“This is Not Shakespeare, Louie…”

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In a scene from the great movie comedy, Trading Places (surely you’ve seen it…what, you haven’t? Well, go rent it now and watch. I’ll be here when you get back. :-)), Louis Winthorp, the cultured character played by Dan Aykroyd, upon discovering the first name of Jamie Curtis’s character, says, “Ophelia?! You realize, of course, that that’s…” She interrupts him and says, “I know. Hamlet’s girlfriend. He goes crazy; she kills herself. This is not Shakespeare, Louie.” Remember that?

Anyway, I was somewhat reminded of it recently when I read Michelle Ray’s book, Falling for Hamlet, which is a contemporary-based retelling of the classic tale, with very few changes. The few changes are significant, though, and deal with the fate of at least one of the major characters. That’s as much of a spoiler as I’m going to give you. Read the book yourself if you’re interested.

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I, for one, found the book a pleasant diversion from what I normally read. The author wrote it with a young audience in mind, and it is told in the first person by the Ophelia character. The story is also framed around a criminal investigation and a talk show appearance by one of the major characters (how’s that for modernizing?). The author also includes some lengthy notes on how she came to write the book and also on her background with the play and Shakespeare. I admire her courage for taking on such an ambitious work, knowing in advance she would likely encounter ridicule or hostility from some “purist” quarters. Overall, I think she did a great job.

I enjoyed how she weaved the modern, technological world and its idioms to the story. We see the young characters text messaging each other (one of the texts reading “strnge things afoot @ the circle K” in a nod to the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I chuckled at). We also get lines like “Horatio took his iPod out of his jacket and focused on untangling the wires.”. We learn the first names of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern when they are introduced to someone and say. “Billy Rosencrantz, Dave Gildenstern.” I also love that the young characters are fans of a rock band named “The Poor Yoricks” and that one of their favorite tv shows is a musical reality program called “Denmark Divas” (sounds a little similar to a show here on the Fox network, doesn’t it?).

Of course I’m no expert on what dialogue between teenagers should sound like these days, but I found it to be natural and credible. The narrative voice of Ophelia was strong and she made some good observations about her world. At one point, while she was kind of ‘on the run’ and had a clandestine meeting with Horatio at a coffee shop, upon watching the other customers file in and out she says, “It occurred to me that those decisions at the coffee shop about what flavor and how much foam might be the only element over which these people had any control for that entire day. Perhaps that was why everyone loved their latte-machiatto-double-shot-light-whipped whatevers.” Insightful AND humorous!

Has anyone else out there read this book? Or better yet, how do you feel in general about modern retellings of older, classic (dare I say sacred?) stories? I’m intrigued every time I see a title like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” but this is the first book I’ve read – at least recently – that falls into this category.

(below: Author Michelle Ray)

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