English was always my favourite subject at school – permission to read as many books as I could, even if that reading was guided, was bliss to me. It still is to be honest (and with rather less in the way of set texts these days) and my voracious book habit continues. I was also lucky enough that my English teachers at school encouraged us to read a wide range of books – some great plays when I was 15 or 16 and, in sixth form, the course was based around world literature so Dostoevsky and Achebe rubbed shoulders with Jane Austen. Oddly, I didn’t seem to have to read the authors you’d usually associate with ‘English Literature’ – there was no Dickens, no Hardy, no Brontes and, astonishingly, no Shakespeare. Although these were the years of the BBC Television Shakespeare series (1978-85) and I watched most of these I didn’t actually ‘study’ Shakespeare until University. Even then I only did one module on ‘Shakespeare the Dramatist’ which was as much about acting and staging a play as studying it for meaning and a brief shot at Hamlet as part of a course on Revenge Tragedy. For me reading Shakespeare has almost always been about acting and about reading for pleasure. And I’ve never found it difficult to understand the language (footnotes are my friend) since so much of our modern usage was coined by Shakespeare himself. I’ve also been making up for my childhood omissions by doing lots of Shakespeare with our reading group at work (Bill Bryson biography in May and Romeo & Juliet in June) – I’m now ready to tackle a volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series: Vinegar Girl, which is Anne Tyler’s updated retelling of Taming of the Shrew.
This version sees Kate, pushing 30 and in a job she thinks she hates, looking after her widowed father and younger sister. In an updating of this story you might expect Kate to be a very combative character and, in some ways she is. But in many other ways – particularly in the way that she has to organise the household, and her life it seems, to keep her rather eccentric scientist father happy – she is actually quite self-effacing. She is bitter and unhappy in many ways and it is only through her relationship with her father’s research assistant that she is able to develop into the woman she should be. This is, is many ways, quite a large deviation from the original – her new husband Pyotr is frustratingly clueless about how to woo a woman or, indeed, most other social niceties but he is not the bully that Petruchio is in the original. Which is a relief – I don’t think that would have made for as appealing a story as this light and almost frothy romance. We get enough back story to make sense of Kate and her sister Bunny and there is enough development (in both sisters) to make a satisfying ending.