We know what we are, but not what we may be*

Me and the Bard have enjoyed a close relationship over the years, not always out of choice on my part. A traditional grammar school education put Shakespeare at the heart of the English curriculum and as preparation for S level (Special? Scholarship? Stupefyingly Senseless?) I read his complete works. Hamlet has always featured heavily: I did’ it at A level, then for one of my Finals papers. I’ve seen countless productions of The Danish Prince ( the most memorable, for all the wrong reasons, being a three man version with badly fitting wigs and codpieces ) and wouldn’t go to another even if Swoony Clooney was strutting his stuff on the ramparts. Well, perhaps I would…

There followed years of teaching the plays: from old GCSE favourites like Macbeth ( blood and gore guaranteed to get the little blighters interested ) to the occasional obscure A level choice of Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus. Don’t get me wrong, apart from most of the histories ( yawn ), Will is obviously the top man and it wasn’t until I was comfortably into middle age and able to forget about having to know what the plays ‘mean’ that I really got, with heart as well as head, the whole Shakespeare thing. I’ve always enjoyed some screen adaptations ( think Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Branagh’s Much Ado, Zeferelli’s Taming of the Shrew) but when I discovered that two of my favourite authors – Ann Tyler and Margaret Atwood – were writing novels based on, respectively, Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest I was, like, Come what sorrow can, it cannot countervail the exchange of joy ( Romeo and Juliet. Showing off. )

Although nothing that Tyler writes is ever less than entertaining, Vinegar Girl disappointed in the sense of feeling like an exercise in adaptation rather than something with its own integrity. There’s huge skill in how the Shakespearian plot is rendered: Kate Battista lives with her ageing father who’s an academic claiming to be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. The latter can only happen with the help of Pyotr, his assistant, whose work visa is about to expire, and marriage to the resolutely single Kate would resolve matters. The novel is fun and very readable but for me it was like when you try to paint over something and what remains underneath is still visible when you hold it up to the light.

On the other hand, Hag- Seed, Atwood’s novel, is an amazing multi layered take on the Shakespearian tale. Felix is ousted from his job as big shot theatre director on the eve of his production of The Tempest. In time he gets a job as a teacher in a prison and there he puts on a version of the same play as part of his revenge. He takes the role of the magician Prospero in the play and he is Prospero-like in real life as he proceeds to conjure up the ‘magic’ of the production. His daughter, Miranda, is dead in actuality but alive in the play. The novel is playful, clever, funny and sometimes poignant, its source becoming its essence.

Both books form part of a series of adaptations to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death ( Penguin did the same recently with Jane Austen ). “The world’s favourite playwright. Today’s best-loved novelists. Timeless stories retold” proclaims the publicity tag line. The marketing ploy is shameless but at least worth a giggle ( imagine it read in the deep, sonorous tones of the American guy who does all the move voiceovers ) Incidentally, for humour I’d also recommend the BBC’s 60 second Shakespeares such as the tabloid take on The TempestI’m a Magician, Get me out of here!’ And don’t get me started on the ‘jokes’ ( Pencils puzzled Shakespeare – 2B or not 2B…) because ‘With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come’ ( Merchant of Venice. Sorry, done now )

* Yes, it’s good old Hamlet.

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