This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
“The massive black hole in our understanding of the creatures with whom we share the planet, as vast and compelling a mystery as the universe, is intolerable, not just because we can’t talk to the animals, but because it reminds us of how we can’t really know any other consciousness, not even those of our species…It reminds us that each of us is inescapably alone inside our heads.” — Jenny Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale University Press, 2010)
My dog and I understand each other well. We’ve been together 11 years, longer than a lot of couples I know. But although I am not under any illusions that when I speak to her she’s going to answer, there was a time in my life when you could easily have convinced me otherwise.
As an American child living in Israel during my formative years, I hated the guttural sounds of Hebrew and refused to learn it. It was the late-’60s; no one insisted that language immersion was good for children. Instead, my parents enrolled me in the best English-speaking preschool in Tel Aviv — an Anglican school — and supplied me with a steady stream of books and comics from England, which I consumed one after the other.
Much in the same way that Konrad Lorenz imprinted himself on his gaggles of baby geese, my first reading experiences stamped on me, for most of my childhood, a fervent love of animals and the accompanying wish to communicate with them; and, in my earliest years, I suspect I thought I could. In those days, British children’s literature overflowed with wonderful talking beasts: Beatrix Potter, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Tove Jansson’s The Moomins series, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Thrown into parochial school with no prior religious instruction, I sorted out my own theistic system in a way that made perfect sense: God, in my four-year-old mind, was a benevolent, gray-muzzled German shepherd.
We returned to the States as I started first grade, and I went on to discover American animal books. But something was missing. Books like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books, Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty told of good mute beasts, loyal and ready to serve their human companions, but I wanted communion. I wanted my animals to talk back.
Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, the tradition of articulate fictional animals is rooted in a deep national nostalgia for the Greenwood, the archetypal forest of British lore. The kings of old hunted enchanted stags in the Greenwood; Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest was a version, and the Arden Forest where As You Like It takes place. And the Greenwood is home to the mythical Green Man — a mysterious and leafy being who stood for fertility, nature, and magic.
For all the American mythos of celebrating nature and the song of the Plains, animals have always been more a source of food or cheap labor than conversation here. The English got their animals right, as far as I was concerned, and I kept that ideal close to my heart.
As the son of a British father and American mother, Bill Broun, author of Night of the Animals, did not encounter a particularly high level of Anglo-American cultural conflict growing up in Ohio. His mother liked popular American novels and knew her classics, he recalls, and his father read the Akron Beacon Journal and listened to the BBC World Service on his shortwave. “I’m very much [an American] child of the late-’70s and early-’80s,” he explains. “My literature was Weird War Tales and Sgt. Rock comics and a set of World Book encyclopedias.”
But a family trip back to England, he says, changed his life. “I met all my English relatives,” Broun recalls. “I saw my granddaddy’s pauper’s grave, at a little country church in Worcestershire. It disturbed the fuck out of me. It was a mound. No headstone…I saw my first Aston Villa soccer match, saw London, saw Scotland, and came back to Ohio obsessed with my ties to England.”
Broun attended University College London and Miami University in Ohio, eventually earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. In 2002, the year he began writing Night of the Animals, Broun was a resident fellow at Yale University; he has worked as an editor, reviewer, and journalist, and is currently associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University, Penn.
But while the novel — a tale of one man’s odyssey to free the animals in the London Zoo — was written on these shores, “The plain fact is,” Broun says, “I barely thought of Americans.” Night of the Animals, which was published by the U.S. imprint Ecco in July, is set very firmly in a future England and informed by British folk tales, religion, politics, identity, and even vernacular — as well as a dark dystopian vision, black humor, and some beautiful, pyrotechnic writing. “I consider it a British novel through and through,” he says. “Although ambitious in a way that’s not quite like a lot of British lit today.”
It reflects Broun’s identification with his family’s working class background too; his father, a machinist, left school at 14 to support his family. “I wanted to tell a huge, authentic English story,” Broun adds, “and accurately portray a vanished and vanishing world and a class of people today who often don’t make it into the British literary scene.”
The night in question takes place in 2052. England is no longer part of the European Union (which, keep in mind, wasn’t even a gleam in Parliament’s eye in 2002 when Broun began writing the book). The country, ruled by the oligarch Henry IX — Harry9, familiarly — has reverted to a pre-Victorian divide between the new aristocrats and the massive underclass known as Indigents after a series of social reforms in the 2020s. The remains of the working class have given up their right to vote in return for dormitory housing, basic meals, jobs on government soybean farms.
