Brush Up Your Shakespeare

930857You might be reading Shakespeare without knowing it.  Hogarth Press commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists to retell and modernize tales from Shakespeare.  You can read them as tragedies or comedies without knowing the original plays, but comparing the modern action to a Shakespearean plot lends the story more panache and certainly proves Shakespeare’s universality and timeliness.

If you are not up to rereading the plays in the original verse ( not a bad idea), you could try two other sources for quick background reading. In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb tried to make the Bard more accessible to children by writing their summaries of plots in Tales from Shakespeare for young readers.  Their book is available online for free. And in 2004 Tina Packer, the President and Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company, summarized Shakespeare’s plots and characterizations in another book for young readers.  Unlike the Lamb book, Packer inserts dialogue from the plays with the effect of giving the reader the pleasure of some of the play’s most memorable lines, and making the original works more approachable and understandable.

Adam Gopnik in his 2016 essay for The New Yorker, says “the authors in the Hogarth series…aren’t so much reimagining the stories as reacting to the plays.  They’ve taken on not the tale itself but the twists in the tale that produced the Shakespearean themes we still debate” anti-Semitism, the subjugation of women, art and isolation…if Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies.”

Hogarth’s list includes:

  • Howard Jacobson modernizing “The Merchant of Venice” in Shylock is My Name
  • Anne Tyler updating “Taming of the Shrew” in Vinegar Girl
  • Margaret Atwood doing “Tempest” in Hag Seed
  • Jo Nesbo retelling Macbeth.
  • Jeanette Winterson has “The Winter’s Tale” set in 2008 London in The Gap of Time
  • Tracy Chevalier places “Othello” in a 1970’s schoolyard in New Boy.
  • Edward St. Aubyn recreates “King Lear” in Dunbar.

I’ve read two books in the series and enjoyed them both, but maybe because they were based on two of my favorite Shakespearean plays.  I’ve included the reviews below – and highly recommend them – an easy way to get a little Shakespeare into  your reading.

  1. Review of Vinegar Girl
  2. Review of Dunbar
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Dunbar – King Lear As Media Mogul

51xZlUBbLOL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_ Greed, betrayal, lust, murder, sibling rivalry, and jealousy – St. Aubyn’s Dunbar shows how Shakespeare is still relevant. Edward St. Aubyn’s Hogarth Shakespeare update of King Lear channels today’s headlines, with the wealthy children salivating at their chance to control the money of their paternal media mogul.  If you remember your Shakespeare, one good soul tries to rise above the fray, but Florence has no more luck reining in her two sisters than Cordelia had with Regan and Goneril in King Lear.

This is a tragedy with the expectation of dead bodies littering the stage at the end, but St. Aubyn manages to create hope that the billionaire mogul who had been imprisoned in an isolated sanitarium while his two daughters conspire in a company takeover, will prevail.  The eighty year old’s escape into the snowy hills has traces of the St. Aubyn witty banter, sustaining the delusion, and when Florence comes to the rescue in a helicopter and later in her Gulfstream jet, it seems all will be well.   If you don’t remember your reading of Lear, I won’t spoil your anticipation, but St. Aubyn manages to make the ending realistic in today’s terms.

Of all the Hogarth translations into contemporary settings, this is my favorite.  St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of privilege in his Patrick Melrose novels across five novels, one a Man Booker finalist, and I can think of no one better to expose the painful flaws of  the wealthy, including frustrated power and familial resentment.  Rupert Murdoch – beware.

It would be fun to dissect St. Aubyn’s version of an old, powerful man losing everything and match it to Shakespeare’s play, but, if you only read the novel as is, St. Aubyn makes a sad tale enjoyable.

Golden Hill – A Novel of Old New York

9781501163876_p0_v4_s192x300   Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill mixes Shakespearean plot twists with an adventurous tale of Manhattan in the eighteenth century, thirty years before the American Revolution.  Richard Smith, an Englishman who mysteriously arrives on a ship from London, immediately goes to the New York City colony counting-house on Golden Hill Street, and demands cash for a thousand pound note – the equivalent of a cashier’s check for almost two hundred thousand dollars today.     Smith offers no explanation about the purpose of his visit or his identity, and seems determined to keep the local merchants wondering if they should trust him. Smith’s mishaps and attempts at love at first seem to follow the plot of a Shakespearean comedy, but Spufford has more at stake in using disguises and insidious politics than Shakespeare’s comedic rivalry.

As Richard Smith nonchalantly continues to refuse how he will distribute the funds once he has them in hand, his cool demeanor arouses suspicions – is he a spy from the King?  a wealthy man’s son sent to prepare for a royal visit?  a confabulator? prestidigitator?  actor?  The counting house master responsible for distributing the funds to him would prefer him proven unworthy and a scam artist, so he could refuse giving him the money.

In the sixty days before Christmas, when the note is due, Smith manages to be robbed, fall in love, go to debtor’s prison, and be tried in court for murder.  Nevertheless, his secret remains until the last pages.  The narrator pauses the action intermittently to address the reader, using short soliloquies to provide an insider’s view – one who already knows the outcome and the characters’ motivations.  The identity of the narrator is also surprisingly revealed at the end of the story.

