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Choose-Your-Own Shakespeare

August 8, 2013

Playwrights, novelists, and directors have been reinterpreting the works of William Shakespeare for centuries.  We’ve seen everything from King Lear set on an Iowa farm (A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley) to Richard III as a fascist dictator (Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film).  But, as Matthew Weddig of NPR’s Monkey See blog reports, the Bard’s work has been adapted for a new medium: choose-your-own-adventure books.

Ryan North noticed that, much like the title character’s famed “To be or not be” soliloquy, the play of Hamlet is structured as a series of choices.  So, he reasoned, why not adapt the play for a format in which the reader’s choices drive the plot?  The result is To Be or Not to Be.

I’ll admit, the purist in me at first found it absurd to let people effectively rewrite the greatest play in the English language.  And from what North says about the book, To Be or Not to Be sounds a bit too silly for my taste.  But now that I’ve thought about it some more, I think a choose-your-own-Shakespeare book might make for a great teaching tool.

Hamlet, or any play for that matter, is driven by character motivations.  One of the keys to understanding Hamlet is figuring out why everyone in it acts the way they do.  Why doesn’t Hamlet kill Claudius while he’s praying?  Why does he bother with the antic disposition?  Why does he accept the duel with Laertes?  These are not easy questions to answer, because the text of Hamlet only includes one sequence of events.  To a frustrated reader, it may seem that Hamlet does what he does because that was convenient to Shakespeare.

But a choose-your-own-adventure structure would allow for students to explore other possibilities for these characters.  Imagine being able to know what might happen if Hamlet did kill Claudius in Act III, Scene 3.  If the result of the hypothetical were bad for Hamlet, one might see the calculation in Hamlet’s decision to leave Claudius be for know.  If the result would have been good, then the reader could guess at Hamlet’s emotional state in the pivotal moment.  Hamlet’s chosen path might be easier to understand.

This isn’t limited to Hamlet, either.  I have always wondered what would have happened in As You Like It if Orlando decided to kill Oliver in Act I, Scene 1.  You’d have a complete different story on your hands.  What once was a festive comedy could have become a revenge tragedy with one rash move.  An As-You-Like-It As You Like It (sorry, I couldn’t resist) could illustrate how a playwright’s choice of genre impacts the way he constructs characters.  Suddenly, the student is able to consider narrative alongside audience expectations.  And all it takes is a little imagination.

In fact, critically assessing expectations is what William N. West of Northwestern University finds interesting about To Be or Not to Be.  Weddig quotes West as saying:

“If Ryan’s version gets us to ask why the characters in Hamlet make certain choices — and maybe don’t even see that they are making choices, but think that they have no choice — that can help us rethink things that Hamlet (the play) takes for granted…It might also help us see what we take for granted.”

Of course, North’s book wouldn’t be a perfect tool for exploration.  The reader is, after all, limited by the options that North could a) think of, and b) fit into a publishable book.  Nonetheless, I think North’s idea is commendable, and I hope his work does some good in helping us better understand the genius of Shakespeare.

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