Carpenter's tales from Shakespeare

4th November 1994 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE WITHOUT THE BORING BITS. By Humphrey Carpenter. Viking Pounds 8.99. 0 670 85533 2.

Humphrey Carpenter introduces these prose versions of nine Shakespeare plays with a reminiscence of his youthful debut as a Shakespearean actor. "I played Francis, a waiter in the Boar's Head pub, and though my part wasn't very funny the audience laughed a lot, because my tights kept falling down." That may sound like a snippet from Michael Green's The Art of Coarse Acting, but Carpenter's new contribution to Bardic lore has nothing coarse or amateur about it. This is a very funny, witty, ingenious book, and will do the Shakespeare cause more good than sober and reverent retellings usually accomplish.

Carpenter tells the story from the point of view of one character, or of several as revealed in their imaginary letters, with an eye to essentials of the plot. The first two are recounted fairly straight, Romeo and Juliet by a highly convincing Juliet's Nurse and Julius Caesar by a Cassius much bluffer and more old-soldierly than his devious original. ("Women, huh! What trouble makers they can be when a man's got a bit of simple killing to do.") After completing these two, Carpenter was emboldened to transplant the remaining stories from their historical settings to the present day. Twelfth Night, perhaps the best of the whole collection, is told through letters by a bevy of romantic opportunists and social parasites. The pick of them is Andrew Aguecheek, whose prose is a wonderful blend of Bertie Wooster and Sir Denis Thatcher's fictitious letters to Bill. The same epistolary format is used to convert the embarrassing sexist brutalities of The Taming of the Shrew into a comic modern form. Kate and Bianca in turn write letters of application to Women's Refuge, and Bianca's becomes the ultimate worst-case scenario. (As in others of these stories, the underlying comment on the play is shrewd.) Pretences of Shakespearean character authenticity are recklessly abandoned. Lancelot Gobbo is a stuffy junior accountant, applying for new posts after the regrettable business collapse of his employer, Mr Shylock, and Bottom is a pub drunk, propping up the bar to recount his escapade with the fairies in magnificently unShakespearean rhyming couplets. Macbeth is a wisecracking hoodlum, straight out of Raymond Chandler.

The trouble with most good retellings of Shakespeare is that they work best if you know the plays already, which somewhat defeats the object. Carpenter's spirited parodies will certainly appeal to Shakespeare enthusiasts, but in this case parody is a two-way traffic. In most of these stories Carpenter is also satirising the modern world, its jargon and habits and real-life caricatures. By showing that Shakespeare's plots and people are such a perfect vehicle for sending up trends and trendiness, he creates lively expectations of the original's potential for fun.

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