Why would a 21st century writer want to bother with Shakespeare? The stuff’s written in early modern English (hard enough) and of another time. The answer is because he was the real article. He was a genius. His stories deal with issues and conflicts that still plague us and we can learn from him.
Macbeth is about a hero brought down by ambition, Hamlet a coward finding courage, Lear a fool finding wisdom and so on and so on. There are a million stories to tell about each of those ideas and the many others Shakespeare explores in his plays. They are about the human condition as it still is. Why ignore a resource like that?
Since women have replaced men-acting-as-women in the theatre, some of his plays about identity have not worked particularly well in my experience. But treasures for any aspiring writer are in there too. And as it’s Christmas, let’s talk about Twelfth Night.
I was never convinced the girl, Viola, dressed as a man called Cesario could be mistaken for her brother, Sebastion, and consequently that Olivia could fall in love with her as him. It was nonsense. But times have changed. The young are questioning ideas of gender defined solely as male and female. Where babies are born of indeterminate gender, doctors are no longer making a stab (literally and metaphorically) at deciding their gender fate. They put their scalpels to one side and let the children decide.
Some are choosing to remain as they are, somewhere in-between man and woman. Now re-imagine Twelfth Night with such actors (or protagonists in your reworking of the story). Suddenly, Olivia’s love for Cesario is convincing. Suddenly, so is Orsino’s odd flirtations with his manservant. It has the seeds of a great 21st century tale exploring the hypocrisy and insecurities of sexual attraction.
And it’s quite possibly exactly what Shakespeare intended. In those Tudor days, doctors couldn’t redesign a human being. If they allowed them to survive, if their parents nurtured and loved them, what became of them? In itself it’s a great idea for a historical novel but one answer might be, they lived true to themselves—and that Shakespeare knew of them.
And no doubt they had sexual encounters with those who considered themselves either heterosexual or homosexual. Maybe it was common and, If comedy is about discomfort, just imagine the guffaws in the Globe during Twelfth Night,s more amorous scenes.
It's said that the play worked better in Shakespeare's time because boys acted the women's parts. But it may also have worked better because audiences also understood the shaky ground that is gender better than we moderns. Maybe we're catching up.
Why not steal from Shakespeare and update the play as festive novel. Imagine Orsino telling his musicians, ‘If sex be the food of love, play on.’ before throwing open his window and calling Scrooge-like to the scarfed wrapped boy in the snowy street below. Boy—if that’s what you are—go buy me the largest turkey you can find! I’ve discovered Christmas.’
Book Review/Recommendation: The Norton Shakespeare
This is the complete works and I recommend it because of its extensive notes. They give context, unravel the language and explain themes. It’s a masterwork full of masterpieces.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.