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Something Is Rotten In The State Of ... Wisconsin?

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr
Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr (pronounced "FRIME ‘n’ WIRE") is a producer and editor for NPR's Arts Information unit, primarily dealing with the subjects of classical music and digital technology. Along with David Schulman, he co-produced the occasional series “Musicians In Their Own Words." Their profile of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala won a Silver Award at the 2004 Third Coast International Audio Festival.