I have been exploring the reimagining of stories recently, generally because it interests me, and more specifically for a paper I am presenting in Prague next month.
As a fan of Shakespeare, I particularly love the way people play with Shakespeare's plays, not least because in many instances, that is what he himself was doing - playing, interpreting, retelling stories others had already told. But after 400 years, one might argue that we must have exhausted all the possible ways to retell these stories. So what does make them endure in their adaptability, their ability to engage artists and audiences the world over?
I believe it is because in these stories, Shakespeare captures deep and enduring truths at the heart of human nature, human story, human being.
Take the two I watched on DVD this weekend from BBC's Shakespeare Retold series of a few years ago: Much Ado About Nothing, and Taming of the Shrew. The writers (directors, actors, all the team), have taken the plays shaped by Shakespeare and asked of them - if this story was set in our time and our place (21st Century England), how would it unfold? How would changing the context shape our telling of the story?
What is intriguing is the ways in which these storytellers tell the story both as Shakespeare did (in broad brush strokes, and retaining some of the details) and the ways in which they adapt the story for their audience.
In Much Ado, the big change made is at the end - a 21st century Hero does not marry Claude, but rather declares her frustration at being treated as the possession of her father and her fiancé, and decides to be her own boss. For in the 21st century, a woman does not need to marry - Hero has financial independence through her career in broadcasting, can secure her own place to live, is respected in the community without the validation of a husband. So setting the story in this context, does it feel right for Hero to run back to Claude's arms after he has humiliated her so publicly at the altar, or might she respond differently?
In the case of Taming of the Shrew, I think audiences have long been uncertain about how we feel in response to the 'taming' of Kate. With a 21st century Kate still the older unmarried sister, but in this retelling of the story, a candidate for leader of the opposition, might she also not 'need' a husband? The plotline in this case is built upon a perceived need for Kate to be married, and to be seemingly totally unsuitable as a prospective wife. Her Petruchio is mad, bordering on insane, and the 'taming' of Kate is an intention that he states after he has begun playing with her, denying food, clothing, sleep. This behaviour is depicted in this retelling of the story as his own madness and insecurity; the threat to tame his bride a threat. What happens in the 'taming' is more that Kate grows to understand this man she has very quickly fallen in love with, and a discovery on both their parts of how their individual eccentricities might co-exist for their mutual nurturing and joy in life. The twist in this tale is that Bianca's suitor #1 marries the sisters' mother (a widow rather than Shakespeare's widower father), and that Bianca's suitor #2 declines to marry her after all, refusing to sign a pre-nup.
As these 21st century storytellers play with Shakespeare's stories, they pay homage to him in delightful ways: Bianca's suitor #2 is an Italian on holiday in England, Kate is whisked off to Italy for her honeymoon (both nods to the Italian setting for Shakespeare's play); Benedick and Beatrice read Shakespeare's sonnet, 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments ...' as Benedick prepares his best man's speech. Throughout both these retellings, though Shakespearean language is not employed, traces of his text remain in Benedick and Beatrice's monologues of realisation of their love, and Kate's speech retains the pivotal (and problematic) scene of Petruchio's summoning his wife and asking her to put her hand beneath his feet (using her eccentric way of exaggerated speech to describe the mutual trust she has discovered with her husband and explain why, even had she had time to consider it, she would not have signed a pre-nup).
The stories that last - as with traditions that last - are those that contain gems of enduring truth about and for humanity, and that are sensitively adapted for the retelling with the changes that come from human growth. A lot has changed in the ways we are human since Shakespeare imagined and reimagined his stories; and much remains profoundly the same. We are still deeply relational beings, seeking to love and be loved, yearning for trust and belonging. These stories explore the experiences that change outward shape, but at heart are the experiences of humans in every time and place. Shakespeare's stories endure for retelling after retelling because they speak to those experiences.