Reimagining Shakespeare's Plays ; Publisher's Project Lets Contemporary Writers Update Works into Novels

By Alter, Alexandra | International New York Times, October 8, 2015 | Go to article overview

Reimagining Shakespeare's Plays ; Publisher's Project Lets Contemporary Writers Update Works into Novels


Alter, Alexandra, International New York Times


Publisher's project lets contemporary writers update his works into novels.

A year and a half ago, the novelist Jeanette Winterson got an irresistible offer from a publisher. The assignment: Choose any Shakespeare play she wanted, and adapt it into a novel.

"I said, 'That would be great, put me down for "The Winter's Tale,"' and they looked at me like I was insane," she recalled. "They said, 'Do you really want to do that?' And I said, 'That's the play, no question."'

Ms. Winterson was one of the first writers to sign on for a project conceived by the publisher, Hogarth, which asked contemporary writers to reimagine Shakespeare's plays. She more or less had her pick of the canon and could have chosen "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "King Lear" or "Othello," juicy dramas that were later snapped up by the novelists Gillian Flynn, Jo Nesbo, Edward St. Aubyn and Tracy Chevalier.

But she surprised her publisher and picked "The Winter's Tale," one of Shakespeare's most baffling, jarring and uneven plays.

The opening acts build up to a tragic climax that leaves the king, Leontes, mourning the loss of his wife, son and infant daughter, who is abandoned in the wilderness on his orders. Then, after a memorable stage direction -- "Exit, pursued by a bear" -- and a 16-year gap, the play morphs into a wacky pastoral romp, with a statue that comes to life and one of the most awkward family reunions in literature.

In her adaptation, "The Gap of Time," which was published on Tuesday, Ms. Winterson manages to preserve the play's weirdness and uncomfortable blend of tragedy and humor.

"It is an odd play," said Ms. Winterson, 56. "It's almost as if Shakespeare couldn't be bothered to finish it."

"The Gap of Time" takes the play's themes of love, jealousy and estrangement and spins them into a taut contemporary tale about an insecure London banker who accuses his wife of cheating on him and destroys his marriage and a friendship in the process.

It's a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare's plays into prose. Eight novelists have joined the series, which arrives in time for the 400th anniversary next year of Shakespeare's death.

Ms. Chevalier, author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring," is tackling "Othello." Margaret Atwood has taken on the wild fantasy tale "The Tempest," set in a prison. Ms. Flynn, the author of the best- selling novel "Gone Girl," is adapting "Hamlet" into a novel about murder, betrayal, revenge and madness. Mr. St. Aubyn, who has written about his profoundly dysfunctional family in his best- selling Patrick Melrose series, is recasting "King Lear."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has "The Taming of the Shrew," setting the tale in Baltimore, where a young preschool teacher, Kate, is pressured to marry her father's awkward lab assistant, who faces deportation.

All Hogarth had to do to recruit these writers was drop the name Shakespeare, which apparently is the literary equivalent of catnip.

"It seemed to be a very visceral thing for most of these writers," said Becky Hardie, the deputy publishing director of Chatto & Windus/Hogarth in London. "If you put the greatest storyteller of all time together with some of our greatest storytellers of now, you get this alchemy."

William Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays, and there have been countless adaptations of his dramas over the centuries.

Jane Smiley used the plot architecture and character archetypes from "King Lear" in her novel "A Thousand Acres," and Tom Stoppard took two side characters from "Hamlet" and made them the stars of his existentialist comedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

Shakespeare himself was a notorious mooch who borrowed liberally from other people's plots, raiding Greek tragedies and British history as well as works by his rivals. …

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