Difference vs. Change: A Theory of Configuration

Svenn-Arve Myklebost
The University of Bergen


  1. Configuration 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.

  2. Investigating 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.

    • Scholars disagree about when adaptation is a suitable description of a work of art. Briefly 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.[1]
    • 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.[2]
    • 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.[3]
    • 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.

    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.


  3. At 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.

  4. As 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.[4]

  7. Configuration, 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.

  8. The 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.[5] 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.

  9. Configuration is not what Margaret Jane Kidnie would call a type-token setup.[6] 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.[7]

  10. Configuration, 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.[8] 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 model.

  11. This “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.”[9] 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.

  12. Configuration 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.

  13. When 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.[10] 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).

  14. Despite 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.

  15. Since 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).[11] 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.

  16. 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.”

[4] Arguably, “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.

[5] For an extremely comprehensive exploration of imitatio and many other issues of classical rhetoric in connection with Shakespeare’s learning and works, see Baldwin.

[6] 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.

[7] See Erne.

[8] See, for example, Bluestone.

[9] See Richards, chapters 5-6.

[10] See Sillars 1-5.

[11] See Kristeva, Barthes and Orr, for more a more detailed overview of intertextuality in this context.


Works Cited



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).