Shakespeare Continually Retold

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.

Vinegar Girl, Vinegar Taste


The problem with writing a modern American-set version of The Taming of the Shrew is that 10 Things I Hate About You exists. For anyone, myself included, who grew up with that film, with its lightly sprinkled references and liberally changed plot, it is perhaps difficult to read another version without comparing. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is another book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which I am broadly for (loved The Gap of Time, medium on Shylock Is My Name because I didn’t get along with the writing style). It moves The Taming of the Shrew to America, makes Kate’s father a scientist trying to arrange a marriage in order to keep his beloved research assistant in the country.

Although relevant to the source material, I didn’t feel Kate had enough character. Her sense of wasting her life thus far was apparent, but her textbook vague crush on the one guy in her workplace was pointless. Her eventual husband Pyotr was ambivalently dealt with, a guy trying to get on in a foreign country but also prone to fits of anger. Kate’s younger sister Bunny was the character I found most engaging: warning her sister off the scheme, rebelling against her dad, and constantly referred to as stupid by the other characters. Obviously, she has intelligence they don’t understand, as blunt and logical scientific thought comes up against other ways of thinking.

Kate’s choices weren’t totally nonsensical. She wanted to first help her father, who she mostly looked after, and then get out of his house to try and start a fresh chapter in her life. To follow the play, she has to commit to the wedding even when the need to keep Pyotr in the country is under threat, but it was hard not to root for her to just up and leave, both the wedding and her father’s house. The required ending speech was a bit forced and something that men’s rights’ activists might appreciate: her pity for the difficulties men faced seemed a bit too apparent in other points in the novel, as she realised how much they had to hold in their feelings, for the speech to seem particularly ironic.

Vinegar Girl was, for me, close to the original but without doing anything particularly interesting when updating it. The ending, whilst it gave Kate the freedom and second chance at college that she wanted, left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Going back to college and achieving success required her to marry a guy with anger management issues. Sure, things can be tough for men too, but what Vinegar Girl suggested was that women should bend to them because of this. And there was no Letters to Cleo playing ‘I Want You To Want Me’ at the end, either.