Shakespeare forever

“What attracted me to the Shakespeare project is simply answered: Shakespeare!” This is how Howard Jacobson expresses his enthusiasm, and that alone already testifies to the self-evidence with which Shakespeare is still received, loved and discovered anew, 400 years after his death. The timelessness of his plays has recently been underscored by two reinterpretations of his works under the heading “Shakespeare retold”: “Shylock Is My Name” by Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, and “The Gap of Time” by the renowned bestselling author Jeanette Winterson. Last night, Bertelsmann and the Verlagsgruppe Random House imprint Knaus Verlag presented the two novels and the Shakespeare project in discussions with the participants and staged readings, to an audience of 160 guests from the literary and cultural scene.

The evening at Bertelsmann Unter der Linden 1 in Berlin revolved around the two novels and the writer Jeanette Winterson, who spoke with presenter Alf Mentzer: about what Shakespeare means to her, about her book and why she agreed to participate in the project. The actors Samuel Finzi, Milan Peschel, Uli Pleßmann, Larissa Fuchs and Stephan Schäfer brought key passages from both new releases to life on stage, and showed how Jacobson and Winterson have succeeded in retelling Shakespeare's plays – in this case “The Merchant of Venice” and “A Winter’s Tale” – as contemporary novels.

Winterson said that her fascination with “The Winter's Tale,” which she has now set in the world of investment banking in contemporary London, stems from her personal experience as an adopted child as well as the essence of the play itself: “What Shakespeare is offering in his late plays is that chance of change. That suddenly you can see yourself differently and that things can be done differently and there is hope. To me, that’s a very attractive message.”

The work retold by Howard Jacobson has always been controversial, and the writer has taken on his task with a great sense of absurdity and ridicule. The author, himself of Jewish origin, believes that “The Merchant of Venice,” which is often seen as an anti-Semitic comedy, is “a funnier play than people often admit.” Some of the most horrible people in Shakespeare are in this play – and Jacobson’s idea is to approach them satirically. But, in his reading of the play, these horrible people do not include: Shylock.

The unique book launch at Bertelsmann Unter der Linden 1 in Berlin, shortly before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, inaugurates a promising project initiated by the traditional English publisher Hogarth, a Penguin Random House imprint. Its German partner is Knaus Verlag. Eight internationally renowned authors retell the old Shakespearean plays for our time: The two titles already published will be followed by novels written by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew), Margaret Atwood (The Tempest), Tracy Chevalier (Othello), Jo Nesbø (Macbeth), Edward St. Aubyn (King Lear), and Gillian Flynn (Hamlet).

At the event, Alf Mentzer also spoke to Becky Hardie, Deputy Publishing Director at Hogarth, and Claudia Vidoni, Editorial Director Fiction at Knaus, about how this project came into being: “Hogarth offered internationally renowned and successful authors the opportunity to present their personal retelling of a work by William Shakespeare,” says Vidoni. “And almost all of them wanted to participate.” In all, the novels will be published in more than 20 countries. Besides the U.K., U.S. and Germany, the “Hogarth Shakespeare” books will also be published in Canada, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India by Penguin Random House imprints. Penguin Random House China has also acquired the rights to an abridged Chinese edition.