A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S INTRIGUE: FOOLS AND MORTALS

Bernard Cornwell is a well-known and well-respected author of historical fiction.  He specializes in English history, and has written series covering the Napoleonic Wars (the Sharpe series), the Arthurian legend (the Warlord Chronicles), the 14th century (the Grail Quest), and, most recently, the making of England from a group of warring countries (the Last Kingdom series).  Now he’s turned his keen eye and brilliant research skills to a different, but no less interesting period: Tudor England, and more specifically, the world of William Shakespeare, in his new book, Fools and Mortals.

While I have no doubt Cornwell could, if he wanted, make William Shakespeare himself the narrator and main character of a novel, he’s chosen instead to focus this book around Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, instead. Shakespeare did in fact have a younger brother named Richard, but as is often the case with people in this era, not much is known about his life, which gives Cornwell plenty of latitude to create the man’s life to suit his purposes.

This Richard Shakespeare, like his more famous older brother, is living in London and working in the theater.  He’s handsome (one of the things he chooses to emphasize to distinguish himself from William), and so far in his career he’s been playing female roles. He wants to move up in the world and start playing men, but William is not being very helpful, for a variety of reasons.

If the book were just about Richard’s travails in the brutal world of Elizabethan theater, it would probably be entertaining, but there’s more going on: a priceless manuscript written by William has gone missing, probably stolen, and suspicion falls on Richard as the possible culprit. To clear his name, he needs to find the manuscript and the real thief.  But this is, of course, easier said than done, and all Richard’s skills, both legitimate and less legitimate, are going to be necessary as he navigates the world of betrayals and duplicity of the theater and of London itself, and at the same time the world premiere of William’s most famous comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in the works.

Cornwell writes the best kind of historical fiction: well-plotted, with realistic characters and so strong a sense of place and time that you feel you’re actually there.  If you have any interest in Shakespeare or Tudor England or just want to immerse yourself in another world and time, check out Fools and Mortals.

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BEFORE THE TEMPEST: MIRANDA AND CALIBAN

If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, you have a general idea of the plot and the characters: Prospero, the exiled Duke, living on an island with his daughter, Miranda, and served by the spirit Ariel and the monstrous Caliban, until the shipwreck of Prospero’s brother and members of his court, giving Prospero an opportunity for revenge or for reconciliation, and giving Miranda her first exposure to the outside world (it’s Miranda who speaks the line, “O brave new world that has such people in it!” to which her father drily replies, “Tis new to thee”).  Even if you’ve never read the play or seen it performed (and you should; there are many performances on DVD available in the library system), you’re probably somewhat familiar with it, such a part of our culture that it formed the basis for the Science Fiction movie classic, Forbidden Planet.  Recently Margaret Atwood tried her hand at a version of the story, in Hag Seed (discussed here).

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Now Jacqueline Carey, in her new book, Miranda and Caliban, takes another look at The Tempest, but unlike other versions, she focuses her story on Miranda, the innocent daughter of Duke Prospero, and Caliban, the “savage” Prospero uses as servant and slave.  She imagines what it must have been like for Miranda, living on this island with her father since she was three, isolated and lonely, until she meets Caliban, a strange and feral boy, and the only one on the island who’s anywhere near her age.  As Prospero keeps both his daughter and his slave close to him on the island, making sure neither one can escape his presence and his magic, both motherless children, Miranda and Caliban, begin to spend more and more time together, for solace and companionship, and then, as they get older, for more than just companionship.

 

If you know how the play ends, you read the book with an added sense of poignance, because you know Miranda does not end up married to Caliban or even in the same country as Caliban, and he receives no real solace nor happy resolution.  Part of the beauty of Miranda and Caliban is that it allows you to wonder what might have happened if Shakespeare had looked at his characters a little differently,  and given them a little more free will to follow their hearts.

MARGARET ATWOOD TAKES ON SHAKESPEARE: HAG-SEED

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, lately there have been a number of famous writers writing their own versions of famous Shakespeare plays.  In June, Anne Tyler came out with her take on The Taming of the Shrew, called Vinegar Girl, and prior to that, in February, Howard Jacobson came up with a new take on The Merchant of Venice, which he called Shylock Is My Name, and last year A Winter’s Tale got a new look in Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. It’s a sign of how relevant Shakespeare’s characters and plots are, hundreds of years after they were first performed in England, and it’s refreshing and intriguing to see what a modern writer, with her or his own sensibilities and preferences, will do with the timeless works of Shakespeare.  Now we have Margaret Atwood, famous for her dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Heart Goes Last, and a slew of others, giving us her version of The Tempest, which should be quite an eye-opener.

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The book is called Hag-Seed, and it plays with the themes of The Tempest in a modern setting. Instead of the wizard-king exiled from his kingdom by his brother, as in the original, the main character here is Felix, a former artistic director at a most prestigious theater festival, who was betrayed by his right-hand man, Tony, and lost his position, his reputation and just about everything that made his life worth living.  He’s not exiled to a deserted island, like Prospero in Tempest, but he might as well be: he’s living in a two room shack and working under an assumed name, teaching literature at a local prison and putting on an annual Shakespearean play with the prisoners as cast.  This year, though, he finally sees an opportunity to get revenge, as he puts on a production of none other than The Tempest itself in the prison.  So what we have, which Shakespeare himself would have enjoyed, is the concept of a play within a play within a novel, and characters playing other characters whose lives and actions reflect on their own and vice versa. There are some amusing touches: for instance, Felix only allows the prisoners to curse if they’re using the language from the play, which leads to some interesting exchanges, and some of the prisoners rebel at having to play Ariel, a fairy.  But there are also poignant touches: instead of having his daughter, Miranda, in exile with him, as Prospero did in The Tempest, Felix’s daughter Miranda died in childhood, but she is still with him in some ways.

