It is, to quote Ms Austen, a truth universally acknowledged that William Shakespeare wrote some pretty decent plays. Even if most of them were retellings of stories which would probably have been familiar to the more educated members of his original audiences. Nothing wrong with that, of course, since we are often told that there are a limited number of basic plots (and even combining them will lead to the more prolific authors having to repeat themselves I guess…). And most of these plots are still being repeated in books and films to this day (Warm Bodies, Lion King or Forbidden Planet anyone?) so we know they are standing the test of time. But is it possible to make new stories from these sources?
In Monstrous Little Voices five authors from various fantasy/sci-fi-ish backgrounds have a pretty good try at creating something original using characters, plot details and settings of various Shakespeare plays. Some, like The Tempest or Midsummer Night’s Dream, were familiar to me where others (All’s Well That Ends Well, for example) were outside of my experience. I’m not ashamed to say that I had to look up one or two characters (and the entire plot of All’s Well…..) and I got totally lost in a maze of the Medici. None of which spoiled my enjoyment of these tales – either individually or taken as a linked whole.
Firstly although they are all written as prose, in words understandable to any modern reader the language used had a kind of Shakespearean feel to it. There wasn’t anything that stood out as obviously 21st century usage and, let’s face it, there is a lot of our Will in the English language anyway. The next thing that struck me was that the themes raised in the stories – gender fluidity, love in later life, betrayal, jealousy – are all ones which were key to the original plays but which are still relevant today. Even the physical descriptions of the various fairies are obviously multi-ethnic. Finally I really enjoyed the way the stories blended a medley of Shakespearean characters from a variety of plays with the brutal reality of the warfare and politics of the city states of early 17th century Europe. I almost don’t want to choose a favourite as each tale had its high points. In Coral Bones we find out what happened to Miranda and Ariel after the action of the Tempest, The Course of True Love is a touching late-life love story (which, to be fair, owes more to Ovid than Shakespeare)) and The Unkindest Cut adds another layer of darkness to the already less than cuddly Macbeth. Even in the Cannon’s Mouth brings the preceeding tales together, and has piqued my curiousity enough that I will now have to read All’s Well That Ends Well, and On The Twelfth Night rounds everything off in a way which is both satisfying and heartbreakingly sad.
There is, understandably, a lot of interest in Shakespeare this year as it is the 400th anniversary of his death. Even if you think you don’t like the Bard I’d urge you to try these stories if you are a fan of well-written magical fantasy – you never know, you may even end up wanting to brush up on your Shakespeare…