The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.
New Boy by Tracey Chevalier is based on Othello.
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Othello, a black general and his wife Desdemona going to war, where his ensign Iago plots his downfall.
Chevalier reframes the story, with the military setting becoming an elementary school playground in Washington DC. Osei is the new boy, and the only black boy in an all white school, who is soon befriended by Dee, despite the aversion of the other students due to his race. Ian, a known school bully, decides to reassert the pecking order by bringing Osei down.
This take on the story is incredibly interesting, fleshing out characters more than we see in Shakespeare’s words and in a way we don’t often see on stage. We see insights into each of the main characters, Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi (Ian’s girlfriend representing Emilia from the play).
These insights are interesting, deviating from what many see as the key aspect of Othello – the mystery behind the motivations of the characters. Iago’s motives are the most debated of any of Shakespeare’s villains, while Othello’s actions and anger has also been questioned, as has Emilia’s complicity. In New Boy, we see first-hand insight into the characters and their thoughts and feelings giving us a whole new perspective, particularly in the case of female characters Dee and Mimi whose dramatic counterparts are often overlooked and dismissed.
Chevalier brings in a whole new dynamic in the relationships by making Osei new to the school. In the play Othello is an established general who has earned the respect of his men, meaning he has power, which Osei does not. Equally, the key part to Iago’s deception is that he is seen to be honest, whereas Ian is known to be manipulative and a bully. As such the rewriting does take out some of the nuance of the original story, however, it is an enjoyable new way to look at a well-worn tale.
The novel is also short, coming in at under 200 pages it is more of a novella, contrasting to the long scope of Shakespeare’s plays which last 3-4 hours depending on the cuts made. It is very accessible, easy to read and an engaging story – although we may know what happens we want to see how it is done, and it is done very cleverly.
Rewritings and adaptations never live up to the original tales, however they do allow Shakespeare to live on in new ways and for us to understand him in a contemporary context. New Boy does exactly that and is a very enjoyable and accessible way to approach history’s greatest playwright.
I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own.
Image from Amazon.