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Get Me Ye Rewrite!

This week Random House announced a new publishing project to be called the Hogarth Shakespeare. The task involves commissioned versions of Shakespeare’s plays, to be written by contemporary writers. The novels are scheduled to launch in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Fasten your seatbelts, O friends of Will.

As to the details of the Hogarth Shakespeare, the media have recirculated the same few pieces of information. The Random House press release assures us that these prose “retellings” will be written for “the modern reader” (as opposed to, I suppose, Victorian or postmodern readers).

The award-winning authors Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler are the headliners, Ms. Winterson committing herself to a version of The Winter’s Tale, Ms. Tyler to The Taming of the Shrew. The Britain-based team in charge of the project has made it clear it’s looking for more authors, and presumably high-visibility ones, to take on the tragedies.

What are these written objects to be? Random House says they are “retellings,” and Ms. Winterson chooses the hipper word “cover.” (Her line “I love covers versions” is the soft punch at the end of some write-ups on the project.)

There is, of course, much in Shakespeare to tell, and to retell. It is a truth more or less universally acknowledged that only English professors and hardcore Shakespeare devotees know all those plays (quick, what happens in Henry VI Part 2? What’s your favorite speech in Pericles?). And some of the plays have seeped so deeply into our drinking water that it’s tough not to see Lear and Hamlet pretty much everywhere you see autocratic blindness, monster daughters, flirtations with incest, ghostly dads, and indecisive young men.

Shakespeare’s works remain, not to put too fine a point on it, the foundational fantasy of English literature. Foundational because Shakespeare is what we tell ourselves English (literature, culture, language, genius) is, and fantasy for exactly the same reasons. The Restoration playwrights fiddled with the plots (Cordelia’s death is too terrible), and 19th-century composers did the same when they took Shakespeare into the opera house (Hamlet survives). Prose versions have been Shakespeare’s open secret for two hundred years, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare, written for children, to Jane Smiley’s 1991 award-winning version of King Lear in A Thousand Acres.

The Hogarth Shakespeare is up against a lot. If Shakespeare weren’t enough of a revenant, there’s the specter of Virginia Woolf (who knew something about Shakespeare and revenants), the greatest of the writers associated with the Hogarth Press, of which she was co-founder with her husband, Leonard, in the grim year of 1917. Hogarth moved out of the Woolfs’ hands, became part of Chatto, then Crown, and now Random. But I think of Virginia as Hogarth’s old mole, burying her way through the ground and never letting the publishing house forget that she’s watching.

So what twists and turns will the Hogarth Shakespeare bring us? Are we really about to get 30-plus novels out of poor Will? The Hogarth folks haven’t fessed up. The two writers who have signed on will produce something worth attention, and maybe those books will themselves turn into movie adaptations—or a few seasons of Masterpiece Theatre.  That may be inevitable. Many sins, and some acts of grace, have been committed in Shakespeare’s name.

And who can write these books? The Hogarth folks are looking for ideas, though I’m sure not from me. But as we used to say on the playground, “You started it.” So here are some thoughtful suggestions:

  • George R.R. Martin seems an obvious choice to retell most of the history plays, though his fantasies might have to go easy on the ice.
  • Steve Martin’s Comedy of Errors. He could do it.
  • E.L. James’s take on something really steamy. I can’t decide between King John and Timon of Athens.
  • Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Made-to-Measure could get some serious threads on those dreary Viennese.
  • Banana Yoshimoto could up the fun quotient of any of Shakespeare’s downers.
  • Hilary Mantel’s next novel could uncannily set Henry VIII during the reign of Henry VIII.
  •  I’m seeing Stephenie Meyer’s twilit Benedick as all sulky, with sunken cheeks and whatever.
  • David Lodge could clean up The Tempest, which is after all a play about a cranky professor. He’s very good on cranky professors.
  • Lydia Davis, I’m looking at you for Hamlet. Just keep it short.

Maybe the Hogarth Shakespeares will be great, at least some of them. But my maybe is folio-sized. Having worked in publishing, I felt a slight chill at this sentence from the announcement:

“These new versions will be true to the spirit of the original dramas and their popular appeal, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to reinvent these seminal works of English literature.”

Hmm. Yes, well. ‘Tis new, true, original, and exciting to thee.

William Germano is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union. A new edition of his From Dissertation to Boo­k will be published in the fall by the University of Chicago Press. You can follow him on Twitter @WmGermano.

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