By Dennis Abrams
Earlier this year we looked at the announcement of Hogarth Press’s ambitious new project: The Hogarth Shakespeare, which asks leading novelists to create new versions of Shakespeare’s plays, “re-imagined” for a contemporary audience.
Since for the last two years, I’ve been moderating Publishing Perspectives’ online reading of the complete plays of William Shakespeare (along with some of the sonnets), The Play’s The Thing, it’s a project I find particularly intriguing. And while Hogarth’s earlier announcement that Anne Tyler would be writing a novel based on The Taming of the Shrew and Jeanette Winterson would be writing one on based on The Winter’s Tale was more enough to pique my interest, the latest additions to the roster just add to my growing hopes for the series.
Booker Prize winning novelist Margaret Atwood will write a novel based on The Tempest, which is exciting enough to think about on its own. But add to that the announcement that Howard Jacobson, known for his novels that examine the question Jewish identity in Britain, and whose 2010 title The Finkler Question won him the Man Booker Prize, will be writing a novel based on The Merchant of Venice, whose character Shylock (“Hath not a Jew eyes?…If you prick us, do we not bleed?”) has been a source of controversy (to put it mildly) for several hundred years.
In a statement, Jacobson said:
“The idea of going near Shakespeare… you have got to be mad to think of going near it, let along trying to write a rival version.
“I think it’s an enormously risky thing to do. Vainglorious, even. If a friend of mine told me they were doing it, I’d say ‘who the bloody hell do you think you are?’”
Even so, the 71-year-old author acknowledged that he was “thrilled to get a challenge like this” at his “time of life,” and promised to view the project as a “director,” re-interpreting the original material for a modern audience.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “And it’s a very particular challenge for a Jewish author.
“For an English novelist Shakespeare is where it all begins. For an English novelist who also happens to be Jewish The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up.
“‘Who is the merchant and who is the Jew?’ Portia wanted to know. Four hundred years later, the question needs to be reframed: ‘Who is the hero of this play and who is the villain?’
“And if Shylock is the villain, why did Shakespeare choose to make him so?”
Jacobson isn’t the only author commissioned by Hogarth who is troubled by the work they’ve chosen to reinterpret. Anne Tyler told the told the Los Angeles Times that she agreed to take on The Taming of the Shrew, at least in part, because the play had always troubled her. “I have no favorite moments in this play,” Tyler admitted. “I first read it in college and disliked it intensely, and I can’t say my attitude toward it softened any when I read it again just recently.”
Fortunately for Atwood, she said in a statement that The Tempest had always been one of her favorites, and that working on it will be “an invigorating challenge. Is Caliban the first talking monster? Not quite, but close…”
The Hogarth Shakespeare is set to launch in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.