Book Review: Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is a noted Shakespeare scholar and here turns his analytical eye on Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrannical rulers in some of his most famous plays. Greenblatt brings us in-depth, yet highly readable, analyses of Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and others. Greenblatt provides us with historical context for both the figures the play was based on, and the political and social (and religious) context of the years during which Shakespeare was writing.

As Greenblatt points out, the late Elizabethan era was a frought time, do I an aging and heirless monarch on the throne, increasingly violent religious fundamentalists threatening terroristic attacks and assassinations (if you guessed Roman Catholics, you would be right), and a society fraying apart in the face of external and internal strife.

While unwilling (or possibly simply unable, due to censorship) to speak directly to events in his lifetime, Shakespeare was a master of taking past (or legendary) events and people and creating a story that nonetheless spoke to his audience.

Greenblatt also brings this scholarship to bear on modern events. While he never names names, it is very clear which individual he is referencing in terms of a modern world leader with decided tyrannical propensities

This, to me, is both good and bad. Good because Greenblatt makes quite a few good points and parallels not just to Shakespeare’s work, but also to the historical events which inspired them. Bad because I feel like this book appeals to a certain kind of person, who I will collectively call “the choir,” and it is not them we need to preach to.

Ah well. This is a wonderfully researched book, well written and readable even to those who aren’t Shakespeare scholars. The subject matter is incredibly interesting, and Greenblatt’s treatment ofnthe material is refreshingly entertaining.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

This is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare undertaking, in which modern author reimagine the Bard’s most famous works. In this offering, Jo Nesbø (of The Snowman fame) brings Macbeth into a Northern city amidst overwhelming police corruption. Duncan has recently been promoted to Chief Inspector, following the downfall of the former, highly corrupt chief. He quickly promotes his SWAT commander, Macbeth, to oversee a new department aimed at stopping the flow of drugs and violence into the city, most especially “Brew”, peddled by drug kingpin, Hecate. What follows is the age-old tale of murderous ambition, and the consequences of putting ends before means-wrapped in a dark, police thriller package.

Nesbø does a great job of sinking his story into the mud and the grit and keeping it there. The story is undeniably a dark one, and Nesbø pulls no punches. The entirety of the story takes place in dreary grayness or in the darkness of the night. Nesbø has given us a setting that is downright claustrophobic.

I’ve read several of the Hogarth stories so far, and I think this may be one of my favorites, I always enjoyed the Macboeth story, and Nesbø’s interpretation makes the story feel new, even as we trod old ground.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth Shakespeare is taking the Bard’s classic stories and updating them for modern readers. I loved Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (The Tempest) and New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Othello). Dunbar is a recent offering, retelling King Lear in light of cutthroat capitalism and private wealth.

Here, the eponymous king takes the form of Henry Dunbar, influential media magnate and wealthy beyond all reason. When Dunbar decides he is tired of the responsibility of his position, he hands the company over to his two eldest (and amoral and psychotic) daughters, Abigail and Megan. The two promptly stick dear old dad in a remote insane asylum and plot to gut the company and squeeze its corpse for cold hard cash. With the help of an alcoholic former comedian and his youngest daughter, Florence (written out of the will for rejecting the Dunbar wealth), Henry Dunbar must struggle back into the “real” world to save his Empire.

This reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy is perfect in this day and age. Henry Dunbar is not someone to admire. He is temperamental, vicious, and (as a comedian whose name I cannot recall once said) “ruin the oceans rich.” Basically, he is someone who has never had to consider the lives and views of others until suddenly everything is taken away from him and he himself is below consideration. By the time we meet him, he is struggling to extricate himself from the hell his daughters have left him in, and he is more a figure of pity, not necessarily because of redemption in his narrative, but in the bringing low of a human being.

This is a tragedy, and if you’re familiar with the original, there will be few surprises in store. Instead, St. Aubyn has concentrated his efforts on bringing us a fable about the hazards of greed, and the value of things which money cannot buy.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy.jpg

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood


Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood rewrites Shakespeare’s “The Tempest?” You’ve got me right there. In fact, you had me at “Margaret Atwood.”

The book begins with Felix, king of his little corner of Canadian Theater, getting deposed by his conniving assistant, his plans for a fabulous, avant-garde Tempest thrown on the trash heap. Felix finds himself living as a hermit out in the country for twelve years, slowly going mad, cyber-stalking his enemies, and relying on Miranda, his (dead) daughter for emotional support.

Felix eventually finds himself teaching Shakespeare and theater to convicts at the local prison as part of a Literacy through Literature program. In this environment he manages to return to some semblance of normality and sanity, but when he learns that he may have a chance to get the men who ruined him in his power, all stops are pulled out and a sweeping plan for revenge begins to take shape.

The book is great. The plot itself is “The Tempest,” important guy marooned in the middle of nowhere left with nothing but dreams of revenge (and spirits and monsters), when after many years the objects of his ire traipse unknowingly into his grasp. But at the same time, we’re watching our Prospero (Felix) put on his version of the play, a Tempest within a Tempest. The whorls and machinations of both stories weave in and out of one another like spirits, and we are treated to a great deal of Margaret Atwoods horrifyingly black (I swear this is a compliment) sense of humor. And don’t worry if you’ve never read the Tempest, or (like me) haven’t read it since school, the original story is explained beautifully within the plot, so even those unfamiliar with any of the Bard’s stories won’t find themselves lost.

In other words, this book was a crazy amount of fun. I read it in one sitting (sleep be damned), since putting it down honestly didn’t feel like an option.

A free copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Hag-Seed is currently available for purchase.