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May. 03 2024

Reimagining Shakespeare

By Judith Krummeck | Posted in Host Blogs | Comments Off on Reimagining Shakespeare

We speak often on WBJC about the composers who were inspired by Shakespeare—from Mendelssohn and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the 20th century version of Romeo and Juliet in the form of West Side Story. What is perhaps not as well known is how Shakespeare himself was inspired by other creatives. With a genius like Mozart or Beethoven or Shakespeare, they seem to tower above their peers as if they just materialized fully formed out of nowhere. But in truth every genius, as exceptional as they may be, is also a reflection of their particular time and place. 

Second Globe Theatre, detail from Hollar’s View of London, 1647

In the case of William Shakespeare, he worked and thrived in the rich theater milieu of Elizabethan London, and he frequently drew on myriad contemporary sources to craft his extraordinary output. Twelfth Night, for instance, was based on three prior sources that involve cross-dressing or mistaken identity or both.

The first of these sources is thought to be an Italian production written collaboratively by the Accademia degli Intronati, literally, the Academy of the Enthroned. This was a scholarly and literary society that flourished in Siena in the early part of the sixteenth century. Their first publicly hosted event was a comic play called Gl’ingannati, or The Deceived Ones, produced on February 12, 1532. Described as a comedy of intrigue, it used stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte to tell the story of a young girl who foils her father’s plans to marry her off to an old man by disguising herself as a young boy and becoming the handsome servant to the man she’s in love with. You recognize the Twelfth Night theme of Viola disguising herself as Cesario and serving in the court of Count Orsino? Oh! And her brother is involved as well.

No less than four of Shakespeare’s plays—Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline, Much Ado about Nothing, and Twelfth Night—were sourced from the Italian writer, Matteo Bandello. He wrote over two hundred Novelle—what we might think of as short-stories—and Twelfth Night is inspired by Bandello’s story of Nicuola and Lattantio. Here, we have Nicuola disguising herself as a page to Lattantio as a means to try to win his love, even as he sends his “page” to woo Catella on his behalf. When Nicuola’s brother, Paolo, is mistaken for her, he becomes entangled with Catella and … well you get the picture.

The source closest to Shakespeare was his English contemporary Barnabe Riche, a soldier and author, whose best-known work is Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession conteining verie pleasaunt discourses fit for a peaceable tyme, from 1581. It’s a collection of eight stories, three of which are translations from Italian, and although Riche claimed that the second story of Apolonius and Silla was his own invention, it actually hues very closely to Bandello’s story of Nicuola and Lattantio. Nevertheless, Barnabe Riche’s version is most likely the one to which Shakespeare had access, and which provided the through-line from the Gl’ingannati and Bandello stories to Twelfth Night. It must be said, though, that much as the essence of cross-dressing and mistaken identity was borrowed from these sources, the comic business of Malvolio, the yellow cross-gartering, and the intrigues of Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, and Feste, was pure Shakespearean invention.

Twelfth Night is right up there amongst my favorite Shakespeare plays because of the way it blends light and dark. Also, as an immigrant, I’m drawn to the storyline of the twins, Viola and Sebastian, who fetch up in a strange land and have to try to find their way in it. I relate to their close sibling bond, and the suggested bond between Olivia and her brother for whom she is in mourning, because I was so close to my own brother. Over the years, the idea of reimagining Twelfth Night as a contemporary novel has been turning over in my mind, and knowing that even a singular genius like Shakespeare had borrowed from other sources, I gave myself permission to do so too. And so my novel, The Deceived Ones, was born. 

Gl’ingannati (The Deceived Ones)
written collectively by the Accademia degli Intronati in Siena

Novelle (Tales) (part 2, story 28)
by Matteo Bandello

Of Apollonius and Silla
by Barnabe Riche

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
by William Shakespeare

The Deceived Ones
by Judith Krummeck

Originally, I conceived of the twins as coming from Dubrovnik in Croatia, because there is a school of thought that this may well have been the Illyria of Shakespeare’s play. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the idea of the twins being refugees from the war brought a new level of urgency and immediacy to the storyline. Taking the opening line of Shakespeare’s play, “If music be the food of love, play on …” I’ve reimagined Count Orsino as the composer Orson Carradine, who has been commissioned to write an opera for the Twelfth Night Festival, but is struggling for inspiration. Olivia becomes the unattainable soprano, Isabella Foiani, who is Orson’s muse but has withdrawn from all performing for the foreseeable future. The twins, Vira Blyzynskya and Sevastyan Blyzynskyi—she a viola da gamba player and he from the arcane field of quantum computing—are refugees from Lviv in Ukraine.

It goes without saying that I would never put myself on the same plane as Shakespeare! But it’s interesting to me that, with him at my back, the cycle of borrowing, reimagining, and reinventing continues, with the arc reaching all the way back to February 12, 1532, through Shakespeare, to present-day Baltimore (and, no doubt, beyond) with each iteration bringing its own ethos of time and place. And Shakespeare’s plays are so malleable, that reinterpreting them—either in music or words—is an endlessly rich process. 

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Judith is WBJC's afternoon host. Her full bio can be read here.

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