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.