Monday 11 January 2016

Recycling Shakespeare

Hogarth Press has commissioned a series of ‘retellings’ of Shakespeare plays. First to appear is Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale.

It’s one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. His mastery allows him to get away with plot developments that would seem absurd in other hands. On the flimsiest evidence, Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is suddenly infected with such intense sexual jealousy that no one can prevent him from destroying his marriage, wrecking a life-long friendship with the King of Bohemia, and tearing his family apart. The progress towards disaster, which would have been enough for an entire play earlier in Shakespeare’s career, is packed into the first half, and we are brought at breakneck speed to a calamitous low point in time for the interval. When the second half begins, sixteen years have passed, and the son and daughter of the two estranged kings are now sufficiently grown up to engineer a reconciliation, which Shakespeare completes with some audacious stage magic.

In The Gap of Time, Winterson relocates the story to a world loosely recognisable as the present, where people use technology and make their money by running hedge funds and designing online games. She’s a hugely inventive writer, and part of the fun of this novel is seeing how she finds contemporary equivalents for the various characters and narrative developments.

The problems spring partly from the shift from drama to prose narrative. Her version, already lacking the dramatic immediacy of Shakespeare’s, necessarily requires more backstory and more elaborate narrative mechanisms. The cause of Leontes’ jealousy is, for Shakespeare, as inexplicable as love itself. The novel form, however, seems to demand a psychological explanation. The process by which the disputed child is abandoned in Bohemia, startlingly simple in the original, becomes cluttered with practicalities and still remains barely credible. Winterson’s writing is never dull and is at times beautifully lyrical, but its cleverness tends to hold the reader at a distance.

It makes me wonder what these retellings are for. As a publishing project I can see the appeal in matching up successful novelists with familiar plays. But loving a play, as Winterson clearly loves The Winter’s Tale, is an odd reason to rework it. Perhaps the strength of the series will reveal itself when the motives are more complicated. Coming next is Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice. Jacobson is quoted in the press release as saying that "For an English novelist Shakespeare is where it all begins. For an English novelist who also happens to be Jewish, The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up.” There is a conflict to be resolved here, perhaps even a score to be settled. This seems like a more promising starting point.

Next up is Anne Tyler’s take on The Taming of the Shrew, a play that cries out to be rewritten. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary stage production not making some radical attempt to subvert its central meaning. I’m curious to see what Tyler makes of it.

This piece has appeared previously in The Bangladesh Daily Star