The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew and part of a series of books that aim to bring Shakespeare plays into the modern age. It lead me to think about whether Shakespeare can ever be truly updated, or if our values are just too different.

The Taming of the Shrew is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, due to how women and gender roles are portrayed, and while this plot may have appealed to the Elizabethans, it doesn’t immediately seem like it’s one that would translate to a modern audience.

Before writing this review, I also read the original text of The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the story involves a father marrying off his outspoken elder daughter, Katerina, to the first man that comes along, Petruchio. Interested only interested in her dowry at first, Petruchio, often described as a ‘madman’, then resolves to ‘tame’ Katerina. He proceeds to give her a taste of her own medicine by bullying and berating her at every turn, until she agrees to submit to him in every way – even believing that the sun is the moon if he says that it’s so. She then gives a long final speech about wifely duty and obedience. I’m sure there are more complex ways to interpret this play, but I won’t go into them here.

How does Vinegar Girl compare?

The basic premise of Vinegar Girl is very similar to The Taming of the Shrew. Kate lives at home looking after her father and younger sister. She’s happy on her own without a man and can sometimes be a bit spiky and rude. Pyotr needs a green card so he can stay on as a lab assistant to Kate’s father, and the two men come up with the perfect solution – Pyotr should marry Kate. Kate is horrified, but her objections are eventually worn down and agrees to give it a go. Continue reading

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Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Station ElevenIn Station Eleven, 99% of the population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu. Towns and cities have been deserted, as people set out to escape the flu, which spread quickly and without mercy throughout densely populated areas. Instead, settlements have sprung up wherever people ended up when they ran out of fuel – around petrol stations or fast food restaurants – or at hotels or defunct airport lounges.
It starts with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage whilst performing King Lear at a Toronto theatre, just days before the collapse. Arthur dies in the old world, but the lives of people who knew him wind throughout the past and the present. From his ex-wives to the young child actress playing a walk-on part in Lear, he is the glue that holds the novel together.

Twenty years in the future, the national grid is down. The survivors have no electricity. Even if they can discover ways to generate their own power, the internet is down. Modern communication methods no longer exist. Kirsten, the child who once performed in King Lear, is now part of the Travelling Symphony, travelling the country performing plays by Shakespeare. They offer people much needed and wanted entertainment as they rebuild their lives again from scratch. But when travelling through one settlement, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The symphony is threatened, and has to pull together and rely on all their wits to avoid falling into the clutches of the dangerous self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’.

In the past, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, struggles to cope with the pressures of life of Hollywood, while Elizabeth, his second, takes her young son to live halfway around the world. Arthur’s college friend, Clark, remembers the person that he used to be. Arthur’s death is a catalyst that throws them all back together.

But the backbone of this story isn’t about the plague itself, and it’s not really about the symphony’s altercation with the Prophet, which provides just a loose framework and structure for the novel. There are no huge battles for supplies or survival. Instead, this book is about how people adapt and change as a result of events that have changed the world beyond recognition. It’s about the relationships that people form and the search for answers behind a natural disaster. Continue reading

London’s top literary locations

London is jam-packed with inspiration for literature lovers. If you’re in need of inspiration, here’s my top five literary locations worth a visit in the city…

IMG_14981. If you want to combine some literary attractions with socialising with your not-so-book-geeky friends, Fitzrovia’s pubs are overflowing with literary history. The historically bohemian area has been home to many literary greats – from Virginia Woolf to George Bernard Shaw. The Fitzroy Tavern and the nearby The Wheatsheaf were both frequented by some of the UK’s literary stalwarts in their day. The Fitzroy Tavern in particular is full of photographs and steeped in history and tradition – George Orwell and Dylan Thomas were regular drinkers here.

2. The British Library often hosts literary events and talks. They currently have an exhibition on called ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which looks the impact of the gothic theme has had on our culture, featuring iconic works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and going all the way through to Twilight! I haven’t been yet, but it’s on my to do list! If you explore the events page on the library’s website, there’s usually something on to suit all ages and interests.

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3. For second hand book-lovers, the book market under Waterloo Bridge is a must see. It’s open every day and usually offers a huge selection of pre-owned or antique books for great prices. It’s just outside the Southbank Centre and the river bank itself often plays host to events and food festivals, meaning there’s always plenty more to do and see in the surrounding area.

4. Southwark’s Shakespeare’s Globe theatre is another one that has to feature on this list. Today’s theatre is a reconstruction of the famous Elizabethan playhouse. Performances of Shakespeare’s works are as authentic as possible – there are no spotlights or microphones and all music is performed life – and all of the materials used in the building mirror the original, right down to the fact that the theatre has the only thatched roof allowed in the city since the Great Fire of London in 1666. Although plays are only performed during the summer months, thanks to the open-air nature of the building, educational tours are available all year round.

5. Finally, Bunfields Burial Ground is the resting place of some of the UK’s literary greats, including William Blake and Joseph Defoe, and is always worth a visit. It may seem macabre, but it’s just a short walk from Old Street tube and the park attached to the cemetery is a beautiful spot to enjoy on a sunny day.

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The King in the car park

Today, a skeleton found underneath a car park in Leicester was confirmed to be the remains of Richard III. The last King of the Plantagenet line, his remains have laid undisturbed on the site of the old Grey Friars church since he died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485. I won’t go into details of the discovery as it’s been discussed in great depth all over the Internet, but suffice it to say that DNA testing and extensive examination of the skeleton has proved his identity beyond reasonable doubt.

Richard IIIThroughout history, Richard III has proved to be a highly contentious figure and has long been shrouded in mystery, not least because of his suspected involvement in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. This mystery, along with the dubious politics and intense and famed rivalry of the York family, has inspired numerous and varying depictions of King Richard III in literature throughout the ages, from Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to Philippa Gregory’s latest series, The Cousins’ War.

These works have immortalised the Richard III and have irrevocably shaped the way that we view him today. However, the reliability of our literary sources has been called into question, with many insisting that this representation of the long dead king was born out of fear, prejudice and hate. It’s just one example of how literature, both past and present, can have a powerful influence over our thoughts and shape how we’re remembered by future generations.

However in this case, one of the most prevalent myths about Richard III circulated by Shakespeare’s play has actually been proven to be true. The late king really was a hunchback. But there’s only so much that physical evidence can prove. No matter how hard we look, his skeleton will never reveal what really happened to the princes or the true relationship between Richard and his brothers, wife, nephews or country.

It’s this ever present ambiguity that continues to fascinate historians, authors and the public alike – and it’s what keeps past and present historical fiction at the top of the bestseller lists. The fact that we can never really know what happened continues to prompt a hunger for knowledge amongst readers, and authors are only too happy to have the chance to fill in the blanks. So until we invent a time machine or find a portal to the past, historical fiction is most definitely here to stay!