Big Rip-Off

Colin Burrow

  • Shylock Is My Name: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Retold by Howard Jacobson
    Hogarth, 277 pp, £16.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 78109 028 2
  • Vinegar Girl: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Retold by Anne Tyler
    Hogarth, 233 pp, £16.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 78109 018 3
  • The Gap of Time: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Retold by Jeanette Winterson
    Hogarth, 291 pp, £16.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78109 029 9
  • Hag-Seed: ‘The Tempest’ Retold by Margaret Atwood
    Hogarth, 293 pp, £16.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 78109 022 0

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in