New Boy by Tracy Chevalier: Othello Retold and Reviewed
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‘Thieves! Thieves! Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags! Thieves! ’ Othello by William Shakespeare, Act 1, scene 1.
William Shakespeare has long stood accused of plagiarising lines and pilfering plots. Take, for example the phrase ‘love is blynd’ coined by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Merchant’s Tale (1387). Two hundred years later Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice and included the line ‘love is blind.’ Whether you call it theft or homage, Shakespeare was undoubtedly fond of ‘retelling’ the great stories. He has, however, has been repaid in kind many times over.
Shakespeare’s plays have provided rich pickings for movie makers. From musicals like West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) to teen movies like 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) to Disney classics like The Lion King (Hamlet), it seems difficult to beat a Shakespearian plot.
Converting a play to a novel seems a less obvious manoeuvre but, in fact, a novel has the advantage of greater space. The novelist has more room to add narrative, to fill in the gaps in the back story and explain motivation. There is simply more time in a novel to explore the characters, to get to know them better.
Novelisation of Shakespearian plays is far from a new thing. In Moby-Dick, Melville had space enough to pay tribute to Macbeth and King Lear. Huxley’s Brave New World takes both its title and inspiration from The Tempest. More recently, Malorie Blackman based her novel Noughts and Crosses on Romeo and Juliet and Jane Smiley set King Lear in A Thousand Acres of modern day Iowa. Matt Haig studied Hamlet at eleven in The Dead Father’s Club and Ian McEwan went even younger, casting an unborn foetus as Hamlet in Nutshell.
The Hogarth Shakespeare Project, launched in 2012, has set about creating a sort of matching set of contemporary Shakespearian retellings by some of the most respected authors of our time. Titles in the series so far include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) and Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (The Tempest).
My own introduction to Shakespeare was the all-singing, all-dancing interpretation of Othello by The Kid’s From Fame. At the tender age of eleven, I was transfixed by the Moor who loved not wisely but too well, not to mention deeply impressed by Leroy’s sword play. Imagine my anticipation, then, when I discovered that Tracy Chevalier had set her Hogarth retelling of Othello in the late 1970s, and cast it with eleven year olds.
Osei Kokote, or just O as the children call him, is the son of a respected Ghanaian diplomat. He is handsome and athletic with a noble bearing that Shakespeare might have called regal though Chevalier hints more towards presidential. On his first day at a new school in Washington DC, where every other child is white, it’s not long before O attracts the attention of golden girl, Dee Benedetti.
Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it. Like him.
Quick on the uptake is our Iago impersonator, Ian, a manipulative schemer determined to maintain control.
The moment the black boy walked onto the playground that morning, Ian had felt something shift. It was what an earth quake must feel like, the ground being rearranged and becoming unreliable.
The first scene circles the playground, girls playing jump-rope, boys on a merry-go-round. We watch the action from various points of view: Dee gravitating towards the new boy, Ian repulsed by him and Osei at the centre.
...himself, the new boy, standing still in the midst of these well-worn grooves, playing his part too.
What I loved about this book, and I really loved it, was that Chevalier hasn’t tried to get one up on The Bard. She doesn’t set out to improve or modernise Shakespeare. Rather she digs deep into his characters to hone them to their most basic qualities and reduces Shakespeare’s tangled web to its most basic form. In keeping it simple, she has been incredibly clever.
All the essential elements of Shakespeare’s story are included. The school playground takes the place of Shakespeare’s lawless Cyprus while the law and order of Venice is represented by the classroom. The action takes place over the course of one day and is divided into five parts, Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess and After School, with each part approximating the acts of the original play.
Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is played with aplomb Mr. Brabant, a Vietnam veteran and sixth grade teacher. Mimi, Ian’s reluctant girlfriend, rather than serving as Dee’s maid, plays her best friend. Caspar (Cassio), Blanca (Bianca) and Rod(erigo) all strike true to their original parts.
The thing about Shakespearian retellings is that, to some degree at least, we know how it ends. The author, as I see it, has two things to play with. First and foremost, they must aim to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes and then, they can aim to entertain by playing with the details.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Othello, even in the minor characters, offers a profound insight into the driving forces of humanity. Greed, lust, and fear of the unknown drive people now just as much as they ever did. Chevalier demonstrates quite brilliantly that the colour of racism has hardly even altered its shade in four hundred years. She focuses on children, on the cusp of adolescence, a time of insecurities when egos are newly formed and fragile. There is a purity to her insight which is utterly convincing.
When it comes to playing with the details, Chevalier had a field day with seventies nostalgia including references to The Jackson Five, The Partridge Family, Star Wars and The Exorcist. Shakespeare had Othello give Desdemona a strawberry-spotted handkerchief ‘with magic in the web of it’; Chevalier hits the 70s mark spot on with a strawberry- embossed pencil case. I don’t want to ruin your fun by revealing anymore but watch out for Chevalier’s answer to Barbary’s Song of Willow. It is genius.
The plain-speaking language of New Boy makes it ideal as an introduction to the intricacies of Shakespeare's plot. The book would stand alone as an excellent novel but Chevalier pays extra dividends to those familiar with the play. Refresh your memory by watching Oliver Parker’s brash but accessible movie, Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Brannagh.
Did I say we know how it ends? Do you really consider Tracy Chevalier capable of killing off a half dozen children? Could that happen, with any degree of credibility, in a grade school playground? You don’t seriously think I’m going to tell you, do you?