When I first heard about the Hogarth Shakespeare series where established authors retell Shakespeare’s plays in novel form, the one I was most excited to read was Margaret Atwood’s remix of “The Tempest” with her book “Hag-Seed”. Here’s one of my favourite authors giving her version of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays! As Jeanette Winterson did with “The Gap of Time” and Anne Tyler with “Vinegar Girl”, the story of Atwood’s novel takes place in a contemporary setting. 

After Felix is forced to leave his job at an arts festival he's determined to take revenge on the men who orchestrated his departure, but he's also driven by the loss of his daughter Miranda. Atwood's tale even includes a production of “The Tempest” set in a men’s prison and directed Felix who is living under a pseudonym – which is highly appropriate given that Prospero is like a theatre director within the play. The novel continues making modern parallels while building to a shocking denouement. Atwood creates an ingeniously constructed story of revenge, grief and loneliness.

The novel also gives voice to prisoners from many different racial backgrounds who have their own interpretations of the play and express why it's meaningful to them. Sections of “The Tempest” are rewritten by some of the prisoners in a hip hop style like the musical 'Hamilton' using a modern sensibility and language. Many of their new lines make powerful comments about the condition of their lives “You think I'm an animal, not even a man!” or critique a corrupt, ineffective system “You earn yourself money by puttin' me in jail!” Atwood shows Shakespeare's enduring relevance and how the plays can be endlessly reinterpreted. In doing so, she also makes a meaningful statement about the importance of the arts in prisons.

The emotional core of the story is the way in which Felix mourns his daughter who died at the age of three. After he's ejected from his festival job he takes up residence in a ramshackle structure for many years and keeps Miranda's portrait by his bedside. He continues to imagine her as if she were still growing using a kind of magical thinking. Quite often their interactions aren't direct, but she always feels to him like she's just in the other room or will be back soon. The way in which Atwood describes Miranda's continuing proximity to Felix is very haunting and moving.

If the story feels very male dominated it's probably because the play is equally so, yet Atwood also includes her fascinating modern equivalent of Miranda in a low-on-her-luck dancer/actress Anne-Marie. This is a woman that Felix recruits to join in their production since none of the prisoners will agree to play a woman's part out of macho pride. Anne-Marie is a compellingly strong, intelligent and passionate individual. She gives her own interpretation of Shakespeare's character Miranda as someone definitely not passive or “draping herself over the furniture like wet spaghetti with a sign on her saying Rape Me.” Through her Atwood invokes a welcome feminist perspective to these male-dominated proceedings.

Channeling my inner Prospero

Channeling my inner Prospero

In the play, Prospero insults Caliban by calling him Hag-Seed. The prisoners take this name and re-appropriate it like the many racial invectives which have no doubt been made against them. In doing so it becomes an empowering badge of honour which they can redefine for themselves as well as staying mindful of its origin from those who wish to suppress them. Atwood's engrossing tale is very playful but comes out of a place of real anger. Like in Shakespeare's play there are political forces at play who like to shore up power. Felix and the prisoners are determined to blow this apart. In her characteristically vivid language Atwood describes how he feels “revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare.” “Hag-Seed” is a gripping, forceful and highly imaginative way of welcoming Shakespeare into the 21st century.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
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After reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel “The Gap of Time”, I was thrilled to see that the Hogarth Shakespeare series also includes a new novel from Anne Tyler - one of my favourite authors. Winterson brilliantly combined her writing style and individual sensibility to open a dialogue with Shakespeare’s ideas/themes from The Winter’s Tale. I was a big advocate and fan of Tyler’s previous novel “A Spool of Blue Thread” last year which divided a lot of people, but I found it to be an inventive and meaningful story about generations of family life. Now Anne Tyler has given her “spin” on The Taming of the Shrew with this new novel “Vinegar Girl”. Firstly, I must admit that Shrew is the play by Shakespeare that I like the least. I find its ambiguous take on gender politics grating and more than anything I find the story to be rather dull. I even dislike Cole Porter’s musical ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ despite being a big fan of Porter’s music otherwise. So it’s an interesting experiment to pair Tyler with this problematic work by the Bard.

Tyler transposes the story of The Taming of the Shrew to the modern day and her familiar territory of Baltimore. Kate Battista is a young teacher’s assistant who is “big boned and gawky.” She takes care of both her father Louis, a distracted scientist working relentlessly on researching an autoimmune disease, and her popular teenage sister Bunny (Bernice) who outshines her with golden girls and a newfound interest in animal rights’ activism. Meanwhile, Kate makes horrifying sounding dinners with a dish she calls “meat mash” and comes perilously close to losing her job from expressing her opinions too bluntly to her young pupils and their parents. Louis’ lab assistant Pyotr lives in America on a work visa which will soon expire. To continue his important research Louis plots to marry Kate off to him to keep him in the country. Both Pyotr and Kate have somewhat abrasive personalities and awkward social skills. A comic story ensues.

The most successful parts of this novel were Kate’s interactions at the “Little People’s School” between the children and teachers. She generally doesn’t like most of the children and often treats them with a level of contempt where it’s remarked “It wasn’t true that she hated children. At least, a few she liked okay. It was just that she didn’t like all children, as if they were uniform members of some microphylum or something.” It is quite funny how straightforward she is with these children who are only four years old and how her manner totally goes against current prevailing attitudes of coddling young people to ensure each feels special. There are a number of enjoyably tense scenes with the principal Mrs Darling where you can feel her polite sunny veneer flaking away and her frustration over Kate’s unapologetic blunt manner growing.

Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina in Zeffirelli's 'Taming of the Shrew'

Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina in Zeffirelli's 'Taming of the Shrew'

Tyler is also excellent at portraying minute actions in the way family members react to and relate to one another to show imbalances. Kate has been pushed into a mothering role since the family lost their mother which is something she readily accepted at first but now she finds herself turned into an unpleasant person. Louis increasingly takes her for granted requiring her to bring him his lunch and do his taxes. Bunny’s transformation into a hungry-for-romance teen means that Kate feels her sister has “changed into this whole other person, this social person, I don’t know; this social, outgoing person. And somehow she turned me into this viperish, disapproving old maid when I’m barely twenty-nine. I don’t know how that happened!” It’s moving the way that Tyler shows how people morph into certain roles within family life which they feel helpless to extract themselves from. Rather than taking an independent stand, Kate takes the rather non-feminist decision of using marriage as a way of getting out of her constrictive family circumstances.

This is where the novel somewhat troubles me. Both Louis and Pyotr treat Kate abysmally at some points and act in a horrendously selfish manner. Rather than expressing her intolerance for this behaviour or leaving them, Kate expresses an understanding for their foibles because that’s the way men are and she softens her acid tone. She delivers a speech at the end stating this in a way which is carefully modified from Katherine’s famous open-to-interpretation monologue at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t find the development of the difficult relationship between Kate and Pyotr convincing. Rather than elucidate the building relationship of these problematic characters, Tyler gets bogged down in tedious details like methods of loading the dishwasher or the laborious process of cooking an egg. It felt overall like Tyler got too bogged down with trying to rejuvenate the mechanics of the Bard’s story rather than making the tale wholly her own as Winterson ingeniously did. Although “Vinegar Girl” is an enjoyable read I don’t think it’s Tyler’s best.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Tyler
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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a really exciting new project you need to know about! Many of the stories of Shakespeare’s great plays originated elsewhere. He retold, reformed, remade them in brilliant, poetic, dramatic works. Now, some of our most skilled contemporary authors are doing “cover versions” by writing their own take on these stories inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. The series kicks off with Jeanette Winterson’s “The Gap of Time” – a novel inspired by The Winter’s Tale. Let me assure you that this new novel isn’t a mere creative exercise, but a vibrant and lively work of art in its own right. Honestly, I was slightly sceptical about the enterprise. Rewriting Shakespeare? It could all go wrong, right? What Winterson does is give a very personal take on Shakespeare’s play by capturing the essence of his drama and adding her own heartfelt perspective on life.

If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale have no fear. The book opens with a summary of the play. In Winterson’s novel, the central characters are recast as contemporary figures recognizable in today’s society. Leo is a high-powered and tyrannical banker involved in the financial crisis of 2008. His wife Mimi is a well-known singer who is pregnant. Xeno is Leo’s lifelong homosexual friend who is a game coder. There is a misunderstanding fuelled by jealousy and a tragic mishap occurs: “The important things happen by chance. Only the rest gets planned.” Mimi’s child is mistakenly given away and left in a BabyHatch (a compartment at a hospital where babies can be left anonymously). Many years later the child has grown up into a sensitive singer named Perdita who was raised by a good man named Shep. The drama continues from here where Perdita eventually discovers and returns to the place where she originated. Not only is it a perfect anaphora that Winterson would cover The Winter’s Tale, but the story comes very close to home for the author who herself was a child that was given away. When the drama of this novel ends, the author steps in to confide in the reader what a personal story this is and give her enlightening thoughts about the power of Shakespeare’s writing.

A BabyHatch

A BabyHatch

As befits the title, one of Winterson’s primary concerns in this story is time. Time is its own dimension. On the subatomic level it doesn’t function the same way that it does in our understanding of reality. Nor does own personal sense of time plod along in such a linear fashion. The author understands this. Winterson writes “time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” In this novel people’s actions disrupt their sense of time. People become caught in the past and the future. They lose their sense of the present. The characters seek to radically rewrite time just like in the movies referenced such as Back to the Future and Superman where the world is spun backwards to change the course of events. Only by breaking down the boundaries between each other can they form a new understanding of time. This sounds very abstract, but it takes on an incredibly poignant meaning within the story and I found myself welling up in scenes like when Perdita must rush Shep to the hospital. A personal crisis like this can collapse anyone’s sense of time.

This Shakespeare project does in creative form what all of us do in our imaginations when reading: re-imagine the stories we’re told from our own personal perspectives. This does not disrespect the original work, but enhances it and pays tribute to it by honing in on the most essential themes and ideas to recognize their universal relevance. In the instance of The Winter’s Tale there are strong issues of friendship, jealousy, abandonment, regret, tragedy, revenge and (possibly) forgiveness. In “The Gap of Time” Winterson encapsulates the essence of Shakespeare’s drama by creating a novel which is itself poetic, bawdy, inventive and highly entertaining. I loved this tremendous novel. I’m looking forward to reading more of the forthcoming novels in the Hogarth Shakespeare series from tremendous authors such as Anne Tyler, Howard Jacobson, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood and Edward St Aubyn.

Watch Jeanette Winterson talk about what attracted her to the Hogarth Shakespeare project.

I’ve teamed up with Vintage to offer you the chance at winning a signed copy of “The Gap of Time” right now. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post to enter to win. If you fancy, tell me what Shakespeare play you’d most like to see in novel form – but it’s not necessary. Just let me know your contact details (email or twitter handle) so I can contact you if you win. Good luck!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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