Enlisting novelists to rewrite Shakespeare: A losing proposition?

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s plays are set for a novelistic makeover. Illustration based on a 1623 engraving by Martin Droeshout.
(Paul Gonzales / Los Angeles Times)

Shakespeare’s plays will become contemporary novels, as the transatlantic Hogarth Press, an imprint of Random House, has announced it is commissioning prominent writers to adapt the Elizabethan plays. 

So far, the Guardian reports, Anne Tyler has signed on to adapt “The Taming of the Shrew,” while Jeanette Winterson will tackle “The Winter’s Tale.” These first two novelistic versions of Shakespeare will be published in 2016, 400 years after the Bard’s passing.

What’s potentially problematic about this project is that it asks famous writers to essentially best the greatest of their forefathers --- by grappling with his own oeuvre. It could become a losing proposition, with novelists struggling to escape Shakespeare’s infinite shadow, even as they try to do something original with his words. It would be a shame to think that, say, a “Romeo and Juliet” by Salman Rushdie will be judged as lightly as Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic version of the same play.

Clara Farmer, who heads the UK arm of Hogarth, said, “We’re very much leaving it up to the imaginations of the authors. We have talked with them about following the spirit of the plays, but it isn’t helpful for them to have to paint by numbers. We want them to bring all of their imaginations and different points of view.”


Those who cringe at such tinkering with Shakespeare’s works should remember that similar audacity has infected everyone from high school drama teachers to Luhrmann, whose “Romeo + Juliet” was, in fact, not a disaster. Moreover, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” a play about two minor characters in “Hamlet,” is widely recognized as a classic of postwar British theater.

Moreover, despite the originality of Shakespeare’s language, his plays often hew to familiar stories. “Macbeth” and “King Lear” rely to some degree on “Holinshed’s Chronicles,” while classical plays such as “Julius Caesar” lean on Plutarch’s histories of the ancient world. And “Hamlet” is believed by some to be a retelling of Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” which had been published about a decade before.

Nevertheless, a project as ambitious and systematic as that undertaken by Hogarth has not been conceived in recent memory. It is not clear whether all 37 plays will be modernized, but Farmer said those that are will be “a coherent series.”

It is not clear, however, who else besides Tyler and Winterson has been enlisted.


“We need people to step up for the tragedies,” Farmer said. Some are surely brave enough to answer that call. William T. Vollmann, perhaps?


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