Posted in Writing

Uncovering Shakespeare

I love musical covers—where one artist performs, and often changes, another artist’s song.  I’ve taken a lot of gentle teasing over the years because of this, because many people see covers as a form of copying someone else, rather than an original work.  But for me, it’s always been about interpretation—it’s fascinating for me to see how someone can hear a song, internalize it, and fundamentally change it while still leaving it enough like the original that it’s recognizable.  For someone who’s always been fascinated by the creative process, the act of interpretation and working within the boundaries that entails is just as interesting as the act of creation.

My love of cover versions isn’t limited to music.  I find literary covers to be endlessly amusing.  Unlike musical covers, their literary equivalents are very often humorous—or downright farcical.  Though it’s also a common trope to retell a famous story from a new perspective, or create an unofficial prequel or sequel.

Of late, I’ve become enamored of several rather interesting covers of stories by William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a prime target for these literary interpretations.  I’m sure this stems from Shakespeare’s centuries-old theater tradition—a medium which practically revolves around interpretation.  My reading list, over the past months has a generous dose of the bard, done with irreverent tribute.  I thought I’d share a few fun ones with you.

The first entry in this list is rather traditional in its inspiration.  William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, was born when the author attended a modern interpretation of The Merry Wives of Windsor the same weekend he watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time.  There are actually three books, Star Wars, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return (this last one has yet to be released), and each of the three translates the movie not only into Shakespearean language, but also into a staged play format.  Perhaps these books are nothing more than a mash-up, but there’s something delightfully silly about hearing sci-fi speak retrograded to the times of Romeo and Juliet.  Literature it’s not, but for those steeped in Star Wars mythology it’s a delightful way to waste time.

Next on the list is a pair of books by perennial farcissist, Christopher Moore. Fool is the play King Lear retold from the point of view of the last character listed in the dramatis personae, the fool.  Moore takes this minor character from the original play, and creates, not a power behind the throne, but a character so grounded in absurdity that he is able to remain sane while those around him dissolve into madness.  It’s not Moore’s best book, by any stretch of imagination, but for someone whose list of works includes A Dirty Job, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, saying this one isn’t the best is not a knock.  The sequel, The Serpent of Venice (which I have only just begun to read) is a little more ambitious in its interpretation.  Not only does it use the same fool from King Lear, but amalgamates plot elements from Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The last entry is perhaps the one that takes the most liberties with Shakespeare, but also in an odd way stays the most true to the source material. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, that started life as a Kickstarter project. The ambitious, 700+ page paperback, lets you make the decisions as to how Hamlet turns out. North makes little to no effort to stay true to the language of Shakespeare, but does a whimsical and wonderful job of providing a new voice through which he narrates the farcical plot twists that litter the book. To be sure, with the correct choices, you can read the book with the same plot and timeline as Shakespeare’s text—although to do so you’ll have to put up with a little goading and mocking by the narrator. But it’s so much more fun to read the story as another character—hint: if you choose to play the king the book is very funny, but only 3-6 pages long. The magic of this book is uncovered if you are adventurous enough to play Ophelia. With Ophelia you have a bevy of increasingly non-traditional storyline—including spurning Hamlet, and pursuing a science-post-doc.

I know there are those of you who are horrified by all these recommendations that take extreme license with the immortal words of the bard, but for me who can’t seem to get enough cover versions, this variety is just the right spice for my summer reading.

Posted in Shakespeare, Writing

Decoding Shakespeare

Sometime in the last few weeks, while Christmas browsing on Amazon, I discovered that one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, has a new book coming out in a few months. Fool is the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, told from the tale of the court Jester (a minor character is Shakespeare’s original script).

I’m a big fan of Christopher Moore, but also of Shakespeare, humorous novels, and particularly of literary parodies; so it would be difficult for any book to be more up my alley. It would be a bit of an understatement to say that I’m looking forward to it, but before the books release in February, it seems I have a little homework to do.

You see, King Lear is one of the few Shakespeare plays I haven’t read. After Books like The Eyre Affair and To Say Nothing of the Dog, I’ve learned my lesson that literary parody is so much richer if you’ve actually read the work being lampooned (Also, once you’ve read the parody, it’s too late to read the original, because you know how the story unfolds).

So while at the bookstore for a last minute gift, I headed over to the Shakespeare section, for a copy of King Lear. And once there, I found an array of new versions of Shakespeare, written with the intention of making Shakespeare a little less intimidating.

Having read most of his plays, and seen many in movie and play form, I don’t find his work all that confusing. But I can remember a time when that wasn’t the case. So looking forward to a time in the not very distant future, when my kids will be looking for help understanding the Bard, I started browsing what was available.

I’d be shooting for dramatic understatement if I said that I was impressed with what I found; particularly with the recent additions by Spark Notes. Spark Notes started out with study guides along the lines of Cliffs Notes, generally used as a substitute for reading whatever work they summarized.

But it seems there are more robust choices now. I picked up two books, both from Spark Notes No Fear Shakespeare collection. The first is King Lear (No Fear Shakespeare) which presents the original text of the play, coupled with a line-by-line modern day translation on the facing page. This is great for anyone who wants a little help with the text, without loosing all the structure and nuance that is layered into the Bard’s plays.

The second book is Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels). This version keeps the original text but presents it as a graphic novel. This one has the advantage of preserving the wonderful language of the Bard, but presenting it with some visual context—and I know seeing the play in addition to reading it was always helpful to me. Plus it comes packaged in a graphic novel format, which many kids already enjoy.

I like the fact that these newer entries into the genre are trying to help raise the reader up to Shakespeare’s level, instead of trying to dumb him down to ours.

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