Sin­cer­est flat­tery

Con­tem­po­rary writ­ers re-cre­ate Shake­speare’s works

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For even the most avid reader of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, div­ing into the rhymed and me­tered verse of Shake­speare can be daunting. It’s easy to lose the threads of plots in the dense, old-fash­ioned lan­guage and to for­get that once upon a time, even the dark­est of his dra­mas was con­sid­ered es­capist en­ter­tain­ment. His plays were down­right bawdy, with all those cos­tume par­ties, gen­der-role re­ver­sals, and teenagers hav­ing sex. But un­less you thrive on close-read­ing Shake­speare — and many peo­ple do — his works are usu­ally eas­ier to ab­sorb when seen per­formed by ac­tors who lend mean­ing to the text with move­ment and ex­pres­sion. His plots are time­less, en­com­pass­ing uni­ver­sal fam­ily psy­chodra­mas, ro­man­tic long­ings, and jeal­ous rages; whether or not you know it, you’ve prob­a­bly seen or read nu­mer­ous it­er­a­tions of his plays, some quite di­rect and some more oblique. Retellings of Ham­let in­clude the nov­els Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick and In­fi­nite Jest by David Foster Wal­lace and the FX net­work se­ries Sons of An­ar­chy. In the Romeo and Juliet cat­e­gory are the movies West Side Story and Val­ley Girl. Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in­spired Gus Van Sant’s edgy early-1990s flick about male pros­ti­tutes, My Own Pri­vate Idaho, and The Tam­ing of the Shrew shows up as the teen cult ro­mance 10 Things I Hate About You — both movies, in a co­in­ci­dence that would thrill Shake­speare, that starred tal­ented lead­ing men who died trag­i­cally young.

The l i st of what Jeanette Win­ter­son termed “Shake­speare cov­ers” grows ev­ery day. Win­ter­son’s cover — The Gap of Time, a retelling of The Win­ter’s

Tale — is the first novel in the Hog­a­rth Shake­speare se­ries, in which well-known con­tem­po­rary au­thors take on their fa­vorite Shake­speare plays. The se­ries launched in 2015 and will be com­plete in 2021 with Gil­lian Flynn’s adap­ta­tion of Ham­let. The books are be­ing pub­lished in nu­mer­ous lan­guages and are timed to co­in­cide with the 400th an­niver­sary of Shake­speare’s death and the sub­se­quent print­ing of his First Fo­lio seven years later. This year gives us Shyl lock Is My Name on Feb. 9, Howard Jacobson’s up­date off The Mer­chanth of Venice; Anne Tyler’s Vine­gar Girl ( The Tam­ing of the Shrew), com­ing in June; and a re-cre­ation of The Tem­pest (as yet un­ti­tled) by Mar­garet At­wood to look for­ward to in Oc­to­ber. Other au­thors in the se­ries are Jo Nesbø, Ed­ward St. Aubyn, and Tracy Cheva­lier.

The Gap of Time, Shy­lock Is My Name, and Vine­gar Girl were made avail­able for re­view. Each is a per­fect col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the liv­ing and the dead, as the au­thors seam­lessly weave their own styles with the Bard’s. Win­ter­son is rau­cous and ex­per­i­men­tal, achiev­ing a sort of po­etic mas­tery over a dis­jointed play that ranges from high tragedy to low com­edy, with a foundling child at the story’s cen­ter. In a pas­sage at the end of the novel, Win­ter­son ex­plains that she was a foundling and adopted as a baby, and that is why she has al­ways been drawn to The Win­ter’s Tale and its themes of for­give­ness over gen­er­a­tions.

Leontes — now Leo — is a vi­ciously trou­bled banker mar­ried to MiMi, a fa­mous singer, but half in love with his best friend, Xeno. He be­lieves MiMi and Xeno are hav­ing an af­fair, so he stews in mur­der­ous hos­til­ity and even­tu­ally sends his in­fant daugh­ter off to be raised in an­other coun­try be­cause he can­not bear the thought that she isn’t his. A se­ries of events brings the foundling child, Perdita, who is white, into the arms of a black father and son, Shep and Clo, dur­ing a hur­ri­cane in New Bo­hemia, which re­sem­bles New Or­leans. The se­cond half of the book takes place 18 years af­ter the first half, when Perdita and Xeno’s son, Zel, are brought to­gether

by t i me and fate. Win­ter­son’s abil­ity to lift high up out of the plot to speak of broader psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cerns while re­main­ing closely con­nected to the des­tinies of her char­ac­ters, and to her own stake in the story, is ad­mirable. “Maybe we’ll hurt each other so much that we will deny what hap­pened hap­pened,” she writes in the voice of a grown-up Perdita, who is look­ing at the past and the fu­ture. “We’ll find an al­ibi to prove that we were never there. Those peo­ple didn’t ex­ist.”

