Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World, ed. by Jonathan Oliver and David Moore

If you were wondering what happened to Miranda after she was betrothed to Ferdinand in The Tempest, or want to learn more about the young lovers and the fairy realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this might be the book for you. The stories are inventive and delightful, in turn playful and philosophical, full of politics and magic.

I particularly liked the first two stories, Coral Bones by Foz Meadows– in which Miranda’s life in Naples is envisaged – and The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield– where we find out what happened to the changling boy from India whom Oberon and Titania were fighting over in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but the depiction of Helena as a powerful, magical healer in Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky also lingers in the mind.

Of course I am unfairly tearing the stories apart when they are meant to work as a whole, each new story building on the previous one to create a wider vision of Shakespeare’s fantasy world, as the title suggests. Shakespeare’s sources are revisited and the transformative power of Ovid, Rumi and so on work within the text to deliver, among other things, an undead Macbeth and a vision of multiple parallel worlds that extend far beyond the fairy realm.

This was all very enjoyable, but however much I liked immersing myself in these new tales I couldn’t quite escape the sense that this was all an elaborate creative writing device. Julian Barnes’ final story, On the Twelfth Night, that ties the tales into a cohesive ending was particularly frustrating – though still clever and intriguing – because his second person always felt a little contrived. Adrian Tchaikovsky has a similarly devicive second person in Even in the Cannon’s Mouth. To add to these frustrations, not being a Shakespeare scholar made me feel I was missing important and witty allusions. I wanted the volume to be more than an academic diversion and yet the afterward entered into a discussion about the authenticity of the various authors’ methods as if it were possible, let alone essential, to mirror Shakespeare’s creative process and to use that as a measure of the collective tales’ success. That seems to me to be a crazy way of looking at these stories.

I enjoyed Monstrous Little Voices. I had fun romping around Italy and contemplating the power at play in human and fairy courts. Whether this adds to my understanding of Shakespeare’s work, whether it is even intended to do so, I can’t truly say. The energy of metamorphosis powers through the book and for that Monstrous Little Voices is a success; I’ll leave the academic judgement to someone else.

Next week I’m reading The Living by Anjali Joseph.

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