WordsDay: New Shakespeare Play—Review: All the World's a Grave by William Shakespeare (sort of)

For a guy who’s been dead for nearly four hundred years, it’s pretty amazing that Shakespeare is still cranking out the hits.

And I’m not talking about great productions of his classic plays. I’m not talking about recently discovered “lost manuscripts.” I’m talking brand-spanking-new plays.

That’s what John Reed has cooked up in All the World’s a Grave, a new tragedy by William Shakespeare.

With all the cleverness of Touchstone and the mischievousness of Puck, Reed has boldly reimagined the Bard by cutting, pasting, puzzling, and rearranging Shakespeare’s own words and characters into an entirely new play.

At the play’s opening, Hamlet, the prince of Bohemia, has waged an unjust war to win Juliet from her father, King Lear. Back in Bohemia, meanwhile, Hamlet’s mother kills the king and marries her lover, Macbeth, who ascends to the throne. The king’s ghost visits Hamlet and haunts Macbeth, even as Hamlet’s sidekick, Iago, takes advantage of the prince’s distraught condition by exacting revenge on his rival, Romeo, one of Hamlet’s generals.

The play, obviously, borrows heavily from Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear, with a heavy dose of Henry V thrown in for good measure. Anyone who’s read any of those plays knows that things don’t turn out well for any of the main characters, so it won’t come as a surprise that things don’t turn out well for any of them in All the World’s a Grave, either. In fact, borrowing from all those sources as it does, the new Shakespeare play could be a handbook on personal calamity.

If it all sounds a bit much, it is—but according to Reed, that’s kind of the point. “[I]t is precisely because Shakespeare’s plays were monsters assembled from other monsters that a fresh monstrosity can be assembled from Shakespeare,” he writes in his afterward. “And, because of Shakespeare’s use of stock players and storylines, a new Shakespearian narrative is equally possible.”

The resulting story is both familiar and fresh, and the characters are energized and enlightened. Reed’s juxtaposition allows him to give added depth and dimension to characters.

For instance, in Othello, Iago is a deliciously evil character, but he revels in a pretty unmotivated brand of evil. In All the World’s a Grave, Iago has been victimized by war, and because he’s damaged goods, he has a stronger rationale behind his manipulations and machinations. Such added depth enhances, rather than dilutes, the original character (a comparison that can be fairly made only if a reader is even familiar with Othello).

Shakespeare fans can expect classics, like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy or Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” lament. But Shakespeare fans will have particular fun catching all the familiar Shakespeare lines that come in surprising contexts. It’s not Juliet, for instance, who cries “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, oh Romeo?” Reed borrows heavily from throughout the Shakespeare canon to populate the new play with dialogue. (For really hardcore Shakespeare fans, Reed provides online annotations to his play that show “the provenance of the words.”)

While it helps to be a Shakespeare fan to appreciate All the World’s a Grave, readers don’t have to be Shakespeare aficionados. A simple appreciation of Shakespeare’s language will do. After all, the beauty of Shakespeare’s language is what makes it stand the test of time, and Reed made a conscious effort to preserve that. “[T]he words,” Reed says, “continually reassert their brilliance.”

“When thou dost ask me blessing,” Lear says to his estranged daughter, “I’ll kneel down,/And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh….” Juliet is, by that point in the play, dead, which imbues Lear’s words with heartbreaking irony. That Shakespeare’s words can do that, four hundred years later, speaks to their power.

“Oh, for a muse of fire,” Shakespeare once wrote. Reed has tapped into the muse and produced a re-envisioned Shakespeare that proves to be both provocative and substantial and entertaining—four-hundred years after the bard first invoked that muse.

3 replies »

  1. That smacking noise just now was me running full-speed into the looming brick wall of my literary prejudices. Or principles. Or preferences. I don’t know. Too dazed to figure it out.