Ripping off and riffing off are related but distinct activities. A jazz player takes a standard and turns it inside out and back to front and then, to a cheer, makes it reassemble out of the apparent dissonances. Oh. It is ‘Summertime’. The enabling conditions of a successful riff-off are virtuosity in the performer and deep familiarity with the standard among the audience. Recognition comes with a smile, and the more oblique the recognition the bigger the smile. The performer is, as we now say (because we’re never quite easy with things that are free and fun), ‘paying tribute’ to the standard.
We tend to call it ripping off when a familiar person covertly takes over the work of a less familiar person, whether deliberately or not. When George Harrison was sued for using the tune of the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ for ‘My Sweet Lord’, the $1.5 million in damages might have raised a smile or two in some quarters, and lovers of literary mischief might have grinned to think that pious old George’s subconscious turned the background ‘Do lay do lay do lay’ of the original into Alleluiahs and Hare Krishnas. But the judge, though willing to accept the borrowing wasn’t deliberate, didn’t think it was funny: ‘“My Sweet Lord” is the very same song as “He’s So Fine” with different words.’ Harrison might have claimed that what made the song his own was the little guitar riff at the start, but he lost. It was a rip-off.
With Shakespeare you can get away with almost any kind of textual appropriation, but he is unripoffable because he combines near infinite cultural status with instant recognisability. Concealing a debt to him or doing a George and blaming subconscious memory isn’t an option because his plots and his words are just too familiar. But riffing off Shakespeare is a big industry. Indeed, as he passes four hundred years dead, flesh beyond necrotic, trim beard dispersed to the winds (‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away./Oh, that that earth which kept the world in awe/Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw!’), he might feel it’s all gone a bit far. The 400th anniversary of his death generated some good things – multiple performances in multiple styles, the rich BBC Shakespeare archive – but it also produced a good dose of codswallop. The perdurability, the universality, the vitality of the bard. The life of the text is its afterlife. Party poppers everywhere, even for the natural party poopers among us, because it’s all good, isn’t it, the remaking the reinventing the reproducing the reperforming the transforming the conferences the radio shows the novelettes the celebrations the celebrities the inverting the critiquing the rewriting it’s all vital all vibrant all part of the joy of text, isn’t it?
It might, late on in the year, be time to sweep away some of those irritating strings of coloured paper that get ground into the floor after a party and to wrest some attitude from the platitudes. It isn’t and wasn’t all good. This year should have alerted everyone to the fact that we have two big clichés about Shakespeare, neither of which is quite true. One is that he’s universal. Another is that his works only have meaning to particular people and places and so are understood best through adaptation and performance on particular occasions. These adaptations might take him against the grain, but hey, this is wood with wild cross grain anyway, so get in the groove. There is no logical contradiction between these two clichés. Something can be at once universally applicable and comprehensible only through its particular instantiations; and the consequence of its universality would be that its instantiations are potentially infinite and necessarily partial. But these two slightly different bullshit Shakespeares are nowadays often locked together like a couple of Aunt Sallies trying to scratch out each other’s eyes. One is freighted with solemnity and offers universal moral truths and universal human types. The other is the hipster Shakespeare who says let’s do a transgender Troilus to make it relevant.
Our contradictory views of Shakespeare replicate some of the things he said about death. Death turns you back into elemental nothingness: imperial Caesar turned to clay and everyone else will too. But death also particularises. It particularises both at the moment of dying – which only you can do for yourself and which you have to do alone – and perhaps again when you enter the undiscovered country from whose etceteras no traveller ever whatnotted, and your particular crimes are remembered. This may well be the reason why writing that gets inside death (Hamlet, the Iliad) has on the whole mattered more to people than writing about life or parties. Death tells us more about what we are: a universal nothing but also very painfully a particular something. And it is the reason tragedies tend to be more transhistorically adaptable than comedies: laughter has in common with death its tendency to be specific, but unlike death it dates. Try getting a laugh from Beatrice’s description of Claudio as ‘civil as an orange’, with or without a footnote explaining that bittersweet oranges come from Seville. It might be better not to laugh and cheer and celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th deathday but to mourn a little, or at least to think about what it might be like for a text to be dead – both for it to be just words in a mulch from which we cannot fashion thought, and a particular thing that is gone. When we read a text or see it performed or rewritten we might get glimpses of something that isn’t there, like seeing the back of someone you know is dead across the road or hearing the standard tune just as Sonny Rollins is tearing it to pieces, but the glimpse might chiefly provoke a memory of all the things that aren’t directly before us. At the end of a riff maybe you get a big RIP, a sense of the particular thing that’s gone.
