The classics of literature: untouchable or reworkable?

The classics of literature: untouchable or reworkable?

The classics of literature: untouchable or reworkable?

My favourite work of English literature is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. For the Gothic feel, the Byronic hero, the mystery and suspense, the poetic writing style, but above all the passion:

Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are! 

Jane Eyre is a heroine to love, and her creator, Charlotte Brontë, is a writer to deeply respect. But how can we show that respect? By reading the book and talking about it, and by… reworking it?

No, I’m not sharing news of a modern-day reimagining of Jane Eyre. Thankfully, my own favourite classic remains intact – unlike the books of Jane Austen, for example, which are quite frequently toyed with. I’m merely raising the question of when it is acceptable to interfere with literature, and when, out of respect for the author and his or her work, we should leave well alone.

The story in the news that brought this question to mind focused on a new range of books, released by Penguin Random House, entitled OMG Shakespeare:



Not quite the style of covers you would expect for such classic literature. But if you’re surprised by the cover, you’ll be shocked by the contents: the plays have been given, as Alison Flood writing in the Guardian puts it, ‘the 21st-century textspeak treatment’.

‘Imagine: what if those star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet had smartphones?’ said the publisher.‘A classic is reborn in this fun and funny adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays!’

Reborn. Rewritten, in fact, so extensively that the books are presented as co-authored by Shakespeare and the modern writers who have turned his plays into something they believe will engage the younger generation. Here is an example from Romeo and Juliet. In the original play, when Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet he says:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! 

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night    

Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear; 

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!    

So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,

As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.          

The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,       

And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.      

Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!           

For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

In YOLO Juliet, the speech is rendered thus:

Woah! Spotted a hottie. She. Is. #PERFECT

The media has reported on quite a backlash to these books. Some people are appalled by the ruthless rewriting of such classic literature in this way. Clearly, the objective is a positive one – to engage young people with the works of Shakespeare – but questions remain: Is this really Shakespeare? Is this promoting engagement at all with the original text? Is it respectful to rework classic writing in this way? Is it necessary?

For me, as a young girl, and then a teenager at school, and then a student at university, literature in its purest form was a delight, an inspiration and an education. I enjoyed the stories I read, but I was most moved by the language chosen by the author – so beautiful it can echo within you. It strikes me that reworkings such as the OMG series strip that element away, and that is a real shame. I can’t imagine growing up without lines like I ne’er saw true beauty till this night resonating through me and, in my younger years, helping to frame my view of the world. I can’t imagine reading that most tragic of love stories, Romeo and Juliet, presented in an upbeat, flippant style.

What do you think? Is modernising/reworking an angle to explore for helping new readers discover classic works? Have you read any great adaptations? Are there any classics you couldn’t bear to see reworked? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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