Man Booker Prize winners Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobsen, have bravely committed themselves to writing contemporary versions of Shakespeare's plays, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death. Jacobsen will rework The Merchant of Venice and Atwood will take on The Taming of the Shrew as part of project put together by Penguin Random House's Hogarth imprint.
“For an English novelist, Shakespeare is where it all begins," Jacobsen said. "For an English novelist who also happens to be Jewish, The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up.” Atwood added that "The Tempest has always been a favourite of mine, and working on it will be an invigorating challenge. Is Caliban the first talking monster? Not quite, but close…"
The addition of Atwood and Jacobsen represents a bold step forward for the project. Their interpretations will join Jeanette Winkerson's take on The Winter's Tale and Anne Tyler's adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, as was announced in June. Hogarth is still in talks with authors to add more works to the collection.
There have been some doubts about the project. Our own Alexander Nazaryan wrote that reimagining Shakespeare "could become a losing proposition, with novelists struggling to escape Shakespeare's infinite shadow, even as they try to do something original with his words." Similarly, The Guardian wondered if the whole thing was an "intriguing exercise or publishing gimmick."
Even Jacobsen, who won the Booker in 2010 for The Finkler Question, said that "you have got to be mad" to think you have anything to add to Shakespeare. Then again, a lot has happened in the last 400 years, and looking at the Bard's themes through the lenses of post-colonial and feminist thought, as well as major world events, might be worth-while. That's what Hogarth is surely thinking.
"Shakespeare probably never met a Jew, the Holocaust had not yet happened, and anti-Semitism didn't have a name," Jacobsen said. "Can one tell the same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There's the challenge. I quake before it."
We're hoping the next announcement is A Midsummer Night's Dream updated by Thomas Pynchon. Just a thought.