jane. Shakespeare
and the Problem of Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
- Kristeva, Julia. “The Bounded
Text.” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP,
- Maguire, Laurie. Shakespeare’s
Names. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
- Orr, Mary. Intertextuality.
Debates and Contexts. Cambridge: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
- Richards, I.A. The Philosophy
of Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.
- Sanders, Julie. Adaptation
and Appropriation. (2006) London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
Ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Methuen, 2006. Print.
- ---. Macbeth. (1951) Ed. Kenneth Muir.
Walton-on-Thames: Arden-Thomas Nelson, 1999. Print.
- Sillars, Stuart. Painting
Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic 1720-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
- Stam, Robert and Allesandra
Raegno, eds. Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film
Adaptation. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. Print.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2013-, Matthew Steggle and Annaliese Connolly (Editors, EMLS).