Certainly there are grounds for weeping over some of this batch of novelistic adaptations of Shakespeare, all of which are of comedies or tragicomedies rather than tragedies. It’s hard to read without some pain either Jeanette Winterson’s rewriting of The Winter’s Tale or Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice. Part of the problem is that this series seems to operate on the principle that the ideal person to rewrite a given play must be one who shares an obvious feature with it. Winterson is an orphan, so she gets a play about lost children. Jacobson has written a lot about being Jewish, so Shylock is clearly his man. Thus boxed in by their own selling points neither novel can really fly or surprise. The good bits of Shylock Is My Name are melancholic responses to Shakespeare. Jacobson’s modern Shylock, Simon Strulovitch, a middle-aged rich Jew with a rebellious daughter, meets the ghost (is it?) of the original Shylock while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, and Shylock comes home with him. Shylock himself is haunted by his dead wife, Leah, and his lost daughter, and Strulovitch has an immobile disabled wife to remind us of the wives and mothers who so often in Shakespeare aren’t there. The depths of the book are good: the ghost Shylock (though he can be a bit of a bore) bites away at and reshapes the new Shylock, as though an old play can nag away in the mind and make something new happen.
Its problems lie chiefly in the quality of its shallows. Shakespearean shallows tend to be marked as shallows, and often conceal hidden nasties – most obviously in Justice Shallow in Henry IV, whose burblings mask a deal of corruption. The young Christians in The Merchant of Venice are carefully engineered to appear as comic shallows to begin with: Lorenzo, Gratiano, Salerio, Solanio – which is which and who cares anyway? As the play advances, the indulgence routinely granted to comic simplifications gradually leaches away, and the cruelty within shallowness starts to tear at the surface. Jacobson makes all of Shakespeare’s Christians shallow bastards from the off, and he does it with a comic touch that isn’t light enough. He reimagines Portia as Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra a Thing of Beauty Is a Joy for Ever Christine Shalcross, the daughter of an egotistical and rich academic who leaves her a set of love tests for a husband. She decides to tear these up and invent a new one for herself. This involves asking her lovers to choose between a Porsche (geddit?) and a VW Beetle:
Plurabelle – who wanted to be loved for herself, that’s to say for what she was rather than what she had, but who was as hard to distinguish from what she had as people generally are, and she more so than most because it was what she had that gave her the confidence and the leisure to be who she was – thus vexed and double-vexed, Plurabelle could not stop asking Barney to reaffirm his valuation of her. Once you have presented yourself as a prize wrapped up in an enigma it is difficult not to want to go on being guessed at and bid for.
No one in Shakespeare gets it in the neck just for being rich, largely because money tended in his world to be tangled up with credit in the epistemological and social senses. Just the bare possession of it was less than half the story about a person’s status and wasn’t in itself a reason for dislike; and poets of course needed to please rich patrons in the way authors now need to please publishers and indulge their wheezes (‘Guys, let’s get Howard to rewrite Merchant for the 400th’).
Sticking it to the rich might win you golden opinions today, but it can slap your prose instantly into a lead casket. Winterson’s version of Leontes is a mega-rich hedgefunding cliché who sets up video surveillance on his wife, who is a mega-rich popstar: ‘Leo needed a fucking camera in the dressing fucking room. They were probably doing it on the fucking faux-fur coats like Liberace. Leo needed to webcam the whole house. He needed to webcam her cunt.’ It’s a bit funny that he doesn’t know what ‘fucking’ actually fucking means, but not that funny. It may be that these easy laughs capture something about the separation of money from other things in our time, or that they show that extremely rich people have become more or less the only group about which it is possible to be unself-critically critical. Or they might act as riffs on the rip-offs we live with and might make us feel a protective nostalgia for Shakespeare, who never knew Celebrity Big Brother or those other brothers of the Lehman variety. Or they might just indicate that neither of these books is very good.
What these books do show is that it’s surprisingly hard to riff off Shakespeare. You won’t end up in court, but everyone who reads you will always have the original tune in their head, and some will have most of it by heart. It’s relatively easy to pastiche The Moonstone, say, because most people remember from Wilkie Collins not much more than genre and milieu and will smile at the way you remake those into Fingersmith; but with Shakespeare either you depart aggressively from what you know your readers know, or you dip back comfortably into the known, or you flit and flap between. And given that playfulness and assurance are vital elements in riffing off, this is a real problem. Anxiety cramps the fingers and restricts the available registers of humour. There’s the famous phrase deliberately re-inflected or deflated: Jacobson has the ghost of Shylock, rather than Portia, say ‘The quality of mercy is not strained.’ There’s the comically over-precise cultural transposition: Autolycus becomes a used car salesman (‘Autos Like Us’) selling dodgy DeLoreans. Perhaps the easiest trick to pull off is the deliberate bathos that plays off modern inarticulacy against Shakespearean super-articulacy, as when Margaret Atwood’s equivalent of Ferdinand says to her Miranda, ‘Have you got, like, a boyfriend?’, rather than ‘All corners else o’ th’ earth/Let liberty make use of; space enough/Have I in such a prison.’ Riffing off depends on being absolutely comfortable about when to hit the wrong note.
