Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter

In Shakespeare In Love, a young Will Shakespeare is angry that his girl-friend has stepped out on him so he destroys his newest play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. As the narrative progresses, he is smitten with the woman he learns is Viola de Lesseps and proceeds to pour forth words of love and longing, overcoming his writer’s block, and creating Romeo and Juliet. Good story, right? But everyone knows that Shakespeare was copying and improving on earlier works such as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (Italian) and the Palace of Pleasure by William Painter.

So this idea of lifting the story from an earlier work or perhaps just a character or two seems to have a long and glorious history.

So why should we denigrate an author such as Salman Rushdie who transforms the Romeo and Juliet story into an up-to-date Indian romance? Rushdie is a very skillful writer who is using the basic narrative to create a version that is more approachable for his Indian heritage. Of course he lives (now) in the United States and is more associated with Great Britain at times than with India, but he is still a great writer (except The Ground Beneath Her Feet which sucked big-time).

But as I read this novel I considered the relationship of Shalimar the Clown to Romeo and Juliet as being strained and unnecessary. First, the story did involve a young woman and her lover and they were on opposite sides of the Kashmir question, but they were allowed to marry. That, if I remember, differs from Zeffirelli’s film adaptation (and from the original Shakespeare story also). I don’t want to say Shalimar the Clown was flawed … wait … yes I do! It was flawed by the flights of egotistical fancy Salman Rushdie loves to indulge in, making even a simple text into a contorted narrative looking for a kitchen sink. (see also Shalimar)

As such, if you love to read Rushdie, no matter where his writing is leading you, then Shalimar the Clown will probably thrill you, from the start to the finish with all sorts of gooey questionable narratives in-between. It was a fun read but like so much of Rushdie, perhaps best reserved for readers that already enjoy his flights fiction.

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