In the last few days I’ve come across what seems like a trend—modern authors making Shakespeare their own by either rewriting the famous bard or ghost writing in his name. In an interview at the quarterly literary magazine InDigest*, Dustin Nelson talks with Arthur Phillips and John Reed, two authors with “a similarly pragmatic love of Shakespeare,” while at The Paris Review, Sam Maclaughlin talks with Chris Adrian, author of The Great Night—A Midsummer Night’s Dream recast in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (I’ve previously written about Adrian here.)
In his latest book, The Tragedy of Arthur, Phillips actually wrote a “new” Shakespeare play, while in his 2008 book, All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, Reed created a new Shakespearean work piecemeal using elements from works that already exist. The “pragmatic love” the two authors feel comes from the fact that the writer has become, to many, untouchable. Failing to recognize his failings does a disservice to him, so argue these writers. When asked about the possible intimidation that could come with messing with an author who has been placed, like no other, on top of a pedestal, Phillips responds:
I felt like he should be liberated from that. I came to quite admire him in the process of doing this and hold an increasing scorn for the way he’s treated. Maybe for different reasons than John’s talking about. I would like to be remembered forever and canonized. Everybody probably would. That would be nice. You’ve got to make room, get rid of some of the crap, otherwise there’d be no time to read it all….
It wasn’t intimidating to deal with him. It was intimidating to try to think of all the ways people were going to get mad.
Adrian, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to write a “new” Shakespeare play. Of his project he says,
My relationship [to A Midsummer Night’s Dream] is one of abject admiration. I had it in the back of my head to do a story or a novel that’s a retelling of a Shakespeare, and I thought I’d probably like to retell A Midsummer’s Night Dream but could never figure out what the actual story would be. What could I possibly come up with that would add anything to something that was already perfect, or at least make the retold story urgent and compelling? So it took a while. I figured it out in part from walking back and forth to work through Buena Vista Park at dawn and dusk, when it’s a fairly creepy and magical place, and in part from having a relationship fall apart in just the right way to generate an obsessive need to tell a story about love.
What do you think? Is the great poet and playwright untouchable or do modern authors have the right to “liberate” him from the shackles of canonization?
Related: Listen to Arthur Phillips on “Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson.”
*Full disclosure: I am a founding editor of InDigest.