Do you need to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed?  No.  As Felix teaches his students about the play, you’ll learn more than enough to understand what’s going on in the book.  Of course, if you are familiar with the source material, you’ll enjoy Hag-Seed even more for her insights into the characters of the original play as well as the characters she’s created here.  If you’re a Margaret Atwood fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), this promises to be a delight.

VINEGAR GIRL: ANNE TYLER UPDATES THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

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I have to start off by saying that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is not my favorite of his plays.  I had to read it in Freshman Honors English, many years ago, and found it sexist and offensive then, and it hasn’t really gotten better since (how DO you stage the scene where a “tamed” Kate lectures her sister about how important it is to be submissive and obedient without making the women in the audience want to throw things?).  Hogarth has started a series of modern authors rewriting classic Shakespearean plots (one of the others was Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a reworking of A Winter’s Tale; another was Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, a new version of The Merchant of Venice), and now we have Anne Tyler’s reworking of The Taming of the Shrew,  which is called Vinegar Girl, and which is available now at the Field Library.

It’s a little odd when a modern writer tries to rewrite someone else’s work: how much of what comes out is shaped and colored by the modern writer’s sensibilities, and how much needs to be a reflection of the original?  In the case of Anne Tyler, whose books are usually family dramas with odd characters all centered around Baltimore, Maryland, revisiting The Taming of the Shrew involves changing the ages of the characters and their relations (sort of) to each other, and setting the whole thing in modern day Baltimore (of course).

Our modern day Kate is a preschool teacher’s aide, 29 years old and a college dropout (well, not really a dropout, since she was asked to leave college after a verbal altercation with a professor). The kids love her for her outspoken and filter-free nature, but the parents of those kids, and her co-workers and bosses, are less enthused.  Her younger sister is pretty but ditzy, and her father is a brilliant scientist who’s on the verge of a breakthrough, except that his lab assistant, Pyotor, is about to be deported for overstaying his visa.  Kate’s father has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: he’ll keep Pyotor in the country legally by getting him to marry Kate!  It’s not as if anyone else is queuing up to marry her, after all, and this will be a big help to him in his work, which he believes is more important than her feelings.

So we don’t have the obnoxious plot from Shakespeare where the younger and more attractive daughter can’t get married until someone marries the older shrewish daughter Kate; we have instead a more modern story about people from different cultures trying to decide whether they’re willing to get married, in form or in reality, just to facilitate someone else’s work.  Kate is not so much a shrew as she is a smart woman who speaks her mind and doesn’t think about the consequences.  She’s also rather lovable and — fortunately for all concerned — she doesn’t need to be “tamed” by anyone in order to achieve the obligatory happy ending.

 

NEW TAKES ON OLD TALES

One genre I personally find fascinating is the “new look at classics” book: modern writers looking at Shakespeare, for instance, or creating backstories for neglected characters in famous books (e.g., Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, telling the story of Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre).  We have a couple of new books at the Field in this genre, and if you’re interested in seeing something familiar with new eyes, they’re worth checking out.

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Lots of people know Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni (especially after the movie, Amadeus, featured it); fewer people know the librettist for the opera, Lorenzo Da Ponte.  However, Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow should remedy that omission, and give readers a new insight into Da Ponte and his world (this book, I shouldn’t even need to add, also fills the category of “Read a Historical Novel set before 1900” for the 2016 Reading Challenge).  As Da Ponte puts the finishing touches on the libretto for Don Giovanni’s premiere performance in Vienna, the world around him spirals into chaos.  The emperor is off fighting a very unpopular war against the Turks, and people in Vienna are either protesting the war or seeing dangerous Turks everywhere. Closer to home, Da Ponte has been receiving cryptic but vaguely disturbing messages in a strange code which he has no idea how to decode, and then his close friend, Alois, is murdered and strange symbols are carved into his forehead.  Da Ponte agrees to help the police try to solve the murder, only to discover that it is the tip of a proverbial iceberg and there’s more going on than he imagined.  Will he help solve the crime? Will he figure out the coded messages and discover who’s sending them?  Will the performance of Don Giovanni go off without a hitch?  Come and see the world of backstage and behind the scenes in the classic era of opera in Vienna.

EVEN IN PARADISE COVER

Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of those plays that tends to inspire modern writers.  Not too long ago, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres took on the archetypical plot and characters, and Christopher Moore examined the story from the point of view of the fool in his Fool, some years ago (not entirely successfully, in my opinion; Moore’s gift is for humor and there’s precious little humor to be gleaned from this play). Now we have the new book, Even in Paradise, by Elizabeth Nunez, which takes King Lear to Trinidad, Barbados and Tobago (come on, don’t you just want to read it based on that alone?). Like King Lear, the Trinidadian widower Peter Ducksworth wants to avoid strife arising from the distribution of his property.  Like Lear, he has three adult daughters among whom he wants to distribute the property, and, sadly, like Lear, he makes the fatal mistake of shorting his youngest daughter in favor of his two older daughters, and all the strife he tried to avoid catches up with him and his family.  Elizabeth Nunez brings in issues of race and post colonialism and the history of the Caribbean to this multicultural take on King Lear, bringing new insights into both the Shakespeare story and modern family dynamics.