This may be the reason Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, though it’s a slight book, works so well. She plays The Taming of the Shrew as though it were an Anne Tyler novel, set, inevitably, in Baltimore. She asks of the play the question a novelist might put to herself when thinking through a plot: why might Kate in the end quite like Petruccio and want to make her speech of acquiescence to him? Add in the necessary trimmings of a Tyler novel – houses and families that somehow function despite their incompatibilities and inarticulacies, migrants who partially assimilate, terrible social occasions overburdened with misplaced kindness – and you have a fiction in which Kate becomes the bolshie daughter of a mildly autistic geneticist who’s desperate to get his Polish research assistant a green card and who thinks marriage to awkward Kate will do the trick. Piotr is a Pole with a fondness for compliments that go a little wrong: ‘“Just like the girls in my country”, he said, beaming. “So rude spoken”,’ and because Kate is tall he says she ‘resemble flamingo dancer’. The Taming of the Shrew becomes a Tyler tale about two cussed people finding they can just about fit with each other’s cussedness and about the difficult but not insuperable problem of letting people in and learning to speak with their tongue. Kate’s final speech (‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/Even such a woman oweth to her husband’) becomes ‘It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not “backing down” as you call it; I’m letting him into my country.’
There is something here of the distinctively small town version of toleration that can make Tyler seem timid in the way she thinks about social and cultural integration: the integration moves always one way, towards becoming more and more Baltimorean. But her strengths have always lain in charm (of which Vinegar Girl has a lot) and an absolute conviction that big problems are best explored through small and highly localised actions. As Kate says, more or less speaking for her author: ‘The unsatisfying thing about practising restraint is that nobody knew you were practising it.’ Vinegar Girl also displays the restrained vengefulness against the morally stupid that always gives a little bite to Tyler’s more kittenish moments: Kate’s conventional sister Bunny is condemned in the epilogue to marry her personal trainer and move to New Jersey.
Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the pick of the bunch, though, because it just says what the hell to the problems that beset the art of riffing and gets on with it. The result is a bit hit-and-miss, but riffing off is like that. Prospero becomes Felix, artistic director at the Makeshiweg Shakespeare Festival, who is sacked in a managerial coup (‘Wow them with wonder, as he says to his actors. Let’s make magic’). As with all these adaptations, the play is moved away from the other worlds that Shakespeare seems to have needed to create in order to think in them, and transposed to a place close to Atwood’s own home: it’s only a hundred miles from Toronto to the Shakespeare festival at Stratford, Ontario, for which Makeshiweg is a makeshift disguise. Dispossessed of his kingdom, Felix leaves behind his wackily experimental productions (he plans to present Ariel as ‘a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments’) and hides away in a shack with his furry Prospero gown and staff. He gets a job under the name of Mr Duke directing prisoners in the Fletcher Correctional Institute in versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Hag-Seed also includes a haunting, which riff-offs seem often to need in order to show that they have lost something: Felix had a daughter called Miranda who died at the age of three. Her ghost is often there in the corner of his shack (though sometimes she sulks, being by now a teenage ghost), and becomes his Ariel. That brings in a dose of death and loss to counterbalance the gorgeous liberal fantasy that performing Shakespeare can liberate even those in prison. It also suggests the principle so crucial to The Tempest, that there are other worlds which could have been or which could yet be: in them dead Miranda might be a teenager now.
And this in turn indicates why Hag-Seed works better than the other adaptations. The greatest resource of riffing off a known ground is that it counterpoises a pull towards contingency against a ground-tone of inevitability. The story could go this way – does it really have to go that way again? Riffing off The Tempest in particular can get close to the heart of Shakespeare’s play, since The Tempest is itself continually pulling against inevitability: it’s a revenge tragedy that turns into something else, an old world drama of usurpation and revenge re-enacted in a new world key. Since it is itself a kind of riff off revenge tragedy it is very accommodating of riff-offs. The cast assembled in prison by Mr Duke for his performance of The Tempest is a bit too Orange Is the New Black, with all sizes and kinds of criminal (his Ariel in the play is ‘8Hand, genius black-hat hacker’), all of whom seem mysteriously to lack criminality, and the prisoners’ fictional continuations of Prospero’s story at the end of the novel smack a little too much of a resource pack for teachers; but their performance sets Mr Duke up to stage the play as an act of revenge on – or is it forgiveness of? – his enemies. It becomes the play as Shakespeare might just have thought of it, a kind of riff-off of Hamlet’s vengeful ‘Mousetrap’ drama, in which (spoilers) nobody dies.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.