We often feature musicians who make cover albums — their versions of songs made popular by others. Now comes a project where writers — some of the most acclaimed of our time — cover Shakepeare's works, retelling the Bard in their own words. Jeanette Winterson's new novel, The Gap of Time, is a re-imagining of The Winter's Tale, and it's the first book in the series to be published.
Winterson tells NPR's Rachel Martin that the project is perfect for Shakespeare, who didn't invent a lot of his own plots, "and just used to take apart other people's work and bolt it back together in his own image, you know, he'd think this was exactly the right way to deal with the text."
On her choice of play
Well, it's got an abandoned baby in it, and I am one, and, you know, abandoned babies in literature do pretty well — not just in literature, in popular culture, Superman, Spider-Man, Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy, he doesn't know who his father is, famously. So the idea of being a foundling, a child with two lives, is very interesting imaginatively. But if it's also your reality, you're going to start reading, looking for clues about yourself. Because being adopted is like going to the theater after curtain up, or getting a book with the first few pages ripped out. You're always looking for the missing story, and that never changes, no matter how good your life is later on. So when I was a kid ... I was reading Shakespeare and I thought, this one's got a lost child in it. This'll give me a clue.
On the play, and her revision of it
It's like Othello on speed, really — you've got a guy who suddenly becomes insanely jealous of his wife, and his best friend. She's pregnant, and she's about to give birth, and in Shakespeare's play, the king suddenly thinks, it's not my baby, it's my best friend's baby, and I'm going to throw her out, I'm going to try and kill him, I'm going to abandon the child. You know, it's the usual male rage ... it's a very modern story.
So I thought okay, I'm going to set it in the present day, but I thought, a king, what's that? It's an alpha male, and somebody who think's he's in control, lord of the universe, a Time Lord, he can do what he likes. And I thought, well, who would that be now? It's got to be a banker, hasn't it.
On the relationship between Leo and Xeno — Polixenes and Leontes in the original
In the play, you don't get any backstory for any of the characters, and what I wanted to do was build those stories, and I thought, why are these two guys, why are they so close, and also, what's this jealousy all about, 'cause it's really a triangle — it's not just that Leo's jealous about his wife, he's jealous about his best friend as well ... there's a kind of homoerotic impulse behind it, which is just under the surface in Shakespeare. So I sent them off to boarding school together, you know, couple of young kid from damaged families, these two guys become friends for life. They have the usual kind of affair at boarding school, you know, no big deal, Leo goes on to be a rampant heterosexual, Xeno is gay. And for a while that works beautifully, and then the conflict sets in. So that's the basis of the story.
On weaving her own life into the story
The central story is the story of that dislodgement, that abandonment, and having to try and find yourself. And [Leo's lost daughter] Perdita doesn't know her own backstory, just as I didn't know mine, and eventually she discovers it. And I think when she decides to come to London and look for Leo, she's really struggling with that idea — should I do it, what's it going to be like, maybe I'll go and stand across the street so that I can catch a glimpse of him. That's something I can really relate to.