Othello on the Jungle Gym

Sarah Harrison Smith on May 23, 2017

New-Boy225When you were a kid on the playground, did you skip rope and sing, “Teddy bear, Teddy bear/ Turn out the light/ Teddy bear, teddy bear, say goodnight”? Perhaps that chant evoked thoughts of warmth and bedtime coziness. But as Tracy Chevalier uses it in New Boy, her reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s a chilling little rhyme that is ominously reminiscent of the scene in which Othello smothers his adored but misunderstood bride, Desdemona. “Put out the light, and then, put out the light,” he says, as he makes her world go dark forever.

Chevalier, who has written eight previous books, including the bestseller-turned-movie starring Scarlett Johansson, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, was asked by the editors of the Hogarth Shakespeare series to choose one of Shakespeare’s plays and write her own version of it. She picked Othello, and set hers in the city and era of her childhood, 1970s Washington D.C.

Othello, in Shakespeare’s play, is a celebrated warrior who has earned fame and fortune fighting for Venice. Here he becomes the “new boy” Osei, the educated eleven-year-old son of a Ghanaian diplomat, who’s lived on three continents and attended four different schools. He too has fought battles, but they are mostly the kind of battle of wits a black child might have to engage in to find his place on the playground, surrounded by all-white classmates.

Chevalier’s novel follows Osei through his first day at his fifth school, which begins with his making a new friend in Dee, an Italian-American girl who takes a shine to him immediately, and ends with tears and heartbreak. Though perhaps less violent than the end of Shakespeare’s play, New Boy’s climax is nonetheless tragic. Tragedy has its cathartic value, of course, and in the case of the retelling, readers have the additional satisfaction of seeing the clever ways Chevalier transposes the plot of Othello onto a middle-school setting.

And in a way, that setting helps make sense of the tortured, tricky plot of the play. It’s easier to understand how Iago (here, renamed Ian) can manipulate the other characters so deftly: they’re children! But the problem of Ian’s motivation—like the problem of Iago’s—remains. Why does he do it? Chevalier’s villain says he does it “because I can.” That remains troubling—but perhaps only as troubling as the lack of rational motivation for evil, destructive acts we read about in the news.

Publishers’ catalogs are full of fractured fairy tales: Adam Gidwitz and others for children; Angela Carter and others for mature readers. The Hogarth Shakespeare series, which includes novels by Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Jeanette Winterson, takes the canonical works of Shakespeare rather than the fairy-tale corpus as its starting point. Shakespeare’s tales are sometimes inscrutable in the way of fairy tales, but watching smart, thoughtful writers like Chevalier wrestle with their ambiguities and perennial themes is—if you’ll forgive the pun—a playful pleasure.

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