William Shakespeare is one of the most recognized writers in history, coining many of the phrases we use even today, his many plays are still popular because of the universal truths of the human experience they relate. However, the vast differences in culture between Shakespeare's time and now can make the language of his plays tricky to understand.
Random House publishing company began a project in 2015, called Hogarth Shakespeare, that has best-selling authors of our time write a modern version of one of Shakespeare's works. In May 2017, they released "New Boy," a modern retelling of "Othello" by Tracy Chevalier, author of "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Chevalier's work places versions of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and the rest into an elementary school in the 1970s. Rather than being the gentry and military of Venice, the characters now rule the playground as sixth graders on the verge of moving on to junior high. Osei replaces Othello's African living in Venice as a black student moving to an all-white school near Washington, D.C. Instead of Desdemona the beloved wife of Othello, there is Dee the popular teacher's pet who likes and immediately befriends Osei. And our villain, Iago, has been traded for Ian, school bully.
In Ian we have the truest translation of Shakespeare's characters. While Iago set out to ruin Othello and Cassio out of a resentment at their promotions and a jealousy bred of a rumor of adultery with Iago's wife Emilia, Ian's motivations are much simpler and yet the same - he sees a new kid in school as a potential challenger to his status as the king of the playground. However, where the backstabbing Iago was viewed by most of the others as a good person until the truth comes out at the end, Ian is loathed and feared by many in the school because of his years tormenting others. He only appears nice to Osei, who has just met him and does not know his reputation. Ian and Iago both use others, manipulating the few who spend any time with them in order to destroy the targets of their jealousy.
On the other end of the spectrum, Osei is a more sympathetic character than Othello because we see some of his internal struggles. We learn Osei's family is constantly moving due to his father's job, and always being the new kid has taken its toll on him. The only real ally and friend he has ever had in America, his sister, has withdrawn from the family - no longer living with them or even speaking much to them. He feels exceptionally alone with no one to confide in or trust.
Othello may have been an immigrant to Venice, but he had established relationships to some extent before the story begins, having married and been promoted to general. Osei, on the other hand, knows no one - "New Boy" takes place entirely on his very first day at the school. Iago was able to twist Othello's mind to hatred and jealousy because Othello had grown to trust Iago, but it is just as easy for Ian to manipulate Osei to anger because he manages to make it seem as though the only other people who had been nice to Osei that day were just using him and Osei doesn't know any of them well enough to know any better.
Is this book necessarily about race? While the overt racism on display in the book may seem shocking to some of us now, its effects are no more or less dangerous than the subtle racism alive today - a racism that was also very much alive in the original play over four hundred years ago. Ian probably would have done something awful to any new kid in school, and it would have been rough, but Osei is one of a kind in his school, and students and teachers all have preconceived notions about him due to the color of his skin, leaving him with very few people even willing to be kind to him. His appearance being so different, he doesn't have the defense mechanism of hiding or trying to blend in.
However, it is only a small part of what this story is about. People like Iago/Ian are not just villains in a fictional setting but exist all around us. It's easier to target anyone who is different from the majority because they have less of a social support system. Bullies are everywhere, and some of them never grow out of it. Chevalier's book might be set in the 70s, but the feelings at play will resonate with anyone no matter their age. It's a wonderful and stirring read in its own right -- even if one has never read "Othello" -- but fans of Shakespeare will especially enjoy the way Chevalier has modernized small details from the play for her version.
Almost any Shakespeare play can eventually be boiled down to one statement of summary: Everyone dies. While Chevalier does not push the conclusion of her version quite so far, the last we hear of her characters is no less dramatic and equally tragic in its own way.