English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare circa 1600. (Stock Montage / Getty Images )
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has never liked "The Taming of the Shrew."
"I have no favorite moments in this play," Tyler said. "I first read it in college and disliked it intensely, and I can't say my attitude toward it softened any when I read it again just recently."
Very soon, Tyler is going to get a chance to reimagine and make sense of "The Taming of the Shrew." She's writing a novel based on the play as part of a project by the publishing house Hogarth to commission novels based on all 37 of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare lived and died four centuries ago, and has since been adapted into all sorts of media that didn't exist when he was alive, including film, television and radio. Joss Whedon's acclaimed film "Much Ado About Nothing," released last month — was shot at his Santa Monica home with actors in modern dress. This month, Ian Doescher released a book that retells the "Star Wars" saga in Shakespearean verse.
Asking novelists to adapt Shakespeare's oeuvre — with complete artistic freedom, the publishers say — is a tribute to the Bard's enduring power and influence. It's also a chance to bring his classic language into modern setting. A "Julius Caesar" set in an African republic, perhaps. Or "The Tempest" set on another planet.
"Shakespeare and his range of work seem to have defined these seminal human experiences, be it war, marriage, friendship, the creative act," said Hogarth publisher Molly Stern. "He got to the essence of how we live."
The British writer Jeanette Winterson will adapt Shakespeare's play "The Winter's Tale" for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Stern said the publishing house is finalizing deals with other authors. And because English is a language that's circled the world since Shakespeare's time, the editors are reaching out to a global range of writers.
"We want to reference the literary world as it exists now," Stern said. If it can find the right authors for all 37, Stern said, the house will publish them all.
On social media, lovers of Shakespeare and literature are speculating about which author would be best matched to their favorite plays. Perhaps the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo could write a "Macbeth." Or maybe Haruki Murakami could take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
As for "The Taming of the Shrew," it's a play many readers over the centuries have found troubling and downright misogynistic. It begins with a feisty Katherine telling one man she will "comb your noddle with a three-legged stool and paint your face and use you like a fool." But by the play's end, she's literally under her husband's heel.
"I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war where they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy and sway, when they are bound to serve, love and obey," Kate says.
Tyler does not find "the Shrew" to be a good role model. "What can possibly be going on in Katherine's mind?" she asked in an email interview. "Or in Shakespeare's, for that matter?"
So why, then, does Tyler want to write a novel based on the play?
"Since my greatest joy in writing novels has been the deepening understanding of my characters in ways I'd never predicted, it seemed to me that 'The Taming of the Shrew' was the natural choice," she said.
"Mainly, I'm just interested to see what on earth will come out of my mouth," she added.
"The Taming of the Shrew" is believed to be the Bard's first or second play. It's a work that's been subject to all sorts of interpretations since its original run at the Globe Theatre ended circa 1591. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, artistic director Bill Rauch is running "The Taming of the Shrew" in a production set on a beach boardwalk with a tattooed Kate and Petruchio, her mercurial suitor, reimagined as a rockabilly musician.
"By placing it on a boardwalk you give it this spirit of joy and comedy, despite its grim themes," Rauch said. "It's a story of love at first sight, and the actors have carefully charted who's dominant in the relationship at various moments."
Even in theater, Shakespeare's works are extremely pliable, Rauch said. In recent years, the festival has produced a "Julius Caesar" in which the doomed Roman emperor is a woman, and a "Measure for Measure" in which one of the characters speaks in Spanish with a social worker translating her words to the other actors.
Perhaps the most successful recent adaptation of Shakespeare into the form of a novel is Jane Smiley's 1991, Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres," which reimagines "King Lear" on an Iowa farm.
In Shakespeare's "Lear," the elderly king announces his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands, "to shake all cares and business from our age."
In "A Thousand Acres," the farmer father's plan to divide his farm among his daughters is announced with Midwestern flatness: "You girls and Ty and Pete and Frank are going to run the show. You'll each have a third part...."
The first Hogarth Shakespeare volume is scheduled to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death. A skeptic might see crass commercialism at work. But commenting in the Guardian, the writer and critic Bidisha saw great possibilities. "It's an opportunity to discover what the timeless geniuses of now make of a timeless genius of then," she wrote.
Rauch, of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sees "poetic justice" in a project to reinvent Shakespeare in prose.
"Very often, Shakespeare was shaping prose stories into plays," Rauch said. "To take his plays from their dramatic form and put them back into prose completes a beautiful circular pattern."