Broun’s protagonist, Cuthbert Handley, is one of Britain’s many have-nots. At 90 — 2052’s new 70 or so, thanks to synthetic body part replacement — he is homeless, ill, overweight, addicted to the legal drug Flôt, and deeply disturbed by the disappearance of his older brother Drystan when they were children. He is also gripped by the belief that the animals in the zoo are talking to him, begging him to set them free.
He has a point. Earth’s animal population is dwindling, and as the last repository of “whole” animals, rather than genomic clones, the London Zoo has become the target for the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, which is readying itself to die as a massive comet nears the Earth’s orbit. The cultists are killing off the world’s animals so that the accompanying aliens will make no mistake as to whose souls to occupy. The zoo is simultaneously “an ark, and a death row prison.” Cuthbert intends to liberate its inmates — and, perhaps, find his long-lost brother.
It’s immediately clear that Cuthbert, blundering through the Zoo’s underbrush late at night with a pair of bolt-cutters and a maintenance dose of Flôt, is not in his right mind. Yet at the same time, he may or may not have inherited what his old-country gran called the Wonderments — special old-time powers, passed down through every other generation, which include the ability to understand animals.
The animal language has been dying out for some time, she tells young Cuthbert and Drystan during a family visit to the countryside:
“My grandfather used to say that when the animals go quate [quiet], it means Jack in the Green’s right ‘round the corner…The Green Man. The Lush One. Robin Goodfellow. Puck. The Christ of Otters.”
“Otters? I don’t like otters. I like tigers. Can’t we have tigers?” asked Drystan.
But when the boys venture deep into the woods that afternoon and tumble into a deep brook, it’s an otter six-year-old Cuthbert sees — or thinks he sees — as Drystan disappears beneath the water and Cuthbert himself nearly drowns: “a fluid face, a being of brown and white and green wearing a momentary smile, then anger, a pale hand — or a paw? — reaching toward him, desperately.”
And it’s otters that haunt Cuthbert through the rest of his life, as he becomes less and less functional in the grip of his loss and grief and further in the thrall of his animal visions and his conviction that Drystan is not dead — that someday they will be reunited, and, of all the world’s creatures, it’s otters that hold the key.
Trying to work up the nerve to kill himself became compulsive; he would also try, when he remembered, to ‘beg forgiveness’ from a Christ of Otters. He forced himself to picture this robed messiah of all murdered animals, a gimlet-eyed and long-whiskered Jesus with a long pearly claw on each soft finger.
From his beginnings as a bright and promising young lad, Cuthbert evolves, eventually, into a crazy old man who talks to animals. “Words did not pass through snout, proboscis, or mandible. But nonetheless, the animals asserted themselves toward him. They sent messages, some limpid, some inscrutable, but all appreciable.”
Broun doesn’t see himself as an “animal person” in the traditional sense. “My feelings about animals fluctuate always,” he says, “and my relationship with them has always been kind of convoluted. There’s part of me, a brutal, on-the-farm side, I suppose, that can’t stand when people fetishize animals over people.”
What resonates for him where animals are concerned, Broun explains, is their place in the universe: “I do adore their beauty and spirits. To me, animals are part of God’s creation, and they’re magical — but so are trees and clouds and shooting stars.”
Yet Broun’s language reveals a deep respect for, and attention to, the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Cuthbert communes with penguins, lions, psychotic chimpanzees, all wonderfully rendered in Broun’s bestiary: a buck’s “great rack spread like a huge bone map of anger.” The zoo’s jackals are “all tangible dog-pieces darting about a sparse pen like small rages on legs.” A mournful gorilla ends up “knucklewalking down the middle of Baker Street, throwing forward his furry black arms, as big and strong as mastiffs.”
Along with its celebration of our fellow inhabitants of the earth, Night of the Animals unashamedly holds up faith as a necessary condition for survival — a character’s belief in being able to converse with animals, and an author’s faith in a weird and wonderful vision. Broun twice rewrote the book almost completely during its 14-year gestation: “I felt like I was being tested or punished or doing penance or something…I felt like God was on my back, with one foot on my neck, making me work.”
Cuthbert admits that driving his mission is a fierce desire for redemption. He has not always placed the well-being of animals above his own, he admits to Muezza, the wonderfully Machiavellian little sand cat who befriends (and converses at great length with) him, but was cruel and callous to beasts, small children, and old men in his youth.
