Contemporary writers re-create Shakespeare’s works
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
EDWARD ST. AUBYN