Podcast #134: Margaret Atwood on Shakespeare in the 21st Century and on YouTube

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
October 16, 2016

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Margaret Atwood is one of the most prolific Canadian writers alive today, working both in prose and poetry. In a career spanning over four decades, Atwood has won the Booker Prize and earned a Guggenheim. She is best known for novels such as The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind AssassinFor this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Atwood discussing how she brought Shakespeare into a twenty-first century context, memorizing poetry, and what YouTube can tell us about the Bard.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood's most recent novel is Hag-Seed, a retelling of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which is part of Random House's Hogarth Shakespeare series. She discussed how she and other writers have explored retelling the Bard's work:

"The brief was pretty simple. The brief was choose a play of Shakespeare, any play, and revisit it in the form of a modern prose novel, so we have I think eight writers doing this. We've had four of them published already, and four are yet to come. The approaches have been very different from one to another. So the first one, which was Jeannette Winterson, took A Winter's Tale, and she made pretty mirrorings of what's in the play. Howard Jacobson's My Name is Shylock [sic] was a lot looser."

In response to a question about how Shakespeare's language affected her own writing, Atwood spoke of the importance of memorizing poetry to her education:

"Long ago before you were born, we had to memorize things in school, and write them out from memory. I don't think that was harmful. Then it went away for quite a while, but it's coming back. There's in fact a very good contest that's held across Canada for secondary school, high school students in which they memorize three poems and recite them. You win big prizes, not only for yourself but for your school, and it's become violently popular. These kids are really good. The winners are just exceptional, and that happens here too. I think it's the National Arts that's got a poetry high school contest going on as well. So it is coming back, and I think writing poetry it is true that you have to get the sound right, that the sound actually matters as much or more."

Atwood mentioned some YouTube videos that offer perspective on Shakespeare. Specifically, she spoke of how humor can be enhanced by lessons from the video streaming site:

"I'm sure that you have come across this YouTube called Shakespeare Original Pronunciation. It's these two guys, father and son, in and around the Globe Theatre, explaining what Shakespeare in the original pronunciation would have sounded like and even does some of it. One of their things which seems pretty much that it has to be true is that we're missing a lot of puns because words used to, for instance whore and hour used to be pronounced the same. So 'And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale' has quite a different meaning when they're pronounced the same. They said they've put on a couple at the Globe in Shakespeare's original pronunciation and they were worried at first because they thought people wouldn't understand it, but in fact they do."

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