Uncovering Shakespeare

I love musical covers—where one artist performs, and often changes, another artist’s song.  I’ve taken a lot of gentle teasing over the years because of this, because many people see covers as a form of copying someone else, rather than an original work.  But for me, it’s always been about interpretation—it’s fascinating for me to see how someone can hear a song, internalize it, and fundamentally change it while still leaving it enough like the original that it’s recognizable.  For someone who’s always been fascinated by the creative process, the act of interpretation and working within the boundaries that entails is just as interesting as the act of creation.

My love of cover versions isn’t limited to music.  I find literary covers to be endlessly amusing.  Unlike musical covers, their literary equivalents are very often humorous—or downright farcical.  Though it’s also a common trope to retell a famous story from a new perspective, or create an unofficial prequel or sequel.

Of late, I’ve become enamored of several rather interesting covers of stories by William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a prime target for these literary interpretations.  I’m sure this stems from Shakespeare’s centuries-old theater tradition—a medium which practically revolves around interpretation.  My reading list, over the past months has a generous dose of the bard, done with irreverent tribute.  I thought I’d share a few fun ones with you.

The first entry in this list is rather traditional in its inspiration.  William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, was born when the author attended a modern interpretation of The Merry Wives of Windsor the same weekend he watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time.  There are actually three books, Star Wars, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return (this last one has yet to be released), and each of the three translates the movie not only into Shakespearean language, but also into a staged play format.  Perhaps these books are nothing more than a mash-up, but there’s something delightfully silly about hearing sci-fi speak retrograded to the times of Romeo and Juliet.  Literature it’s not, but for those steeped in Star Wars mythology it’s a delightful way to waste time.

Next on the list is a pair of books by perennial farcissist, Christopher Moore. Fool is the play King Lear retold from the point of view of the last character listed in the dramatis personae, the fool.  Moore takes this minor character from the original play, and creates, not a power behind the throne, but a character so grounded in absurdity that he is able to remain sane while those around him dissolve into madness.  It’s not Moore’s best book, by any stretch of imagination, but for someone whose list of works includes A Dirty Job, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, saying this one isn’t the best is not a knock.  The sequel, The Serpent of Venice (which I have only just begun to read) is a little more ambitious in its interpretation.  Not only does it use the same fool from King Lear, but amalgamates plot elements from Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The last entry is perhaps the one that takes the most liberties with Shakespeare, but also in an odd way stays the most true to the source material. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, that started life as a Kickstarter project. The ambitious, 700+ page paperback, lets you make the decisions as to how Hamlet turns out. North makes little to no effort to stay true to the language of Shakespeare, but does a whimsical and wonderful job of providing a new voice through which he narrates the farcical plot twists that litter the book. To be sure, with the correct choices, you can read the book with the same plot and timeline as Shakespeare’s text—although to do so you’ll have to put up with a little goading and mocking by the narrator. But it’s so much more fun to read the story as another character—hint: if you choose to play the king the book is very funny, but only 3-6 pages long. The magic of this book is uncovered if you are adventurous enough to play Ophelia. With Ophelia you have a bevy of increasingly non-traditional storyline—including spurning Hamlet, and pursuing a science-post-doc.

I know there are those of you who are horrified by all these recommendations that take extreme license with the immortal words of the bard, but for me who can’t seem to get enough cover versions, this variety is just the right spice for my summer reading.

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4 thoughts on “Uncovering Shakespeare

  1. Personally, I think it is awesome when an author puts the time and effort into doing a well-done “cover” of another work. I’m not so much of a fan of poorly-done covers where it’s just about reeling in folks based on the title when in reality the actual story has nothing to do with the original.

    I also like when artists just look at something like Shakespeare and poke at it in different ways. I am a big fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and their works (“The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged”). They stay reasonably true to the bits of the original works they use, but put them together in a different, usually funny, way. So, kind of like a cover but kind of like an introduction to the entire set of works.

    I am going to have to pick up that Ryan North book… it sounds like a lot of fun. I recently got the Shakespeare’s Star Wars book, but haven’t started reading it yet.

  2. While I’m not as enamored by covers as you are, I do like it when and older work gets new life (or humor) by a re-telling. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” by Seth Grahame-Smith comes to mind – perhaps not as high brow as the other covers, but it was still fun.

  3. First off, let’s call it what it is–fan fiction (playing in somebody’s else’s sandbox, in other words, which has been around for at least 700 years). I’m with Dale, I love this stuff, and I’d go a step farther–I think it’s harder to write good fan fiction than original fiction because you’re generally trying to stay within somebody else’s rules while still coming up with a good story/plot/etc.

    The mother of them all might be “Jonathan Larsen’s Rent, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which is an AU (alternate universe) fanfic of Puccini’s La Boheme (much like the movie Moulin Rouge, an AU hybrid crossover fanfic of La Boheme and La Traviata). Puccini’s opera is itself fanfic of Henry Murger’s novel, Scenes de la vie Boheme.” Text from “I’m done explaining why fanfic is OK.”

    P.S. Lamb is one of my top 10 books. Not bad for Biblefic, huh?

  4. Dale, I would have known nothing about any of these books were it not for your post. Thanks for the insightful reviews. But I do love Rent!

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