To be or not to be? You decide.
Shakespeare’s most famous question appears in Hamlet, but now readers will get to answer it themselves with Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure, a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style rewrite of Shakespeare’s classic play.
“It occurred to me that [Hamlet’s] favorite speech, ‘To Be Or Not To Be’, is structured like a choice, almost like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to write this.” North says. So he wrote his version of Hamlet in the style of the classic children’s book series, in which the reader would be prompted to make the main character’s decisions — turn to page 3 for this, turn to page 5 for that — and take the story in many different directions.
“I would follow the original plot and then look for places where it could have gone differently, and there’s tons of choices because Hamlet has all these decisions to make,” North says. “And so there’s all these possibilities where you could make him a bit more decisive or have him decide to do something else and go off in different directions.”
Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are fairly common, and are made for many reasons. Modernizations, like the BBC’s 2005 series ShakespeaRe-Told, put the plays in the present day. Other adaptations are used to make political or social commentary, such as Aime Cesaire’s 1969 Une Tempête, which used The Tempest to speak on modern issues of race and decolonization.
“Adaptation keeps canonical works alive.” Ellen MacKay, Indiana University English professor, told NPR by e-mail. “In the last century, a lot of important political critique has been articulated via appropriations of Shakespeare.”
North’s adaptation is more silly than serious, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything to say. “This is still a comedy book, but it’s not a spoof so much as it is approaching the work with a modern eye,” North explains. “One of the things I did with Ophelia is making her this really smart, competent woman.” In the original, Ophelia receives criticism from her father and brother for her relationship — and certain implied activities — with Hamlet in her first scene. In North’s version, the reader now has an option where Ophelia stands up for herself.
“It’s true that to contemporary audiences, Ophelia looks like a lamb to the slaughter.” MacKay writes. “It’s satisfying to imagine her seizing control of her story and refusing the madness and suicide that have been written for her.”
One new ending the book offers where Ophelia seizes control of her story, in fact, sees her taking down an international criminal organization. MacKay also thinks the rewrite offers the opportunity to explore what limits Ophelia’s choices, and why Shakespeare may have chosen a different adventure than the modern reader.
“It’s not really fair to say, ‘Look at this guy who died 400 years before I was born. He certainly had different opinions than me about the value of women.’” North says. “There’s stuff that doesn’t age as well, and what you do is you either adapt it so it works better now, or you ignore it.”
For the purists, the original storyline remains in To Be Or Not To Be. A Yorick skull, one of the most iconic elements of the play, appears next to each choice that takes the reader through the original plot — the choices that Shakespeare made (as North jokes, “when he plagiarized my book”).
“I honestly thought there’d be people saying, ‘Oh my God, who are you to rewrite Shakespeare?’ and that hasn’t really happened.” North explains. “I think people realize that the original story is still there.”
The best-known monologues appear in Shakespeare’s original language too — if you so choose. You can instead have characters rap their famous speeches. “I surprised myself with some raps that I wrote.” North says.
Of course, seeing the characters make different choices is all part of the fun, and also makes for a unique new way to understand Hamlet.
“If Ryan’s version gets us to ask why the characters in Hamlet make certain choices — and maybe don’t even see that they are making choices, but think that they have no choice — that can help us rethink things that Hamlet (the play) takes for granted.” William N. West, Northwestern University Professor of English, Classics, and Comparative Literary Studies, wrote to us. “It might also help us see what we take for granted.”
And what better way to study these choices in one of the most studied stories written in the English language than with a Choose Your Own Adventure book?
“The story, I think, is timeless in that not many of us are plotting to kill our stepdad, but a lot of us face choices we don’t really want to have to deal with,” North says. “The idea of taking command of your life and doing something that you’re not sure if you can do and you’re not really sure if you should do it, I think is pretty timeless. We all face those doubts often, if not constantly.”
Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be is available from the publisher’s website, where some of the proceeds will go towards the Canadian Cancer Society.