Saturday, April 16, 2016

SHAKES @ 400

Pop those corks! William Shakespeare's 400th anniversary is almost upon us!

Okay, the quadricentennial of his birth was celebrated back in 1964. But next week, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of his death (which was also his 52nd birthday, back in 1616), and why wait another 48 years to throw a party?

And there is much to celebrate in a low-born scribe (his father was a glove-maker), with an unremarkable education, whose plays are still being performed with gusto four centuries later—and still strike an emotional chord in audiences worldwide.

As my character Jack Dance, actor-turned-pirate-turned actor, says, in one of my unpublished novels:

"There’s no censure in Shakespeare, and every facet of life is represented— bawds and kings and villains and fools. Everything you could ever think or feel or want, Shakespeare has already written about it. And everything that happens in your own life affects how you to respond to him, so his words always seem new and fresh, however often you play them."

John Gilbert, The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1849.
Not surprisingly, I totally agree! But Jack is only 28 when he says this, so from the vantage point of my own great age, I would add this: as we grow in years and experience, Shakespeare's words become ever more relevant, as we continually view them from our own ever-expanding perspective.

Shakespeare is timeless, in the same way that mythology, folklore, and fairy tales endure. And their timelessness inspires succeeding generations of bards and storytellers to reinvent the stories for their own devices—or eras.

I remember the first time I ever read a review of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I remember thinking,  What? Another writer can just appropriate a couple of Shakespeare's characters and make up his own story about them?

What a concept!

Recycled Shakespeare, like retold fairy tales, has become a genre unto itself, and one that I personally love! I've already flailed away on this blog about the fabulous Fool books of Christopher Moore  (which turn several Shakespearean tragedies into fodder for hilarity via King Lear's savvy Fool) and Alan Gordon's Fools Guild mysteries (reimagining Twelfth Night fool, Feste, as a Renaissance secret agent).

Ditto, Elizabeth Bear's gorgeous Ink and Steel duology, which takes Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as its central characters. And we all know West Side Story, the classic stage musical riff on Romeo and Juliet.

But here are five more clever reinterpretations, examples of just how adaptable Shakespeare continues to be:

CALIBAN'S HOUR  In Tad Williams' beguiling revision, the much abused "monster," Caliban from The Tempest makes his way back to Naples one fateful night to confront Miranda, daughter of his tormentor and enslaver, Prospero. Now a fading beauty approaching middle age, with a teenage daughter of her own, Miranda is compelled to hear Caliban's side of the story—and reconsider who he is (and what has been done to him).

QUEEN MAB  Kate Danley dares to imagine a secret life for Romeo's witty, charismatic pal, Mercutio—one of the most lamented murder victims in all of Shakespeare—as well as a delicious afterlife as lover to the Fairy Queen, Mab.

INDIGO From mythologist and fairy tale scholar Marina Warner comes this decidedly rich and strange riff on The Tempest. It's a dark, simmering exploration into conquest, colonialism, and slavery, and their aftermath, not only for those conquered, but for generations of European conquerors as well.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM  Okay, no points for originality in the title department, but otherwise, this splendid episode from Neil Gaiman's long-running Sandman graphic novel series is a completely fresh delight. It imagines a very special performance of the Dream by Will Shakespeare and his company of players on Midsummer Eve before the king and queen of the fairies and all their impish court.

THE LION KING Don't laugh! A murdered king (who later appears as a ghost), a treacherous uncle, a young prince trembling on the brink of maturity, uncertain how to test his power—sound familiar? True, there's not a lot of singing or dancing in Hamlet, but at least the folks at Disney steal from the best!

Celebrations will be global throughout the year. Happy Birthday, Will!

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