One of the ways th­ese ac­com­plished au­thors make Shake­speare i ntensely rel­e­vant i s by not gloss­ing over many of the less “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” aspects of his work and in­stead em­brac­ing them, in­vert­ing them, or psy­cho­an­a­lyz­ing them through a mod­ern lens. Shake­speare made much of strangers in strange lands with char­ac­ters who are for­eign trav­el­ers or sim­ply un­known to a lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. His char­ac­ters are of­ten brash and in­con­sid­er­ate or down­right un­hinged. Men dress as women and women dress as men, and peo­ple are of­ten un­rea­son­ably loyal and de­voted to un­de­serv­ing louts who treat them badly. In our post-Freudian age, there is end­less fun to be had fig­ur­ing out the trau­mas and drives of Shake­speare’s char­ac­ters. Jacobson, beloved for his acer­bic sense of hu­mor, lets a dis­grun­tled and per­se­cuted Shy­lock wres­tle with his emo­tional and spir­i­tual demons i n con­ver­sa­tion with his mod­ern- day coun­ter­part, a wealthy art dealer named Si­mon, whom he meets in a ceme­tery. Si­mon psy­cho­an­a­lyzes him­self via in-depth lit­er­ary crit­i­cism of The

Mer­chant of Venice with Shy­lock, whom they both un­der­stand to be a fic­tional char­ac­ter and a sort of specter that ev­ery­one can see. In the story’s other plot­line, Por­tia — now called Plura­belle — re-creates her father’s tests for her po­ten­tial suit­ors as a re­al­ity tele­vi­sion show.

The Mer­chant of Venice is nu­anced if con­fus­ing in its de­pic­tion of Jewish stereo­types and prej­u­dice; in Shy­lock Is My Name, Jacobson tack­les anti-Semitism and Jewish iden­tity in some­times un­com­fort­able ways, re­veal­ing how much we still fear the Other.

In Vine­gar Girl, Tyler’s ap­proach is sim­pler than Win­ter­son’s and Jacobson’s, with no meta-lit­er­ary anal­y­sis whisked into the mix. Like many of Tyler’s nov­els, the ac­tion i s un­der­stated; a move from one house to an­other and an awk­ward seat­ing ar­range­ment at a din­ner party make for plot twists, which work well for a fam­ily­based com­edy like The Tam­ing of

the Shrew. Kate Bat­tista is as nonon­sense and as clearly drawn as any Tyler char­ac­ter. She lives with her father and sis­ter in Bal­ti­more and works as a teacher’s as­sis­tant at a nurs­ery school. She is so­cially awk­ward and re­sists the kind of fem­i­nin­ity ad­hered to by her much-younger sis­ter, Bunny, whom she be­lieves is a bub­ble­head. When her sci­en­tist father tries to get her into a green-card mar­riage with a Rus­sian col­league whose visa is set to ex­pire, it in­spires Kate to take a look at her op­tions in life and fig­ure out what it means to be loved for who one truly is. Ev­ery­one is re­vealed to be both more and less than Kate thought they were, and her iden­tity changes as she be­comes a mar­ried woman in the eyes of her friends and co-work­ers.

What makes t he Hog­a­rth Shake­speare se­ries so much fun is t he ev­i­dent en­ergy and joy burst­ing from the pages, even when the plots turn dark. The set­tings are so rich, the char­ac­ters so com­plete, that the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing them is al­most cin­e­matic — ex­cept that the nov­els get the ben­e­fit of as much in­te­rior mono­logue and in­tro­spec­tion as the au­thors deem nec­es­sary to re­ally un­der­stand the story, a tool un­avail­able on stage or screen.

Above, John Hamil­ton Mor­timer’s

1776; frag­ment of the play with hand­writ­ten re­vi­sions pos­si­bly by Shake­speare

HOWARD JACOBSON

GIL­LIAN FLYNN

JO NESBø

JEANETTE WIN­TER­SON

ANNE TYLER

TRACY CHEVA­LIER

ED­WARD ST. AUBYN

MAR­GARET AT­WOOD

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