It has destroyed my soul, and damned me to alcoholism, then to Flôtism. I thought that by letting the jackals out and whatnot, and then you too, it might help.
Recovery often calls on belief in a power greater than oneself. Cuthbert’s higher power, of course, is a zoo full of animals. In particular, the Jesus of the Otters has become inextricably bound up in his disordered mind with Drystan’s disappearance and, he is convinced, eventual resurrection.
Given Cuthbert’s own imprinting, his odd theology makes sense (certainly to a reader whose personal deity was once a German shepherd). And if ever there was a man in need of a higher power, Cuthbert is it. His drug of choice, the legal and intensely addictive Flôt, is another royally sanctioned form of crowd control in 2052:
When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release. It took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria.
One of Flôt’s most devious properties is that anyone who successfully manages to kick the drug will experience a second withdrawal some 10 years later that is nearly impossible to withstand. Notes Broun, who has 25 years of recovery under his own belt, “I wanted partly to portray the recovery process itself as something that remains precarious and miraculous over the long haul…Whenever I hear about a great recovery story, my instant thought is, great, but come see me in 10 years.”
Night of the Animals is a tale of recovery and redemption, though not the kind we’re used to. In the end, Cuthbert’s mission creates more havoc than liberty. Few of the animals are better off than before. But he does, in fact, free the otters:
[T]he entire romp of the London Zoo’s small species of otter appeared and leaped down through the gap, pouring out in one quivering, shiny river-bottom-colored whoosh. It was as though they were, together, the last and most precious thing in England to be emptied from it, a half-water and half-earth being made of golden-brown jewels and smelling of stolen foreign flowers.
A young police officer named Astrid Sullivan — a recovering Flôt addict who is working a Flôter’s Anonymous program and actively battling her demons — answers the call to investigate a disturbance at the zoo and falls in with Cuthbert despite her misgivings. The two become an unexpected team. And for a moment, as the long night ends, the spirit of the Greenwood makes an appearance, transforming Astrid, briefly:
It resembled Astrid, but it was larger, untamed, like a wild, long-limbed yew tree spotted with tiny red berries. Astrid’s long black hair seemed to have turned a golden green, and floated in the air…sparking little fires from which baby kestrels and whipping adders and speeding tiny stoats burst forth.
(“I did wonder occasionally if Americans would get the Green Man stuff,” notes Broun, “but I wasn’t writing for Americans, and when I started to see how widespread Green Man was — what with the figure of Al-Khidr in Islam, for instance — I started to see that it was truly, in a Jungian sense, archetypal.”)
Is Cuthbert’s night of the animals an archetypal fable? A hallucination? A miracle? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and this may be Broun’s point. What is important is that Cuthbert has made connections — with his beloved animals, and with Astrid, as a true friend — something Cuthbert has lacked all this time.
For it doesn’t matter so much where you place your faith, but that you place it at all: in God, in the person standing next to you, or the dog at your feet. What I loved best about the British books I read as a child was how close to the surface of everyday life the mysticism lurked. In the absence of any other belief system, that was more than enough. In the absence of anything Cuthbert might have to hope for in his world, he can talk to the animals. And — because Broun has given us a thoroughly British novel — they can talk to him.
The teacher sits on the edge of his desk, slouching jauntily, maybe with one foot perched on a chair. He’s wearing khakis and a tweed jacket. His tawny hair sweeps back from his forehead. He is One of Us but also so, so much wiser.
“Today,” he announces, “we’re starting a unit on Shakespeare.” The class groans. “Hear me out,” Teacher Dude says. “Shakespeare was a man of the people,” he says. “He’s writing for and about young people just like you.”
Think Daryl Mitchell’s Mr. Morgan rapping Sonnet 141 to Julia Stiles’s delight in 10 Things I Hate About You. Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed, drawing parallels between Rosalind in As You Like It and Drew Barrymore’s Josie. Look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s substitute teacher sketch in a recent Saturday Night Live to see the cliché get called out for what it is.
The students in this stereotypical story, of course, will be writing or acting out some scenes from the chosen play, and, inevitably, our young protagonists will learn something about themselves over the course of the assignment.
If this ubiquitous Hollywood English-class scene teaches us anything, it may be an illustration of just how much the plays of Shakespeare — not to mention talking about Shakespeare, making comparisons to Shakespeare, re-examining Shakespeare in another light — has become so ingrained in our folklore. The Bard appears so often in either the foreground or background of our narratives that we hardly notice anymore.
