Edward St. Aubyn on the Challenge of Reimagining Shakespeare

He’s so familiar with Lear — he studied the text intensely as a young man — that in conversation, he effortlessly recites from the play verbatim.

“Shakespeare just gets into your blood after a while,” he said. “He’s inevitably a gigantic influence on anyone writing in English.” Mr. St. Aubyn spoke with Alexandra Alter about reimagining Lear, and why the play resonates more than 400 years after it was written.

How did you come to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, and what made you choose ‘King Lear’?

I heard about it and I discussed it with my agent, who talked to the head of Hogarth Shakespeare, and they were very enthusiastic about me participating. I was between novels. And then I was given a choice of plays that hadn’t already been reimagined. Looking at the list, I thought I was better suited to King Lear rather than Romeo and Juliet. Love is not my specialty, relative to unhappy families and failing fathers and the misuse of power.

I like Lear for being very familial and political, as well as metaphysical. Lear’s got everything, which is why it was the greatest challenge. In fact, I thought it was too big a challenge at one point.

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Why was that?

I thought, I won’t reread the play straight away, I’ll get a film. I got Peter Brook’s film. It was so bleak that I staggered to the phone and called my agent and said, ‘Let me write a chapter before I sign.’ Then when I reread the play, I got another wave of anxiety, a sort of, don’t mess with the Bard anxiety. The towering rhetoric of the play. So I felt I needed to hurry away from the original like someone leaving a burning building, and sort of make it my own and not go back to the language again, so I never looked again at Lear. I didn’t want to get into too many verbal reverberations, unless they arose naturally, or too many pedantic parallels.

It must have been nerve-racking, taking on one of Shakespeare’s most widely known and beloved works.

That was just anxiety, and the anxiety took that form, why wouldn’t it? Once I started writing, I was writing a novel by me. There wasn’t any competition, it’s just a cascade of influence, which is there throughout literature. Balzac wrote a Lear novel. Turgenev wrote a Lear novel. No one complains about “Paradise Lost” being based on the Bible.

And Shakespeare stole from everyone.

Shakespeare was the ultimate adapter. He really lost the plot when…

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