Before She Met Me: Playing With Shakespeare

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A man is in a loving relationship. He drives himself mad over imagined jealousies, and ends up committing a murder-suicide.

That’s the basic plot of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and of Julian Barnes’s novel “Before She Met Me.”

The fact is, if writer’s didn’t rip off Shakespeare, pretty much most of literary history would have gone unwritten. So the question isn’t “did Barnes rip off Shakespeare,” but “did Barnes rip off Shakespeare well?” And he did.

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Back in the day, if you were going to imagine infidelity you’d only be able to do so in your own mind. It was all up to the imagination. It needed at least someone to spur it on.

How would that story play out today? You’d have to factor in the rise of pyschology, easily available porn, new attitudes to masturbation, film, movies, television commercials, publishing schedules: a multitude of things, the rise of the visual feeding off itself, morphing and changing jealousy into something intense, something insane.

Madness may be madness, leading inevitably down the road to violence and destruction. But over time, it has changed. Madness of today is a new monster, a beast utterly changed from Shakespeare’s time, but still ultimately recognizable. It’s a strange, beautiful, and uniquely modern project to play with Shakespeare this way, and Barnes does it brilliantly.

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