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Last week I got into a debate over the virtues of the new project to rewrite Shakespeare. This is being done by novelists who are taking the plays, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale and working the text over in their own ways. It is for publication in 2016 for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Far from seeing anything wrong in this project I think in the hands of the writers so far engaged it will be a stimulating exercise. It will reveal our era’s view of the texts, as language, and as social documents. This is true in at least two of the plays, and as Howard Jacobson said of his intended job with The Merchant of Venice there are various layers in that play to peel which were not apparent to the writer, or the audience, at the time the play was written.

The debate, if it can be called that, was not on the project but over the reverence, or otherwise, of even doing such a thing. My interlocutor was of the view that the works were immortal and that any modernisation was a kind of travesty. Revamping, or whatever it is, can be just meddling – it’s something directors do with plays to show they have a rare insight, but does not often reward the audience.

While the text is paramount some adjustments can be justified as beneficial to the work. A blanket statement that no one has reason to touch the texts, especially when society has changed so much in its attitudes, is obscurantist.

The Merchant of Venice despite some good construction, and certainly two of the most memorable speeches in all of the plays, hinges on a plot twist of such banality as to negate its effect because the plotting seals Shylock’s fate for any easy – and unlikely – ending to satisfy a chauvinistic Christian audience. It demands that the audience accept that Shylock did not know contracts and was outwitted on a technicality, which, as a trader he would have foreseen all too well. His oversight then leads to his abject degradation. It is unjustified and offensive, both to the character and to a contemporary audience which has seen so many police and legal procedural dramas that it can easily see through Shakespeare’s lazy plotting.

The conversation on this play and others was left unfinished. It did not, as occurred in Russia this week, resolve for the worse. That disagreement was over a dispute about Kant. Which argument of Kant’s led to such a bitter fight has not been revealed but I feel a connection here as two of the stories in Nine Avenues were inspired by Kant.

That two men feel such passion about the moral, or perhaps it was the epistemological arguments, of the philosopher that they let their fists do the talking. It’s something that Norman Mailer might have approved of and says a lot about the country. Maybe they were reliving a Dostoevskian episode as characters by that writer are given to demonstrate their moral courage by producing pistols and declaring high-minded, if slightly witless, things about the meaning of life. Whatever the reason it shows more soul than if they were arguing over the strikers of Dynamo Moscow compared to CSKA Moscow.

Guy Cranswick
17th September 2013