In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “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 timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
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.