I love a modern retelling of Shakespeare. They can be insightful, thought-provoking, or just damn fun. For 23rd April—Shakespeare’s deathday/possible birthday and World Book Night in the UK—I’ve gathered together my thoughts on the current (and upcoming!) Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern novel retellings of his plays.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson – A transatlantic, slightly alternate universe version of our modern world in which The Winter’s Tale unfolds as a story still full of jealousy, grief, and discovery. The complex relationship between Leo, his wife MiMi, and his best friend/ex-lover Xeno is a highlight, turning a strange plot device in Shakespeare into an interesting look at three characters falling apart. The book that really sparked my interest in the series (read my full review here).
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson – Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice is a little different to the rest of the series in that instead of updating Shylock fully, he parallels the sixteenth century character with a modern version, the art dealer and father Simon Strulovitch. The backdrop is rich side of Manchester and the updated plot line is quite impressive, but the merging Shylock’s world with Strulovitch’s and the writing style of the novel make for a dense read.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – In my original review, I said that this book wasn’t necessary because 10 Things I Hate About You exists. I stand by this statement, though more because I found the message of Vinegar Girl confused rather than ambiguous and its ending downheartening without illuminating on Shakespeare’s ending than because I think the enjoyable teen film is a work of genius. You might enjoy it. I didn’t.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood – There is something endearing about the way that Atwood takes Prospero’s slightly flimsy plot for making his enemies see their bad deeds and turns it into an equally flimsy plot in which Felix tries to show the injustice done to him through a performance done by the inmates he has been teaching The Tempest to. The in-jokes about the existence of Shakespeare’s plays in these modern worlds really reaches its peak, with Shakespeare as a double meta-narrative. Read more in my review here.
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier – New Boy isn’t out until May, but I highly recommend you grab it when it is. Othello is retold in a tense and claustrophobic day in a 1970s Washington schoolyard, as new boy Osei finds himself out of place in the entirely white school. The strange timeline and irrational jealousies of Othello find themselves a good home in this novel, where intensity is heightened because this schoolyard is the world for most of these students. I review it in more detail here.
Why Shakespeare’s Plays Matter: Shakespeare For Freedom by Ewan Fernie
Shakespeare For Freedom is a book – yet another – proclaiming to say why Shakespeare matters, why his plays still matter today. In this case, the lens through which Shakespeare’s relevance is viewed is ‘freedom’, a concept which Fernie opens up to mean personal freedom and freedom of identity. Though the title sounds like a kind of political call, Fernie’s book looks at freedom as more of an affirmation of life than a political or societal concept. Different chapters look at historical examples of the connection between Shakespeare’s works and freedom, examine Romeo and Juliet in light of freedom, and construct critical and historical narratives about Shakespeare, freedom, and identity.
Fernie’s introduction makes the salient point that after numerous cultural celebrations of Shakespeare in the past five years – with the Olympic opening ceremony and different anniversaries – it is important to restate why he matters, particularly to non-academics. He positions the book as coming after Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare in this regard, though Fernie’s book has less of an approachable feel, with a chapter on Hegel’s writing and a general assumption that anyone reading is already sold on Shakespeare mattering a lot. Despite this, Fernie raises interesting points about freedom, including the distinction between freedom to be who you are and freedom to be different, which he then uses to interrogate Romeo and Juliet through the title characters and through Mercutio. His argument that Ganymede in As You Like It should be mourned as a ‘death’ that is a loss of freedom shows this focus on identity and opens up fascinating potential.
Most of the questions raised in Shakespeare For Freedom seem to be answered with ‘freedom’, it being the reason to read Shakespeare and the reason to continue doing Shakespearean criticism. Thankfully a later chapter provides an opposing point, highlighting examples including Lincoln’s assassination and Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare to show that freedom and Shakespeare are not always straightforward. This leads well into the concluding point that we should learn freedom from Shakespeare, not a simple kind of freedom but an ambiguous one.
Fernie emphasises politics and personal identity at different points, suggesting that this Shakespearean idea of freedom is varied and therefore easily adaptable to different situations, as his variety of examples show. Ultimately, these examples are not groundbreaking, but Shakespeare For Freedom provides a varied look at historical events and critical arguments that shape this concept of freedom. Ferne certainly makes the case for Shakespeare’s plays as inviting everyone to look at their own personal and political freedom, though it may feel like a naive concept at times.