Part of that storied tradition, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project pairs eight well-known authors with one of the plays. The latest entry, Margaret Atwood’s fun, quirky Tempest adaptation, Hag-Seed, toys with this foregrounding and backgrounding, as well as taking on the literal, figurative, critical, and sociological aspects of the story. Rather than The Tempest Retold it might be more aptly subtitled The Tempest: Engaged.
Set in present-day Ontario, Hag-Seed takes some key motifs from the play — theatre as magic, the island as a prison — and literalizes them, even while acknowledging and pondering the metaphors.
Our protagonist, Felix Phillips, is a theatre director known for his avant-garde takes on Shakespearean classics. Soon after the sudden death of his four-year-old daughter, Miranda, Felix sets out to mount a fantastical version of The Tempest starring himself as Prospero, robed in a cloak made from stuffed animals and wielding a fox-headed walking stick as his wizard’s staff. But before the show opens he is unceremoniously fired by his erstwhile business partner, Tony.
Felix exists in self-imposed exile until he gets a new job, teaching English at a local prison. Going by the pseudonym “Mr. Duke,” he directs the inmates in a different play each spring, teaching them skills like costume design and video editing as well as improving their often woeful literacy rates.
When Felix gets word that Tony and a politician, Sal O’Nally, are coming to the prison to see his latest play, he seizes the chance to stage his long-lost production as well as get revenge for his ousting. Tony and Sal will become prisoners of Felix’s enchantments, even while the inmate-cast is performing the very same story on the prison’s closed-circuit TVs.
From the beginning, the parallels to the original are obvious and noted. Felix, in his role as Artistic Director, is “the cloud-riding enchanter.” Tony is undoubtedly the villainous Antonio who usurps Prospero’s throne and sends him away in a leaky boat. That Felix’s daughter was named Miranda is entirely conscious: “What else would he have named a motherless baby girl with a middle-aged doting father?”
The first book in the Hogarth series, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, has a quality of predestination about it. The characters have to follow a path laid out for them hundreds of years ago. Atwood hangs a lampshade on this idea in Hag-Seed. Felix leans into his role as Prospero, literally and figuratively. He lets slip that he’s in on the joke…and barrels ahead with his plot-reenactment anyway.
As Mr. Duke, Felix pitches the plays to his students as stories they can relate to: betrayal, murder, revenge, and comeuppance. He sells The Tempest along those lines, and Atwood follows the same tack, focusing on the character of Prospero and his revenge plot rather than on the story’s fantastical elements. But revenge hardly makes The Tempest unique in the Shakespeare canon. As a reader, I found myself hoping for more of the spirits and magicians and mysterious islands. Perhaps Atwood dismissed such approaches as too obvious.
Instead, we get the sociological angle of teaching Shakespeare in prison, in the context of a play about prisoners. As a metafictional conceit, it’s clever. As a real-world endeavor, it’s admirable. But as drama, it fails to completely connect. Perhaps it’s because none of the numerous characters get as much attention as Felix, and thus are largely reduced to their one or two recognizable characteristics. We don’t get to know them as people. At one point, Tony actually utters the uber-villain line, “You’ll pay for this!”
The title Hag-Seed comes from Felix’s class rule that the students can only swear if they use a word or phrase from the play itself. This results in chapters of playful dialogue full of “poxy” this and “whoreson” that. Perhaps a fun idea in a real-life Shakespeare class, here it comes off a bit gimmicky.
“Hag-Seed,” the term itself, refers to Caliban, the lone native inhabitant of the island, Prospero’s slave. He is the character the inmates relate to most, but for a book named after him, he is left oddly obscured. Neither the idea of Caliban, with all its ripe postcolonial and racial implications, nor the character himself have much impact on Atwood’s story.
The book is fun and readable. There are some delicious turns of phrase — “He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled” — but it doesn’t necessarily draw new conclusions about its source material. Rather it suggests angles you might not have considered since freshman-year World Lit. Did you know The Tempest used to be performed as an opera? How many different prisons can you find in the text? At times the book feels more like a thought experiment than an immersive novel.
Thanks to its taking place in an actual English class, Hag-Seed becomes the latest entry in that parade of pop-culture English classes with surprisingly literal correlations between the characters’ lives and their reading material. The difference here is that the character whose story most closely aligns with the play is the teacher himself. Felix achieves what he set out to do and learns something about himself along the way. By the time he’s ended his revels, he is free from the thing that was holding him prisoner.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons