So, tomorrow (9/29/21) we get to find out what Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2022 Season will look like. You should be able to find more information at then. For those of us who get excited about live theater, knowing that it is on its way back to the Rogue Valley is a balm. There will be shows… and there will be Shakespeare. I’m super excited to hear what shows we get to experience in the coming year. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, so in honor of those waiting eagerly for a new OSF season after the past two years of darkness, I bring you a Shakespearean post, all about retellings: 

As a part of OSF withdrawal, I’ve recently read two newly published books that use Shakespearean plots to tell broader stories. Which seems at its core to be what modern productions of Shakespeare are as well. A traditional, well known, story can be retold with different staging, costumes, casting, directorial choices, and the audience leaves with a different sense of the story than they had before. I’ve seen Henry V be staged in a jingoistic way. I’ve also seen it staged as an anti-war/protest play (looking at you, OSF 2018 season). I’ve seen simple staging solve the problem of the likely differences between Beatrice’s and Hero’s “happily ever afters” based on the events of Much Ado About Nothing. Same basic content (the text of the play), different impact. Retellings in novel form have this same magic. 

To paraphrase one of my favorite things that Neil Gaiman has ever said about anything (and that’s saying a lot): If you turn retellings right, they will blow up. While Mr. Gaiman is more of a folk and fairy tale kind of guy, Shakespeare retellings work like this, too. The story can be twisted just a little bit or highlight a scene (or even a gap between scenes) in a way that isn’t usually done and really powerful points can be made using a story that is super familiar. Alternately, a reader’s comfort with a specific story can be used to ease the reader into processing thematic content by trojan horsing a difficult topic into a larger story. 

And we are lucky to have two recent examples of just this:  

  • Mona Awad’s All’s Well (a retelling of, you guessed it, “All’s Well That Ends Well”… with elements from many other plays) tells the story of a middle-aged woman struggling with issues related to aging and chronic pain treated by male medical professionals.  
  • In Lyndsay Faye’s The King of Infinite Space (which is mostly “Hamlet”… but with elements from many other plays) the deeper philosophical themes of the story are all present and accounted for. As a bonus, though, the reader gets a tragic love story. “Hamlet” is a lot of things, but a love story is typically not one of those. It features a neuroatypical Hamlet struggling with his sexual identity.  

Both of these books are fun to read for those who watch or read a lot of Shakespeare because they are both chock full of easter-egg Shakespeare references. What struck me as I read them is that what I love about Shakespeare retellings (and, really, with costume and direction, etc. productions of Shakespeare’s plays can also themselves feel like tales retold) is seeing how all the puzzle pieces of a tale well told come together in a unique way. When I filter out the part of the story that is familiar, I can then enjoy the “newness” of what the specific creator of the piece brings to my history with the traditional content. So, my experience as a reader is clearly important to how I process the piece, and I’m just self absorbed enough to think that’s really cool. 

Both of those books are amazing but there are a ton of Shakespeare retellings in our collection. You should totally check one or more out and you can find a bunch of them here (the play being retold can be found in the notes field of each list). And, either way, check out OSF tomorrow to find out which plays we get to experience in 2022!