Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Guardian article selects ten re-writes of Shakespeare themes, from Huxley to Highsmith


At the Guardian UK, Sally O'Reilly has come up with an intriguing list of books inspired by Shakespeare's works (although, to be fair, "there is nothing new under the sun" -- even to 1950s sci-fi movies inspired by Willy the Shake, as The Tempest-inspired Forbidden Planet proved). 

If the old sun-stroked poet himself could borrow a quote from Ecclesiastes to make his point, others less genius have been free to adapt the Bard. Fiction would be drama's poor relation without nicking Shakespeare's borrowed / stitched together / myth-laden plots taken from antiquity and, in today's parlance, "rebooted" endlessly for contemporary audiences from the 16th century to the 21st.

As O'Reilly notes, rightly from an English-based look at literature, the playwright created archetypes "before anyone knew they existed." While this can be endlessly debated in literary forms from the Greeks onward, it's safe to say that Shakespeare made the groundlings of The Globe (and many since) happy and paying customers to his tales. At this late date re-imagining archetypes are a new parlor trick in much fiction, but the old jealousies and madness and revenge still make entertaining reading. 

So what does O'Reilly recommend as a Shakespeare-inspired top-ten list? Her article in the Guardian UK gives the full list, but here are five, with O'Reilly's notes, as an excerpt. 
Moby Dick [MacBeth/King Lear]: Mellville's Great American Novel draws on both Biblical and Shakespearean myths. Captain Ahab is "a grand, ungodly, god-like man … above the common" whose pursuit of the great white whale is a fable about obsession and over-reaching. Just as Macbeth and Lear subvert the natural order of things, Ahab takes on Nature in his determination to kill his prey – and his hubristic quest is doomed from the start.

Brave New World [The Tempest]: Huxley makes numerous references to the work of Shakespeare in this dystopian novel, and the title is taken from The Tempest: "O brave new world, / That has such people in 't!" Like Caliban, John "the Savage" is an outcast, despised for his appearance, and Huxley is exploring ideas about the power of art and the nature of humanity as Shakespeare does in his haunting and, possibly, final play.

The Dogs of War [Julius Caesar]: Frederick Forsyth references Julius Ceasar in the title of his novel about mercenaries fighting in a fictional African republic: "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war." Shakespeare's exploration of violence and treachery has inspired numerous contemporary writers. The themes also reflect those in this brutal play: the story shows these ruthless men operate by their own code, consistent but merciless, and difficult for outsiders to understand.

A Thousand Acres [King Lear]: Jane Smiley retells the story of King Lear in modern-day Iowa in her Pulitzer-prizewinning novel. The novel is set on a thousand-acre farm which is owned by a father and his three daughters, and told from the point of view of the oldest, Ginny. Instead of dismissing the two older daughters as wicked and grasping, as Shakespeare does, in her novel Smiley explores the family secrets that underpin the drama, and shows the significance of the land itself.

The Talented Mr. Ripley [Macbeth]: Like Macbeth, Ripley wants what someone else has got. And just as Macbeth murders Duncan, Ripley bumps off golden boy Dickie Greenleaf, seeking to take his place. Then the body count rises as Ripley attempts to secure his position. This isn't a direct retelling, but the parallels in Patricia Highsmith's novel are clear: Macbeth is accused of taking on "borrowed robes" and Ripley literally steals Dickie's clothes and identity. For me, the main difference between the Scottish king and the young American is that Ripley is a proper psychopath – he doesn't feel remorse.

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