22nd April 2016 - Becky Hardie
Becky Hardie is Deputy Publishing Director at Chatto & Windus/Hogarth. Below, she introduces the Hogarth Shakespeare Project in which authors reinterpret their favourite play. You can also read interviews with authors of the first two books in the series to be published, The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson and Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson.
For over four hundred years, Shakespeare’s works have been performed, read and loved throughout the world. The plays have been reinterpreted for every new generation: as teen films (10 Things I Hate about You/Taming of the Shrew), musicals (West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet), science-fiction flicks (Forbidden Planet/The Tempest), Japanese warrior tales (Ran/King Lear) and contemporary novels (A Thousand Acres/King Lear), to name only a few.
And of course Shakespeare himself borrowed almost all his plots from classical texts, histories, plays and other literary works. So when we first came up with the idea of a series of modern retellings of Shakespeare’s plays, we had that tradition very much in mind. As soon as we started talking about the idea to colleagues they got it. It seemed so simple, obvious even. Naturally, publishers love this kind of thing. But what would the reading public think?
To find out, we sent Random House’s Consumer Insight department off to do some research. We discovered that a very significant number of regular readers had read a Shakespeare play that year – 1 in 5 – and even more – 3 in 10 – intended to. In reality, however, more people had watched a Shakespeare play on TV or in the theatre. These readers were attracted to Shakespeare’s themes – ‘It is hard to believe that one man can have so much understanding that is relevant today’, ‘His works illuminate the human experience in a timeless way’, ‘His works continue to be enjoyable and understandable because they are perceptive studies of human character – in short, he’s brilliant’. But there were barriers: people found his plays difficult to read, thought they were better experienced live, they carried with them connotations of school. But this seemed to be good news for us. Surely this apparently tricky combination of aspiration – the intention to engage with Shakespeare – and difficulty in doing so could be perfectly addressed by a series of modern retellings?
Most of the readers we questioned were warm to the idea of modern retellings, but some of them didn’t want classics to be messed with. The exact combination of original text and contemporary author was crucial to these readers – the idea of a favourite author tackling a favourite play created real excitement. And their ten favourite plays? Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and The Tempest.
This sense of anticipation triggered by pairing a particular play with a particular author seemed crucial to us. And when we first started approaching authors, this chemistry played a really important part. When an author had a connection with a play and was taken with the whole idea of the series, the reaction was immediate. We’d usually spend a bit of time trying to guess which author might pick which play, and we were always wrong. As soon as they chose, it was blindingly obvious. Anne Tyler? The Taming of the Shrew. Of course. Margaret Atwood? It couldn’t be anything but the otherworldly, magical Tempest. Jo Nesbo? The bloodiest, darkest, most northerly play of them all. The Melrose Trilogy is a brilliant study of family dysfunction, so who better to revisit King Lear than Edward St Aubyn. And Howard Jacobson? That was the only one that was perhaps a little more obvious.
What began as a relatively simple idea has now gained its own momentum. We’ve partnered with publishers in 27 other territories and the books will be published in 22 languages around the world. This number grows every week, making it the truly international project we hoped for right from the start. We’re collaborating with other organisations – theatres, libraries, universities, media partners, festivals. The series has even spawned its own series of ‘retellings’: the portraitist Ralph Heimans has re-imagined each author in a Shakespearean way, as you can see from the images on this page. The paintings, including one of Gillian Flynn laid out on a carpet like Ophelia, are being exhibited at the Globe as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations.
We didn’t have any idea what was in store for us at the start of all this. This was even true of the novels themselves. We give no brief to the authors. They are free to do whatever they like with their chosen play. As we waited for the first books to arrive we struggled to control our nerves and excitement. But in they came, one by one, and our delight grew as each of them fulfilled their promise -- and more. Jeanette Winterson, an abandoned child herself, has written a story for The Winter’s Tale, The Gap in Time, that crosses time and continents in a whoosh of energy and delight in language and ideas. It does this even as it helps us with one of Shakespeare’s most puzzling plays. In Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson brings the original Shylock to a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, sits him down opposite his modern counterpart and has the two men discuss in depth Shylock’s motivations, his role, in Shakespeare’s most controversial play. Anne Tyler’s Kate is so Tyler you can hardly believe she’s been around for four hundred years. But her dilemma is as alive and kicking in the 21st century as Katherina herself was in the original play. There’s also a strong sense that the authors have had fun writing these books, responding with complete freedom to an existing story and structure. Which is of course exactly how Shakespeare himself worked.
Read our exclusive interviews with Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson.
Visit our Shakespeare page
Above from top: Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbo, Anne Tyler, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson
All images © Ralph Heimans