To Bard or Not to Bard
by Jon Michaud
In the first of a new monthly column called The Book Drop, our librarian Jon Michaud looks at literature inspired by Shakespeare.
I spent last week reading Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, Vinegar Girl, which was published this spring. At first glance it’s very much of a piece with the rest of Tyler’s oeuvre, a comedy of manners set in Baltimore and featuring a quirkily dysfunctional family: a Johns Hopkins scientist named Dr. Battista and his two daughters, Kate, in her late twenties, and Bunny, aged fifteen. The plot centers around the father’s attempts to arrange a green-card marriage between Kate and his talented Eastern European research assistant, Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire.
What sets the book apart from Tyler’s earlier works, however, is that Vinegar Girl is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels inspired by the Bard’s plays. Tyler’s, based on The Taming of the Shrew, is the third to be published, following Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale) and Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice. (All of these books, I should note, are in the Center’s collection.) More titles are planned for the Hogarth series, and some of them, such as Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (The Tempest, October) and Jo Nesbø’s as-yet-untitled Macbeth (February, 2017) are quite delectable in prospect.
The project’s mix of tribute and adaptation begs a question, though: How does one assess the books in the Hogarth series? It would seem that not only must they be successful as novels in their own right, but they must also engage meaningfully with the original plays from which they are drawn. It’s daunting enough for a writer to be compared to his or her peers, but to invite comparison with the greatest writer of all time (let’s not get into the gnarly question of the plays’ authorship here) is enough to give even the most confident novelist a case of the jitters. And then there are also the many previous adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to contend with. One imagines Edward St. Aubyn, scheduled for King Lear in 2018, sitting down to write with the Swan of Avon looking over one shoulder and Jane Smiley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Lear-inspired) A Thousand Acres, peering over the other. No pressure.
The Taming of the Shrew has a rich and varied adaptive lineage, including Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and a much-loved episode of the 80’s TV series, Moonlighting, but I couldn’t turn up another significant work of prose fiction that is closely modeled on it. (If you know of one, please tell me.) As much as any of Shakespeare’s works, The Shrew is perhaps best suited to being performed rather than read. The play-within-the-play structure and the verbal jousting in the arguments Kate has with her father and her suitor may sizzle on the page, but they verily dazzle on the stage.
Tyler’s book is charming and easygoing, and cleverly transforms the basic conceit of the original, which is that the play is a sham, performed for a drunk who is being duped into thinking he is a nobleman. In Vinegar Girl, the marriage of Kate and Pyotr is also, at least initially, bogus, staged for the benefit of the INS. But there are dimensions to The Taming of the Shrew that are not accessible to Tyler because of changing social mores. The Shrew is a subversive critique of Elizabethan era norms of courtship and marriage. (It is also an inquisition into its own form, a play about performance.) Tyler’s book, a work of straight naturalism, somewhat awkwardly presents the arranged marriage between Kate and Pyotr as a truer path to love for her characters than the modern-day rituals of Internet dating and social-media flirting. In doing so, it softens the original and ends up seeming (to me) nostalgic rather than transgressive.
The biggest obstacle for Tyler and every other Hogarth author, though, is the sheer strength of Shakespeare’s writing. Here is a famous, innuendo-laden exchange from Act 2, Scene 1 of The Shrew:
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.
Katherina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Katherina: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherina: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katherina: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.
Katherina: That I’ll try.
[She strikes him.]
The corresponding scene in Tyler’s novel is perfectly fine but lacks the salty pizzazz of the original:
“In my country they have proverb [Pyotr said]: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”
This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…. “But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”
There are options beyond the Hogarth series for Shakespeare-loving novel readers—works of fiction that pay tribute to the plays without being direct adaptations of them. Two titles come immediately to mind: Angela Carter’s Wise Children (1991) and Leon Rooke’s Shakespeare’s Dog (1983). Carter’s book, set in the world of London theatre, features twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, illegitimate daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of the twentieth century—“two funny old girls, paint an inch thick, clothes sixty years too young, stars on their stockings, and little wee skirts skimming their buttocks.” The action, replete with cross-dressing, mistaken identities, bawdy humor, and dramatic reversals, romps towards a climactic scene at Hazard’s 100th birthday party.
Rooke, by contrast, takes the unlikely approach of narrating his novel from the point of view of Shakespeare’s loquacious pooch, Mr. Hooker. The Bard—Shagsbier, as Hooker dubs him—is a hen-pecked daydreamer who fails to impress even his own pet. “He’d been up there all day, minting rhyme, scratching dandruff from his empty head…. It ain’t words, he’d say, but how they’re shook.”
Tyler told The Washington Post that she hates Shakespeare’s plays—“All of them”—and hates The Taming of the Shrew the most. And she nicely summarized the task she and the other Hogarth authors face. “When they first mentioned the possibility to me, I actually laughed, because here’s somebody [Shakespeare] with terrible plots—and they’re not even his own—but wonderful words, and then someone comes along and says, ‘Why don’t you take his terrible plot and add your inferior words to it?’” Perhaps Tyler was not the best choice for the series. We’ll see, in the coming months, how Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbø fare when faced with the same challenge.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud