What’s Past is Prologue: Shakespeare in Modern Fiction

William Shakespeare. The man, the bard. How has a man who died over 400 years ago remained relevant? Though not everyone’s cup of tea, Shakespeare has demonstrated an impressive staying power in both his persona and his works. Films like West Side Story, The Lion King, and My Own Private Idaho keep the basic plots of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Henry V, but update the stories so they make sense to modern audiences. Other films like Shakespeare in Love feature Shakespeare as a character, imagining what life was like for the Queen’s favorite playwright.

This trend also extends to modern fiction, where books often feature Shakespeare in a variety of ways. Sometimes his plays are reimagined in a new, innovative story; sometimes Shakespeare’s personal adventures are explored, and other times Shakespeare exists in fiction as he exists today: an incredibly important and resilient linchpin in English literature. With his birthday less than a month away, read more to find some Shakespearean books that you can check out in his honor.

Retellings and Reimaginings

While Shakespeare added over 1,000 words to the English language, he rarely had his own original plot ideas. In fact, many scholars agree that, of his thirty-seven stage productions, Shakespeare only had two or three original plays (The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Love’s Labour’s Lost), with a few others often added on as potentially original (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  The rest of his material was adapted from history, his contemporaries, folklore, and other resources. Long story short, William Shakespeare was very very into adaptations. Here are some adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that would make the bard himself proud.

Cover ImageA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley’s award-winning novel relocates the story of King Lear to rural Iowa, where the three daughters of a successful farmer are thrown into chaos when their father cuts the youngest out of his will. As the drama unfolds, dark family secrets are revealed. Later turned into a 1997 movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, the novel gained most of its acclaim when it won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Even if you haven’t read King Lear, you won’t want to miss this deeply emotional and tragic tale of an American family.

Cover ImageMacbeth by Jo Nesbø
What if instead of thanes and kings of Scotland, Macbeth took place in a police force? That’s just what happens in this exciting thriller from Jo Nesbø. The dangerously ambitious Thane of Glamis is recast as Inspector Macbeth, serving under police chief Duncan, as opposed to Shakespeare’s King Duncan. The play’s famous witchcraft is reimagined as the drug trade, with head-witch-in-charge Hecate playing the role of a malicious drug lord. Though the setting might be different, Macbeth’s ambition will prove once more to have deadly consequences.

Image result for hag seed margaret atwoodHag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood amazed the world with her spectacular reimagining of Homer’s The Odyssey in her best-selling hit The Penelopiad, and here she once again puts her powers of literary adaptation to use, this time for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In an interesting turn, Atwood’s adaptation centers around a scholar, Felix, staging his own production of The Tempest. As things begin to fall apart, Felix finds his life mirroring the very play he wishes to direct. Years later, Felix finally finds the chance to get revenge for the betrayal that cost him his prized production.

Cover ImageThe Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore is known for his knack for parody and satire, so it was only a matter of time until he took on Shakespeare. This book features an interesting protagonist: Pocket, the fool from King Lear. In this book, Pocket is invited to Venice, Italy, where several of Shakespeare’s rogues’ gallery await him with a sinister plan. What they didn’t account for is that, despite his status as fool, Pocket is no sap. With the help of his loyal sidekick and some of the bard’s leading men and ladies, Pocket will manage to turn this well-laid plan into a comedy of errors.

Cover ImageThe Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
The Winter’s Tale is often referred to as a “problem play,” meaning that its genre is difficult to define. This is largely due to the fact that the first half of the play functions as a tragedy, while the second half functions as a comedy. In this adaptation, Jeanette Winterson takes the story into the modern day, where a British man’s misplaced jealousy towards his wife ends in the estrangement of his daughter to the American city of Bohemia. Just as the original play toes the line between tragedy and comedy, Winterson tells both the tragic tale of a man blinded by jealousy and the jubilant story of forgiveness and reunion with his daughter.

Cover ImageNew Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Othello has been performed and adapted all across the globe. But it’s never been adapted quite like this. In New Boy, Tracy Chevalier brings the Venetian tale of jealousy and subterfuge to a setting where no one has ever dared take it: an elementary school playground. Our main players of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago become the precocious young Osei Kokote, his new friend Dee, and his scheming new classmate Ian. You may know the story of Othello, but do you know how it would play out if the characters were all eleven-year-olds?

Cover ImageDunbar by Edward St. Aubyn
In this retelling of King Lear, the tale of a father losing his insanity as two of his three daughters attempt to take over his empire is related to modern day. Henry Dunbar is the head of a global media corporation, and he dotes on his three daughters, Abby, Megan, and Florence. After giving his company to Abby and Megan and subsequently getting committed to a psychiatric hospital, Henry begins to doubt the decisions he has made, and yearns for the help of his youngest daughter, Florence. Just as heartbreaking as the source material, St. Aubyn expertly weaves the bard’s tale of aging and family drama into the modern tapestry.

Cover ImageVinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Though Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps one of the most difficult plays to be translated to a modern setting, it isn’t to be said that it can’t be done (just see the 1999 teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You). In this book, Anne Tyler brings together our Katherina and Petruchio, now Kate and Pyotr, in a wholly new way: a green card marriage arranged by Kate’s scientist father to keep Pyotr, his brilliant lab assistant, from being deported back to Russia. Just like other modern adaptations of the original play, Kate’s wit and determination are no longer treated like flaws for a woman to have, and are instead celebrated.

