Why Rewrite Shakespeare?

The New Yorker

The revived Hogarth Press, in London, with ambition and audacity and what must also be a very large fund for advances, has commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists that retell tales from Shakespeare. The novelists include Howard Jacobson, who has done “The Merchant of Venice” (as “Shylock Is My Name”); Anne Tyler, who’s done “The Taming of the Shrew” (as “Vinegar Girl”); and now Margaret Atwood, doing “The Tempest” (as “Hag-Seed”). Retelling Shakespeare’s stories, albeit in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, seems an odd enterprise at first, given that Shakespeare grabbed his stories more or less at random from Holinshed’s history of Britain and Plutarch and old collections of Italian ribald tales. As the “ordinary poet” of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. “What have you got for us this month, Will?” the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he’d say, “I thought I’d do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest.” “Italy again? All right. End of the month then?” These were not the slow-cooked stories and intricately intertextual fables of the modern art novel.

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