Publisher sends Shakespeare's plays out for a modern-day rewrite

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 5:21 p.m.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has never liked “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“I have no favorite moments in this play,” Tyler said. “I first read it in college and disliked it intensely, and I can't say my attitude toward it softened any when I read it again just recently.”

Very soon, Tyler is going to get a chance to reimagine and make sense of “The Taming of the Shrew.” She's writing a novel based on the play as part of a project by the publishing house Hogarth to commission novels based on all 37 of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare lived and died four centuries ago and has since been adapted into all sorts of media that didn't exist when he was alive, including film, television and radio. Joss Whedon's acclaimed film “Much Ado About Nothing,” released earlier this summer — was shot at his Santa Monica home with actors in modern dress. Last month, Ian Doescher released a book that retells the “Star Wars” saga in Shakespearean verse.

Asking novelists to adapt Shakespeare's oeuvre — with complete artistic freedom, the publishers say — is a tribute to the Bard's enduring power and influence. It's also a chance to bring his classic language into a modern setting. A “Julius Caesar” set in an African republic, perhaps. Or “The Tempest” set on another planet.

“Shakespeare and his range of work seem to have defined these seminal human experiences, be it war, marriage, friendship, the creative act,” said Hogarth publisher Molly Stern. “He got to the essence of how we live.”

The British writer Jeanette Winterson will adapt Shakespeare's play “The Winter's Tale” for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Stern said the publishing house is finalizing deals with other authors. And because English is a language that's circled the world since Shakespeare's time, the editors are reaching out to a global range of writers.

“We want to reference the literary world as it exists now,” Stern said. If it can find the right authors for all 37, Stern said, the house will publish them all.

On social media, lovers of Shakespeare and literature are speculating about which author would be best matched to their favorite plays. Perhaps the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo could write a “Macbeth.” Or maybe Haruki Murakami could take on “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

As for “The Taming of the Shrew,” it's a play many readers over the centuries have found troubling and downright misogynistic. It begins with a feisty Katherine telling one man she will “comb your noddle with a three-legged stool and paint your face and use you like a fool.” But by the play's end, she's literally under her husband's heel.

“I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war where they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy and sway, when they are bound to serve, love and obey,” Kate says.

Tyler does not find “the Shrew” to be a good role model. “What can possibly be going on in Katherine's mind?” she asked in an email interview. “Or in Shakespeare's, for that matter?”

So why, then, does Tyler want to write a novel based on the play?

“Since my greatest joy in writing novels has been the deepening understanding of my characters in ways I'd never predicted, it seemed to me that ‘The Taming of the Shrew' was the natural choice,” she said.

“Mainly, I'm just interested to see what on earth will come out of my mouth,” she added.

The first Hogarth Shakespeare volume is scheduled to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death. A skeptic might see crass commercialism at work. But commenting in the Guardian, the writer and critic Bidisha saw great possibilities. “It's an opportunity to discover what the timeless geniuses of now make of a timeless genius of then,” she wrote.

Hector Tobar is a staff writerfor the Los Angeles Times.

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