I spent last weekend in Ashland, Oregon — that lovely little town nestled between the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains where Shakespeare is King. My husband and I have been going to Ashland for years. We have friends from Northern California who drive up the coast and we drive down to meet and reconnect, enjoy great conversation over delicious food in an ever-changing panoply of restaurants. When we first discovered Ashland, we were young and frugal and pitched a tent at Emigrant Lake. When our children were young, we graduated to the hotel on the edge of town with a big outdoor swimming pool. Now we stay in Bed and Breakfasts or places advertised on VRBO. But the intense experience of immersing ourselves in the dramas played out on three stages over a few days remains wonderfully the same.
This time, anticipating King Lear in the small theater in the round, I couldn’t help but think of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres — her brilliant 1991 novel inspired by Lear and set in the Midwest for which she won the Pulitzer prize. It has been a long time since I read that novel but it has stayed with me — the vast Iowa farm country and the story of those three daughters, as divided as Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. If you haven’t yet, I’m highly recommending you read it. But, I digress. Back in the Thomas Theatre, riveted to my seat at the end of Lear — body count, five — and stunned by the drama of family love and hate, sibling rivalries, entitlement, greed, power and lust played out on the stage, I again thought of A Thousand Acres and wondered how many modern novels have been inspired by Shakespeare. So when I got home, I did a little research.
Of course, there is much information out there on this topic. My favorite, though, is the New York Public Library website feature: Fiction Based on Shakespeare: A Reading List. Find it here: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/04/11/fiction-based-shakespeare-reading-list This list, put together in 2011, names twenty-two modern novels in the library collection which were inspired by Shakespeare. I scan the list and find only one other novel that I’ve read, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. I’m surprised, at first, to learn that it was inspired by Hamlet, but when I give it a little more thought, I have that aha! moment, Yes, I get it — murdered father, sketchy uncle, romantic intrigue. Some of the novels listed are modern re-tellings of Shakespear’s plays and some simply feature or are inspired by, characters he created. Writers learn best from the work of other writers. So, why not go to the source for inspiration?In that spirit, I give you Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVII:
Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces
The age to come would say “This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellowed with their age
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretch metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.