It’s Shakespeare’s birthday! To celebrate we spoke to poet Michelle Penn about her upcoming collection, Paper Crusade and how it felt to rewrite the Bard.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous ambitions and goals, but rewriting Shakespeare was never one of them. Ever.
Yet there I was, at Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brimming over with ideas after seeing The Tempest Replica, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Crystal Pite. I was inspired by the movements, the psychology, the white masks and costumes, the folded paper boats. The production stirred something in me that I had to express in words. Which sent me back to the original source, The Tempest — and the problem of rewriting Shakespeare.
I knew I wanted to make something that was different from both the dance piece and the original play — and it had to feel relevant to the twenty-first century. Of course, there’s plenty in The Tempest that continues to be relevant (themes of power, forgiveness, language, love, etc.), but it seemed to me that a refugee magician coming to an island, colonising it, altering its environment and terrorising those around him suggested more of a tragic approach than a comedic one.
I decided to concentrate only on a handful of characters and to add The Sea: a character contemptuous of humans and both participant and commentator. And I deliberately left most of the characters unnamed in order to really separate them from Shakespeare’s characters. I didn’t want to think about Prospero but about The Father, a man desperate for revenge, a man who has suffered losses and can’t control his anger, a man who wants to feel powerful and respected, even feared. Similarly, I wanted to create more of an interior life for The Daughter, so she couldn’t be the sweet, obedient Miranda. And I wanted C’s struggles and rebellion to be full of not just resentment but pain. The characters in Paper Crusade needed independent ‘lives’, apart from Shakespeare.
Easier said than done. While I found myself quickly and deeply inside the world of my characters, I was sometimes needled by doubt. What was I doing? Who on earth was I to rewrite Shakespeare? The idea seemed hilarious, arrogant, a recipe for failure. Shakespeare didn’t need my help or my reimagining.
But sometimes, there’s comfort in a crowd, and when I had a stab of despair, I reminded myself of others who have reimagined The Tempest: Peter Greenway’s film, Prospero’s Books or Derek Jarman’s The Tempest or Julie Taymore’s, in which Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Numerous ballets and dance pieces have been made on The Tempest, including one choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. And of course, other writers have used Shakespeare’s play as source material: Aimé Césaire rewrote it to focus on its colonial themes. Auden riffed on it in his long poem, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, which he considered his ars poetica. Browning wrote about Caliban, Shelley about Ariel.
Of course, there were still moments when I could almost imagine Shakespeare laughing at me from the grave. But the Bard himself was a great borrower and reinterpreter of earlier stories, so I assumed he’d understand — and maybe even appreciate the effort. After all, the play is a springboard, not a mirror, not something to imitate.
Overall, rewriting Shakespeare turned out to be great fun. I loved being inside the island world and with the characters, seeing them in my mind, hearing them speak and watching where they took the story. I didn’t know how Paper Crusade would end until I reached the final pages, and that process was exciting. The characters led me to expand my poetry and try things I’d never tried before. And although I’m a fan of several of Shakespeare’s plays, I now have a special bond with The Tempest.
Listen to Michelle Penn reading ‘The Sea, Offended’ from Paper Crusade:
Paper Crusade will be published on 21 June 2022. You can pre-order a copy from our webshop now. Details of online and in-person launch events (in-person at Keats House in London) are coming soon.