I’ve been thinking about the upcoming Hogarth Shakespeare project. The idea was announced a few months ago, but this week, for some reason, I’ve been progressing through a veritable Kübler-Ross model of literary ambivalence.
The series looked like fun at first light. In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Vintage Books would be commissioning popular novelists to write contemporary versions of his plays. Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson were recruited first, to take on The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale respectively. Then earlier this month, Margaret Atwood signed on to do The Tempest, and Howard Jacobson for The Merchant of Venice. This sounded, to me, like a really playful and interesting idea. After all, here we are living in the age of reuse and recycle and mashups everywhere you turn, Remix and Steal Like an Artist and Girl Talk. The work is in the public domain, and it’s certainly iconic enough to survive—and even thrive within—a bit of reworking. Vintage’s author choices so far demonstrate at least a passing interest in not giving us William Shakespeare: Zombie Hunter. And the writers are taking it seriously. As Jeanette Winterson told The Guardian,
Working with it is going to be a tricky gift…. Shakespeare never invented a plot line and worked from what preoccupied him—that is why he goes on being able to become so many things on stage. The Shakespeare purists miss the point about his exuberant ragbag of borrowings thrown into the alchemical furnace of his mind and lifted out transformed. He sums up the creative process, which is not concerned with originality of source but originality of re-making.
Really, I’m all for that. Plus, think of the dinner-table conversations all over the world: Should Hamlet go to Cormac McCarthy and Titus Andronicus to James Frey, or the other way around? Romeo and Juliet to Annie Proulx? Let Haruki Murakami and Isabel Allende arm wrestle for A Midsummer Night’s Dream? And hey, Jonathan Franzen could rewrite Much Ado About Nothing… well OK, maybe not.
The trouble with thinking about something enough, though, is that it’s possible to disillusion yourself before the world ever gets the chance. Or maybe not you, but definitely me. I started poking around all the press releases and turned up things like: “The time is ripe for a dedicated series of stand-alone retellings that will form a covetable library as well as a celebration of Shakespeare for years to come,” which “will be a unique series to delight existing Shakespeare lovers and bring the world’s favorite writer to a new readership, young and old.” And, hey—wait a minute. Are we talking about interpretation or retelling here? Interpretation, through the eyes of an iconoclastic yet respectful group of writers, could be fun and fresh. Retelling, on the other hand, smacks of dumbing down. And don’t we get enough of that in the general culture stream already?
I’m not a sacred cow kind of girl, but I will admit to picking up a copy of Burton Raffel’s translation of The Red and the Black, realizing that it wasn’t, in fact, a parody, and dropping it like I’d been slimed. I’m sorry, but sometimes my inner old fart wins out, and that Stendhal-meets-Zane shit is just depressing. I’m sure that the covers will be far, far better on the Hogarth Shakespeare series, but I do hope that they let the authors flex a little muscle, have a good time with the material, and not just make it smooth and shiny. Smooth and shiny we have enough of already. I really like that Harold Jacobson is so fervent about grappling with Shylock:
Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare probably never met a Jew; the Holocaust had not yet happened, and antisemitism didn’t have a name. Can one tell the same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There’s the challenge. I quake before it.
And I hope he brings some of that zeal to the finished work. I hope that they find some complex writers to—as publishing director Clara Farmer puts it—“step up for the tragedies.” But mostly I hope they don’t screw it up. The world doesn’t really need a set of high-production-value Shakespeare Cliff’s Notes, does it?
Hey, for all I know it does, in which case my judgment call doesn’t help matters any. As the man himself said in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”