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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: July ::
Something Rotten in Wisconsin and Minnesota
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0388  Thursday, 10 July 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Thursday, July 10, 2008
Subject:    Something Rotten in Wisconsin and Minnesota

Something Is Rotten in the State of . . . Wisconsin?
By Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92029508

Yesterday, while I was waiting in line to get to a pump at COSTCO for some gas, 
I heard an interesting story on NPR about two new novels with parallels to 
Hamlet. At the NPR web site, you can hear the entire four-and-a-half-minute 
story and there are links to both authors' reading from their works as well as 
excepts in case you would like to read the selections on your own.

Here is the abbreviated web site version of the story that I heard:

Something Is Rotten in the State of . . . Wisconsin?
By Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr

All Things Considered, July 9, 2008 . Two new books this summer are bringing the 
storyline of Shakespeare's _Hamlet_ to the American Midwest. And while neither 
author says he set out to simply update Hamlet, both novels feature suspicion, 
betrayal and an uncle close at hand to offer help -- and more -- to his 
brother's widow.

Lin Enger's _Undiscovered Country_, which takes place in the fictional Northern 
Minnesota town of Battle Point, begins with what appears to be a hunting 
accident: A boy, Jesse Matson, hears a shot in the woods, runs toward it and 
discovers his father's dead body. It seems that his father committed suicide, 
but Jesse doesn't believe that's the case.

The scenario occurred to Enger more than a decade ago, as he was up in a tree, 
hunting deer with his brothers. When he realized that the scene mirrored the 
beginning of Hamlet, he decided to use the play as a starting point, he says, 
"to find out whether my character, given the same dilemma that Hamlet faces, 
would make similar decisions."

Novelist David Wroblewski also drew inspiration from the bard for _The Story of 
Edgar Sawtelle_, which he describes as an exercise in "how to subvert [Hamlet] 
as many ways as I could."

To wit: There's no trace of Elsinore castle in _The Story of Edgar Sawtelle_. 
Rather, Hamlet's family is moved to a Wisconsin farm, where Edgar, who was born 
mute, uses sign language to communicate with his parents and the dogs they breed 
and train. Wroblewski plays the character's silence against the hyper-verbal 
Hamlet.

"In Edgar's case, I wanted him to be hyper-observant," Wroblewski says. "And I 
felt that by subtracting the power of language, he would be a more believable 
and more potent observer of what's going on."

Wroblewski based the fictional Sawtelle farm on his own childhood home. His 
mother trained dogs on their 90-acre farm in Central Wisconsin. He describes his 
novel as "simply a love story between a boy and his dog," and he points to 
Rudyard Kipling's _Mowgli Stories_ about a boy living in the wild as another 
major influence.

"I think of . . . the relationship between Edgar's story and Hamlet's story as a 
re-folded piece of origami," he explains. "At one time, this was a perfectly 
executed origami crane. And I unfolded it and refolded it into a different 
shape. And when it's in that different shape -- say it's a frog now -- you can 
see a few feathers over here where no frog should have feathers."

Certainly the big themes of _Hamlet_ are able to withstand a lot of folding and 
re-folding. And the bard is no stranger to the American Midwest; Jane Smiley's 
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel _A Thousand Acres_ moved the story of _King Lear_ 
to a farm in Iowa.

Enger says Shakespeare is particularly adaptable because the conflicts that he 
chronicles -- between vengeance and justice, and vengeance and forgiveness -- 
are "probably the oldest moral dilemma that human beings face."

Wroblewski adds that all storytellers "take old stories, they change the 
proportions, they change the elements around, in ways that are meaningful to them."

Sometimes that means surrounding the prince of Denmark with a kennel full of 
dogs, or having him hunt deer from a tree in Minnesota.

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