Re-writing a classic

As part of the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 2016, several high profile authors have been tasked with re-writing some of the Bard’s most famous plays in modern prose. Titles to be given a modern twist announced so far include The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and The Winters Tale.

I’m never sure what exactly I think about transferring classic tales into a modern setting. In some ways it shows how much certain stories can stand the test of time, and as is referenced in this article, a lot can change in 400 years. Certain aspects of the plots and characters can have an altogether different meaning today than they had when originally created.

“For an English novelist Shakespeare is where it all begins. For an English novelist who also happens to be Jewish, The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up. Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare probably never met a Jew, the Holocaust had not yet happened, and anti-Semitism didn’t have a name. Can one tell the same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There’s the challenge.”
Howard Jacobson

Also, although the passage of time can create new meanings for stories, it can also serve to prove that certain situations are still as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. The themes explored in many of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the tragedies, are very familiar to modern writing, whether it be for a novel, film or TV. Murder, money, adultery, abuse of power, love, religious prejudices, sexism… Any of these (and most likely all of them) could feature in any modern soap opera.

But it is the silver screen where I think the public has really caught onto the modern retelling of classic tales. It means that many people, who might not know classic literature if it slapped them in the face, actually get to interact with the stories, albeit in a different way. From West Side Story to Clueless, from Scrooged to Cruel Intentions, the list goes on and on. Inspiration can come from many places, and it seems some stories just never grow old.

And yet I still don’t know what I think about such modern adaptations. Perhaps it’s because I think there is a really fine line between it being done well and being done terribly. I’m interested to see the results of this project, though, and to seeing what other commemorative events might be happening in 2016.


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