Tales from Shakespeare

Using existing works as a starting point to create new ones is hardly new. The new work created could be great works in their own right, or they could be mediocre, or they could be poor. It doesn’t matter, as the original works, which are themselves often re-workings of then existing materials, are hardly likely to be replaced.  So when Random House announced recently that they will be commissioning various writers to produce retellings, reworkings, updatings, cover versions (they seemingly couldn’t make up their mind which term to use) of every play in the Shakespeare canon, I couldn’t really see much to get too excited about. Whether this project can create anything even remotely of the stature of Verdi’s Otello or Kurasawa’s Ran remains to be seen, but let’s not pre-judge: even if it doesn’t climb to such heights, there may well be a few worthwhile books coming out of all this. As long, that is, as the writers take Shakespeare’s plays as starting points to express their own artistic vision, and not merely try to dress it up a bit to make it “relevant”.

Sadly, though, I fear this is precisely the course this project will take. Random House’s press release speaks of bringing Shakespeare “alive for a contemporary readership”. Oh dear. That doesn’t bode well at all, does it? The implication that Shakespeare is dead to the “contemporary readership” doesn’t, I’m afraid, bespeak either much confidence in or much respect for this seemingly monolithic “contemporary readership”.

All the usual noises are being made, including the obligatory kicking for that mythical creature the “Shakespeare Purist” (“The Shakespeare purists miss the point about…”) No doubt that “contemporary readership” that needs Shakespeare brought “alive” won’t be missing this point at all – whatever this point is, I forget. Ha! Stick that in your pipe, Mr Shakespeare Purist!

We’ll just have to wait and see what the outcome is. Either way, there’ll be no harm done.

16 responses to this post.

  1. I appreciate your reference to works like “Ran” as reminder that works adopted from Shakespeare can reach great artistic heights.

    I agree however that this article indicates that the result of this project have enormous potential to achieve truly horrifying results.


    • Oh, I don’t know that the results will be that “horrifying”! At worst, they will be forgettable – but most books are. But there is apotential, if approached correctly, to make something good out of this.


  2. I have a friend, about to retire as English and drama teacher at Housman’s alma mater in Bromsgrove, who puts her love of Shakey and plays in general down to having the Lambs’ “Tales from Shakespeare” read to her at an early age. I had a look at them myself and found them painfully twee and patronising; but it did get me thinking that a version for our times (not ‘relevant’ as such, just using more uptodate English and being a bit bolder about the stronger content) might be well worth having.

    Perhaps this project will move towards that.

    One of Lucy’s interesting courses at King’s College That London was ‘Appropriating Shakespeare’, pointing out for instance the parodies of Lear’s daughters reducing his retinue in both Angus Wilson and “Sense and Sensibility”. Just as Will found new directions for his source material, it may be interesting to see what other writers come up with. The Beeb’s Canterbury Tales retellings some years ago were hit-and-miss but always thought-provoking.


    • I thought Leon Garfield did quite a good job with his “Shakespeare Stories”. I doubt the Lambs’ versions are much use to children now, as the language of the Lambs is as strange to children now as is Shakespeare’s language that the Lambs had intended to elucidate.

      (Goodness! – what a terrible sentence! But it’s late at night now, and I can’t be bothered to rewrite it.)

      Strangely enough, I’m reading Sense and Sensibility now, and had little difficulty identifying the parody of King Lear. (It may well have been you who had told me about it.) I’m coming more to grips with Austen these days.


  3. Such projects as this miss the point that what makes Shakespeare great is the language – the way he tells the stories (since with the exception of a handful of his plays, he is almost invariably reworking existing source material). I must say I did enjoy Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, but that belongs to a different age and even then it sent me back to the original plays in the end.


    • I remember having the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare when I was a lad, but I never quite took to it. I preferred swashbucklers and adventure stories – Treasure Island, The Prisoner of Zenda, King Solomon’s Mines – that sort of thing. The more recent retellings of these stories by Leon Garfield, however, I thought were very well done.

      What started me off as a Shakespeare nut was seeing King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival when I was 11. Obviously, I couldn’t have taken it all in at that age (and, indeed, still can’t!) but what I did take in so excited me that I remember not being able to get to sleep that night.

      The language is the key, as you say, theree’s a tremendous artistic vision in ther, and it’s the language that communicates that vision.






    • Hello Aquileana, and welcome.

      I actually have nothing against basing new works on Shakespeare’s plays. There have been some fine works based on these plays, and even a few masterpieces. I think that the point is that one should try to create new works, and express one’s own artistic vision.

      The BBC Shakespeare from the late 70s and early 80s was patchy, but at its best was very good indeed. I am less charmed, I must admit, with the recent Hollow Crown series. However, I am a great admirer of the BBC radio productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

      I was disappointed also by Shakespeare in Love. Given it boasted a script by Tom Stoppard, I was expecting something far wittier, and far more sparkling.

      All the best for now,


  5. When I read that article in The Guardian this morning, I immediately thought of you.

    It sounds like an interesting reverse engineering project. Where Shakespeare took mediocre works and transformed them into masterpieces, these writers will endeavour to take Shakespeare’s masterpieces and re-model back to their former mediocrity.

    I’m very excited about this.


    • Ha ha! So that’s what “deconstruction” means? I’ve always wondered!

      Well … Who knows? Great works have been produced based on Shakespeare. Verdi’s Otello is certainly a great opera, and Kurasawa’s Ran certainly a great film. Maybe this project could result in a great novel? Or even, perhaps, just a good novel? No?

      No, I’m not holding my breath either…


  6. Reblogged this on ilovetheatre and commented:
    Remodelling and reworking Shakespeare is an inevitable part of theatre productions; it will be interesting to see what comes of this Random House project.


  7. This will be rich, coming from a guy whose debut novel was a riff on “Hamlet,” but when I saw the article about the “Hogarth Shakespeare” I shuddered with anticipatory dread.

    But there’s lots of fun to be had with the plays, and Shakespeare himself plundered from everything he could get his hands on. No amount of bad reinvention of his plays will harm him in the slightest, so despite my initial shuddering, let’s see what happens, eh?


    • Absolutely – the originals are there, and will remain unscathed. And it certainly *is* possible that a few worthwhile books could come out of all this.

      These plays – at least, the best-known ones – have become such integral parts of our culture, of our mental furniture, as it were, that they now possess very powerful resonances. What will be interesting to see is whether the writers in this project could make use of these resonances in a creative way. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye on this, although I could have done without the obligatory nonsense of “bringing the plays alive” etc.


  8. And now we have a Shakespearean version of Star Wars!
    Unusual to see a popular piece rewritten in a more challenging way.


    • Goodness! – that’s brave! It’s certainly a brave writer who tries to emulate Will’s blank verse!

      It is curious that very few English-language poets since Shakespeare have attempted to write in a pentameter-based blank verse. The reasons, iguess, are obvious. The two most prominent examples that come to mind of poets who have written blank verse based on the pentameter are Milton (whose attitude to Shakespeare – “Warbling native woodnotes wild” and what not – seems a bit patronising); and Wordsworth in The Prelude. And the blank verse they produced is not remotely like Shakespeare’s!

      This will be worth a look, but I can help feeling thatthe writer is on a hiding to nothing here!


  9. They should just buy Bailey’s novel and republish it in this series.


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