The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been responsible for some really intriguing modern takes on classic Shakespeare plays, from The Merchant of Venice, in Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, to The Winter’s Tale as The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, to Othello reimagined as New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, to Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, Hag-Seed, to Anne Tyler’s version of The Taming of the Shrew, called Vinegar Girl. The latest of these tales from Shakespeare is Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn, which is a retelling of King Lear.
There’s something about the story of King Lear that attracts writers in general. Maybe it’s the fairy tale-like setup, the foolish and arrogant king giving his kingdom to his monstrous daughters and throwing away his faithful and loving daughter and then coming to regret his decision. Maybe it’s because the fear of losing everything that’s important to you as you age is one of those deep rooted fears among human beings. Whatever the reason, writers have played with the plot of King Lear before St. Aubyn. A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, updated the plot to a farm in modern Iowa, and Fool, by Christopher Moore, went back to the source but focused on the character of the Fool rather than the high and mighty personages Shakespeare centered in the story.
The kingdom Henry Dunbar, the protagonist of Dunbar, is preoccupied with is a media empire rather than a kingdom of land, and as he gets to a certain age, he hands over the care of his corporation to his two daughters, only to discover that they are horrible people and that he should have trusted his youngest daughter instead. After a public mental breakdown, he is sent away to a fancy sanitarium out in the middle of nowhere, his closest companion a demented alcoholic former comedian (the equivalent, of course, of the Fool in the original). He plots his escape from confinement and flees out into the hills, his family chasing after him, but he has no idea who’s going to catch up to him first, his daughters who are eager to divest him of everything he owns, or his youngest daughter who loves him and wants to save him.
Tapping into issues of trust and family relations, of power and powerlessness, of fear and forgiveness, Dunbar takes one of the most emotionally wrenching Shakespearean tragedies and brings it to life for the modern age.