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“just as Shakespeare completely contorted”

July 1, 2013

“We’re very much leaving it up to the imaginations of the authors. We have talked with them about following the spirit of the plays, but it isn’t helpful for them to have to paint by numbers. We want them to bring all of their imaginations and different points of view just as Shakespeare completely contorted some of the history from which he took his own plays.”
—– Clara Farmer, Publishing Director, Chatto & Windus and Hogarth (June 26, 2013)

“I’m very drawn to American fiction and am always on the lookout for a new Marilynne Robinson or Philipp Meyer. I’m publishing a couple of fantastic American novels this coming year (The Interestings, the new Meg Wolitzer, and the new Jennifer Close, author of Girls in White Dresses), and I’d love to find a British writer to shout out about.”
—– Juliet Brooke, Senior Editor, Chatto & Windus and Hogarth (January 12, 2103)

You may already have read how American writer Ann Tyler and British writer Jeanette Winterson are the first commissioned for the re-writes of the works of William Shakespeare, a project “devised by Juliet Brooke, Senior Editor at Chatto & Windus/Hogarth, and Becky Hardie, Deputy Publishing Director [w]ith Clara Farmer, Publishing Director, … [who] comprise the UK publishing team.” Farmer says, “The time is ripe,” and she and her group are looking at 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Is this Bard news specifically? Or is this rather “good news” for publishers generally, a pop “current trend for modern retellings of classic stories” as with “Val McDermid, Joanna Trollope and Curtis Sittenfeld … all currently writing reworkings of Jane Austen”?

Bard news … Anne Tyler, Shakespeare as painted in the 19th century by Leo Coblitz and Jeanette Winterson. Composite: Eamonn McCabe/Getty/Murdo Macleod

Some of us are less excited than others about the project. Is Farmer right to claim that this is driven by the spirit of Shakespeare? Are the authors’ imaginations really following the Bard? Are the historical contexts in which he writes his plays “completely contorted”?

I find Joss Whedon’s new, contemporary film version of Much Ado About Nothing to be a much more honest reworking of Shakespeare. Here he talks with Belinda Luscombe of Time magazine about his time to work with a play of the playwright he so reveres.

What are your thoughts about these new “Shakespeare” transpositions? Are they complete distortions or ways to bring the old works to new audiences?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2013 7:21 pm

    I’m not sure I understand what your concern is here. Shakespeare “reworked” Plutarch but did not make Plutarch obsolete, neither did Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Two Noble Kinsmen and Romeo and Juliet (Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech) render Chaucer obsolete (Troilus and Criseyde, Knight’s Tale, and Parliment of Fowles respectively).

    (Actually, many English-speaking students today encounter Chaucer through adaptations and translation into the modern English — many of them quite mediocre — and that has not dulled Chaucer’s luster in the least.)

    This is not even a Shakespearean issue: Goethe did not render Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus obsolete, nor did Wagner render Nibelungenlied obsolete.

    There have, in fact, been extreme adaptions of Shakespeare that are great works of art in their own. Some movies that come to mind are:

    * Akira Kurosawa’s 蜘蛛巣城 – Throne of Blood (Macbeth) [my favorite Shakespearean adaptation of all time]

    * Akira Kurosawa’s 乱 – Ran (King Lear)

    * Boris Pasternak, Dmitri Shostakovitch, and Grigori Kozintsev’s Гамлет – Gamlet (Hamlet)

    and many worthy operas:

    * Adès, The Tempest
    * Bernstein, West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
    * Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict (Much Ado About Nothing)
    * Britten, Midsummer Night’s Dream
    * Purcell, The Fairy Queen (Midsummer Night’s Dream)
    * Rossini, Otello
    * Saliere, Falstaff Ossia Le Tre Burle (Merry Wives of Windsor)
    * Verdi, Falstaff (Merry Wives of Windsor & Henry IV)
    * Verdi, Otello
    * Verdi, Macbeth

    After all, it is Verdi’s (and Wagner’s) 200th birthday year too!

    So, I don’t think any real damage can be done to the Bard by this group. There is a whole army of English teachers ready to enforce original reading disciple with Shakespeare. If Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard couldn’t damage Shakespeare’s reputation with their vastly overrated Shakespeare in Love and Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous didn’t even register a dent, then what chance do Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson have? With so many entries, a few of them may even be good. The only question is if any of them can be as good as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (or even as good as Thomas Bowlder’s Family Shakespeare.)

    Most of all, though, it seems like a very gimmicky marketing idea. With so many different authors, I doubt the publisher will be able to maintain any sort of consistency without applying rules that stifle authorial creativity. Maybe this has more in common with the “continuation” of pop literature series (e.g., the post-Ian Fleming “James Bond” novels — do you know that one of them was written by Kingsley Amis?; or the post-L. Frank Baum “Oz” novels — or the many sequels to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland.)

    Shakespeare seems immune from attack by adapters. However, not all literary masterworks are thus protected. I do worry that a great many readers truly believe that the NIV and the NLT and their ilk are accurate representations of the original Hebrew and Greek.

  2. July 6, 2013 5:36 pm

    I’m less concerned that Shakespeare might seem, to some, under attack by adapters or, to others, immune from this. It’s just the blatant associations that commercialism creates, the new books being sold as even the spirit of the Bard. And, as William Germano notes, with “Hogarth” Press co-opted as by newer brand names like “Chatto, then Crown, and now Random,” well, “there’s the specter of Virginia Woolf.” This has the effect of name dropping at its worst.

  3. July 9, 2013 5:42 pm

    Well, this certainly won’t be the first time that Shakespeare’s name and works have been used in crass marketing. But that Germano article is hilarious: “George R.R. Martin seems an obvious choice to retell most of the history plays, though his fantasies might have to go easy on the ice.[...] Hilary Mantel’s next novel could uncannily set Henry VIII during the reign of Henry VIII. I’m seeing Stephenie Meyer’s twilit Benedick as all sulky, with sunken cheeks and whatever. David Lodge could clean up The Tempes, which is after all a play about a cranky professor. He’s very good on cranky professors.”

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