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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Rethinking Shakespeare
When I was in high school, I picked a fight with my English teacher about Shakespeare. I—probably obnoxiously—kept insisting that Shakespeare was just no good at writing women. We were reading King Lear at the time, and I was put off by the fact that all the women die unceremoniously offstage. Needless to say, this argument did not go well for me (“YOU KNOW SOME PEOPLE THINK SHAKESPEARE WAS A WOMAN, MAGGIE!”).
Reassuringly, though, I’m not alone in this viewpoint. People just keep rewriting Shakespeare. It’s interesting that, after literal centuries, the Bard is still so relevant, especially considering many of his plays were adaptations themselves. Although his work is still popular with adult readers (Tessa Gratton’s excellent The Queens of Innis Lear, 2018, addresses the very quibble I had with King Lear), it seems to have found its natural home in YA.
Shakespeare was an actor, not a scholar, and his humor—innuendo-laced and scatological—certainly appeals to teen sensibilities. But there’s more to it. It’s safe to assume many of us became familiar with Shakespeare in school; we read his plays. But Shakespeare was a playwright, not a novelist; his work was meant to be seen, not read. No wonder, then, that it feels as though something is missing. And no wonder so many writers are compelled to fill in those perceived blanks for readers the same age they were when first exposed to the work.
In the absence of actors, the author is cast in the role of translator, transforming Shakespeare’s template in any number of ways. Plenty of authors choose to embellish shafted characters, directly retelling the plays through new eyes (Grace Tiffany’s Ariel, 2005; Lisa M. Klein’s Ophelia, 2006; Lisa Fiedler’s Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story, 2006).
When it comes to the adaptions that take greater liberties, three general categories start to emerge. The first, playful contemporary romances, consists, unsurprisingly, mostly of adaptions of Shakespeare’s comedies (often of Much Ado about Nothing). Chaos, misunderstandings, and, ultimately, happily-ever-afters abound in fluffy, Shakespeare-inspired modern-day romances such as Suzanne Harper’s The Juliet Club (2008), Lily Anderson’s The Only Thing Worse than Me Is You (2016), and Molly Booth’s Nothing Happened (2018). This category also includes my favorite trope of all time, “We’re putting on a Shakespeare play that vaguely mirrors our real lives, and someone is going to fall in LOVE.”A few examples: Tara Eglington’s How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You (2016), Stephanie Kate Strohm’s The Taming of the Drew (2016), Shani Petroff’s Romeo and What’s Her Name (2017), and Molly Booth’s Saving Hamlet (2016). (Bonus: this last one features time travel to actual Shakespearean England.)
The second category usually (though not always) adapts the tragedies. These twist the themes and characters of the play, often by placing them in another historical setting or modernizing the issues. There’s room for a range of genres here: this is where we get As I Descended (2016), Robin Talley’s modern-day boarding-school update of Macbeth with an LGBTQ slant, and Cat Winters’ The Steep and Thorny Way, a loose retelling of Hamlet, which deals with race relations in Prohibition-era Oregon. McKelle George’s Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) is Much Ado about Nothing by way of the Roaring Twenties, and multiple Shakespeare references appear in the fever dream that is Jacqueline West’s Dreamers Often Lie (2016). Then there are the Romeo and Juliet adaptions, which are numerous: Walter Dean Myers’ Street Love (2006) is one of the most notable, while more recent works include Patrick Jones’ Heart or Mind (2016), Guadalupe McCall’s Shame the Stars (2016), and Pamela L. Laskin’s Ronit and Jamil (2017).
By the way, there have been at least two zombie takes on Romeo and Juliet: Rosamund Hodge’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (2016) in YA and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies (2011) in adult. Please hold your Romeo/Romero puns until the end.
The third category is the rarest and most nebulous. These authors don’t so much adapt Shakespeare as they infuse elements of his work into their own to create something that may not be easily understood or accessible, but is something spectacular nonetheless. Elizabeth Hand’s Illyria (2010), E. K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear (2016), and Lucy Christopher’s forthcoming Storm-Wake (2018) all channel a strange and ancient magic.
Shakespeare wrote for the theater. He meant for his work to be performed and reinterpreted. And we continue to do just that, reinventing his wide themes for new worlds and new generations. The possibilities are so endless that the most surprising thing is that no one’s written a teen slasher adaption of Titus Andronicus yet. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
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