Because Spufford uses the formal language and sentence structure of colonial America for his characters and for the narration, the rhythm of the book seems strange at first.  I had to slow down, even rereading from the beginning when I found myself lost; however,  once I had identified Richard Smith as a sympathetic scoundrel, I was anxious to discover what would happen to him next.  Nothing seems to deter him as he cleverly manages to dine on credit after his money purse is stolen, or escape a bloodthirsty mob at the Guy Fawkes bonfire.  At times, the action is fast and hilarious, then slowing into the lull before the next storm of catastrophes.

With a reference to Shakespeare’s dueling lovers in Much Ado About Nothing, the narrator compares their combative relationship to that of Richard Smith and the counting house master’s daughter, Tabitha, who resembles Shakespeare’s shrew Katherine more than the witty Beatrice.  Spufford takes the relationship back and forth, having the characters verbally sparring with well-matched minds and creating sexual tension with the hope of an alliance.

When Smith’s true identity is revealed, with a flourish in the final scene that includes an episode worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza, the story has new purpose.  All of Smith’s witty banter and swashbuckling behavior comes together in a sobering and worthwhile delivery.    With a clever plot and an endearing hero, Spufford delivers an historical tale worth reading, forcing the reader to transport to that earlier time, immersed in the old world and its rich language – with a final tribute to those determined to change the status quo.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

9780451498083_p0_v1_s192x300    Anne Tyler delivers another quirky romance in Vinegar Girl in her delightful twist on The Taming of the Shrew published by Hogarth Shakespeare as one of a series of novels based on the major plays.

In Tyler’s version, fiery Kate lives at home with her father, an absent-minded scientist at Johns Hopkins on the verge of an important discovery for autoimmune disorders. Her sister, Bunny, a scatterbrained teenager more interested in boys than books plays the beautiful Bianca.  Their mother died long ago, and Kate has the responsibility of the Baltimore household, organized by her father’s hilarious system to maximize efficiency. Homemade meals consists of  a scientific formula of  “beans, green vegetables, potatoes and stewed beef pureed into a grayish sort of paste to be served through the week.”

Kate has the reputation of her model from Shakespeare, yet Tyler softens her attitude with common sense – but missing any traits of diplomacy.  She drops out of college because she calls out her botany professor when he botches a lecture on photosynthesis, and she blithely refuses to falsely flatter a pre-schooler where she is an assistant to the elderly teacher, when the drawing is no good, much to the dismay of the head teacher and the parent.

Pyotr Shcherbakov plays Petruchio; in this story he is a brilliant yet blunt spoken scientist from foreign lands and assistant to Kate’s father; he is about to be deported unless he can change his legal status.  Kate’s father concocts a scheme to have Kate marry Pyotr to secure the ongoing research, and surprisingly, Kate agrees.

The twists and turns involve a vegan boyfriend, research mice, a gaggle of intolerant relatives and friends – even a guitar playing granola boy as a foil for Kate’s affections. Although the story is predictable, Tyler infuses an element of suspense to the upcoming marriage, with the possibility of its not taking place.  Of course, all’s well that ends well, and Tyler happily includes an epilogue, fast-forwarding ten years beyond to note how successful and happily ever after their lives continue.

Anne Tyler can’t write fast enough for me.  I read Vinegar Girl as soon as I could get it and polished it off with relish in an afternoon.  Kate is my favorite character from Shakespeare; it’s hard not to identify with her forthright opinions, her independence, and her cranky moods.  She is often misunderstood, masking her vulnerability in stubbornness but Anne Tyler captures her innate goodness and strength in her modern adaptation, and has Petruchio love Kate for who she is – no taming needed.

Reviews of other Anne Tyler Books:

 

 

 

Can You Ever Really Know an Author?

With J. K. Rowling’s latest contribution to crime fiction – The Silkworm – headlining the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch’s essay in “Bookends” in the same section – When We Read Fiction, How Relevant is the Author’s Biography?  questions whether knowing the author’s life (and previous work) affects our reception of new work – is it

 “a mere distraction from what really matters, the work?”

Although he does not cite Rowling, focusing instead on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the one with a life clearly available for scrutiny, the other not so much, my expectations of a new book by J.K. Rowling are probably higher because of Harry Potter.  And, like Rick Nelson, who faced a jeering audience when he failed to perform their old favorite songs, Rowling’s foray into adult crime has left me wanting to return to wizards and magic. To be fair, I have only read the first in the detective series, and maybe the second is better.

IMG_0348Shakespeare, on the other hand, will always be a favorite, and I agree with Kirsch:

…the unknowability of Shakespeare  is a key ingredient in his greatness… {he} stays one step ahead of  us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do…”

Soon I will be getting reacquainted with the Bard at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Twelfth Nigh, Measure for Measure, and Comedy of Errors, and I know my high expectations will be met.  Jane Austen will be there too in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe we can all have tea together.