New Twists on Old Tales
The inmates at a Missouri prison are staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Big Hutch,” in for armed robbery, is playing Horatio: “ ‘I don’t see the conflict. I don’t see what Hamlet is dealing with, man. Aw, I should kill the king now. I shouldn’t kill him now. What’s the hullaballoo about,’ Big Hutch asks. ‘I couldn’t see somebody raping my daughter or something and just sitting around. No, no, no, no, no. I got to do you, man.’ ”
That’s an excerpt from “An Incarceration of Hamlets,” one of the stories that refracts Shakespeare’s plays through 21st-century minds and motivations in Linda Bamber’s witty and inventive short story collection Taking What I Like (Black Sparrow Books), which was chosen by National Public Radio commentator Ben Fountain as one of his top picks for books to read in 2013.
Bamber, an associate professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, does the unexpected, such as rewriting Othello and Desdemona as English department faculty members dealing with affirmative action hiring, to create what she calls “a bridge to the original texts” in a way that reveals their relevance to contemporary life.
Take Clare, a woman called on to play King Henry IV by a director casting without respect to gender, in the story “Playing Henry.” Clare needs to find Henry’s “aura,” and starts by studying the public demeanor of the contemporary American political commentator (and linguist) Noam Chomsky. The story takes place after the invasion of Iraq, and Chomsky is repeatedly seen on TV inveighing against it. But after Clare “has appropriated him for Art, it seems redundant for him to go on being Chomsky night after night. He seems part real and part invented, like historical drama.”
Later, Clare connects with King Henry on a personal level: “The happiest youth, he [Henry] says in despair, if shown his future life, would shut the book and sit him down and die. This is extreme, but the feeling it expresses is not outside Clare’s experience. . . . Her struggles over her children, the sense of loss she sometimes feels about her father, and finally her own divorce have on occasion been too much for her.”
Each of the stories, Bamber says, reflects issues that she’s been thinking about from her own life and from society. “Cleopatra and Anthony” is about empire, for instance, while “Playing Henry” is about the George W. Bush administration and “that particular kind of patriotism that means making people afraid so they’ll go to war.”
But Bamber stresses that she never starts writing with a didactic purpose in mind. She says her concerns as a citizen and as a woman come up “not because I want to make a point, but because of who I am. These issues are as much a part of me as my literary self.”
Another theme running through the book is that our lives have many dimensions, and that no individual can be reduced to a simple definition. “I am always fascinated by the way in which human beings just don’t add up,” Bamber says. “In the story ‘Incarcerations of Hamlets,’ my rapists and murderers get Hamlet as much as I get it, and they give everything they have to performing and understanding these plays.”
Not all the stories are Shakespeare-based. “The Gross Clinic” examines life through the art of the 19th-century painter Thomas Eakins. And then there is “Time to Teach Jane Eyre Again,” which will ring true for anyone who has ever gone through the angst of how best to teach a novel.
“Jane Eyre is a major feminist text that I taught and that I love,” Bamber says. “In my story, Jane’s struggles are a distant mirror of the main character’s struggles. Jane and she have a common destiny and common issues as women trying to define themselves, but that is counterpointed with a modern woman’s professional teaching and scholarly life, with its comedy, anxieties and ultimately, triumphs.”
Bamber says she consistently asks herself what is at stake in the stories she is retelling. Ultimately, she says, “they count because they have to do with our contemporary lives.”
Asked about the book’s title, Bamber references the adage “Take what you want and leave the rest.” The book was her chance to help herself to those parts of Shakespeare and the literary canon that she liked, without the obligations she has as a scholar of the text.
“When I find a new revelation or gem in literature,” Bamber says, “I always want to share it. In each story I’m there saying, ‘Look at this—isn’t it fabulous?’ I can’t help myself.”
Gail Bambrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.