You might be reading Shakespeare without knowing it. Hogarth Press commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists to retell and modernize tales from Shakespeare. You can read them as tragedies or comedies without knowing the original plays, but comparing the modern action to a Shakespearean plot lends the story more panache and certainly proves Shakespeare’s universality and timeliness.
If you are not up to rereading the plays in the original verse ( not a bad idea), you could try two other sources for quick background reading. In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb tried to make the Bard more accessible to children by writing their summaries of plots in Tales from Shakespeare for young readers. Their book is available online for free. And in 2004 Tina Packer, the President and Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company, summarized Shakespeare’s plots and characterizations in another book for young readers. Unlike the Lamb book, Packer inserts dialogue from the plays with the effect of giving the reader the pleasure of some of the play’s most memorable lines, and making the original works more approachable and understandable.
Adam Gopnik in his 2016 essay for The New Yorker, says “the authors in the Hogarth series…aren’t so much reimagining the stories as reacting to the plays. They’ve taken on not the tale itself but the twists in the tale that produced the Shakespearean themes we still debate” anti-Semitism, the subjugation of women, art and isolation…if Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies.”
Hogarth’s list includes:
- Howard Jacobson modernizing “The Merchant of Venice” in Shylock is My Name
- Anne Tyler updating “Taming of the Shrew” in Vinegar Girl
- Margaret Atwood doing “Tempest” in Hag Seed
- Jo Nesbo retelling Macbeth.
- Jeanette Winterson has “The Winter’s Tale” set in 2008 London in The Gap of Time
- Tracy Chevalier places “Othello” in a 1970’s schoolyard in New Boy.
- Edward St. Aubyn recreates “King Lear” in Dunbar.
I’ve read two books in the series and enjoyed them both, but maybe because they were based on two of my favorite Shakespearean plays. I’ve included the reviews below – and highly recommend them – an easy way to get a little Shakespeare into your reading.