Cover ImageRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Unlike the other entries in this list, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of a Shakespeare play maintained the original format of a theater production. Originally produced in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has become a theater legend in its own right. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are introduced as college friends of Hamlet’s who are now working against him with his uncle, Claudius. Their role is quite minor, with the resolution of their story occurring in a minor throw-away line. Tom Stoppard gives these two men a voice, offering us the entire contents of Hamlet through the eyes of his two inept schoolmates.

Cover ImageOphelia by Lisa Klein
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t the only two characters whose story gets skipped over in Hamlet; the same can be said for Hamlet’s ill-fated lover, Ophelia. In the original play, Ophelia is little more than a pawn in Hamlet’s schemes, and, just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, her story is wrapped up off stage, with news of her death relayed in later scenes. Lisa Klein shows us the proceedings of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes, and gives the character the ending she was denied in Shakespeare’s original work.

Cover ImageShylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Shylock, the miserly moneylender of The Merchant of Venice, is given a interesting spin in this book by Man Booker prize-winner Howard Jacobson. Simon Strulovitch, a modern version of Shylock, leads the story as he struggles with his daughter’s choice to marry a non-Jewish man. In a truly innovative twist, Shakespeare’s original Shylock appears in the story, befriending Simon and discussing their similar frustrations. Shylock is Jewish in the original play, and in Jacobson’s updated version we get to see Shakespeare’s Shylock and Jacobson’s Simon discuss what it means to be Jewish in their own respective time periods.

Cover ImageFool by Christopher Moore
This book is the first appearance of Moore’s updated Pocket, the fool from King Lear, as he witnesses the events of the play around him. As opposed to the Avengers-esque combination of multiple Shakespearean villains and heroes of its sequel, this story is a bit more insular, focusing on the events of King Lear. Unlike the play’s namesake, Pocket is not kingly or regal or virtuous by any means. Moore takes that detail to the next level in Fool, as he shows us all the scandalous vulgarity and hijinks that the court jester gets himself into while Lear’s family plots his disposal.


Shakespeare as a Character

William Shakespeare’s historical and cultural fame has made him somewhat of an enigma to modern audiences. With the added rumors on the authenticity of his authorship, it’s no surprise that people are just as interested in reading about Shakespeare the person as they are in reading his plays. Here are some novels that feature William Shakespeare as a character, theorizing about what he may have been like when he was alive.

Cover ImageFools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
This novel focuses on Shakespeare’s real younger brother, Richard, of whom little is known. In Cornwall’s novel, he imagines Richard as a struggling actor, estranged from his family and trying to make a career for himself in a field where his older brother has been immensely successful. When one of William’s manuscripts goes missing, Richard becomes the prime suspect. In order to clear his name and save his career, he must enter the seedy London underbelly to track down the missing manuscript and clear his name.

Cover ImageThe Spy of Venice by Benet Brandreth
When thinking of the hallmarks of British culture, both Shakespeare and James Bond come to mind. But what would it have been like if Shakespeare himself was an intelligence agent? That’s the premise for The Spy of Venice, which features a young William Shakespeare going on a James Bond-style mission to Venice, where he must gather intel, dodge assassins, and save the day. The series takes place before Will becomes a playwright, and suggests that perhaps it’s these death-defying adventures that give him the material he needs to start his literary career.

Cover ImageLicense to Quill by Jacopo della Quercia
The crime-fighting duo has become a staple of modern culture, from DC’s Batman and Robin to The X-Files‘s Scully and Mulder. So who better to send Renaissance criminals running than William Shakespeare and his popular contemporary Christopher Marlowe? In this book, Shakespeare and Marlowe are faced with their biggest mission yet: the real-life Gunpowder Plot. With his trusted partner Marlowe, Shakespeare will have to save the day, beat the bad guys, and maybe, just maybe, think up the plot of Macbeth.

Cover ImageThe Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber
Perhaps the most popular of the conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s authorship is that his plays were actually written by his popular contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe famously died in 1593, just when Shakespeare’s career as a playwright was beginning to take off. This book, told from the perspective of Marlowe, reveals that he faked his death to avoid arrest, and then continued to write and find success in theater under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.

Cover ImageMistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper
Shakespeare wed Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, at the age of eighteen. There is a document, however, stating Shakespeare to be engaged to an “Anne Whately,” who some believe may be Shakespeare’s original intended. Most scholars have likened this to a clerical error, but in her novel Karen Harper imagines the life of this Anne Whately. In this version, Shakespeare is forced to marry Hathaway, and Whately is his true love, with whom he carries on a loving affair with until his eventual death. For fans of the film Shakespeare in Love, this is a must read.

Cover ImageThe Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt
Shakespeare’s sonnets are famously dedicated to two different people: a young man often referred to as the Fair Youth and a woman known as the Dark Lady. The sonnets to these two muses are entirely different in tone, and much speculation has been made on who exactly the real inspirations may have been. In this novel, Sharratt explores the story of Renaissance poet Aemilia Bassano Lanier, one of the women suspected of being Shakespeare’s “dark lady.” In this version, Shakespeare and Lanier write together, only for Shakespeare to take credit for their shared work.

Cover ImageNothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess
Taken from Shakespeare’s famous line in Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” this novel by the acclaimed author of A Clockwork Orange examines Shakespeare’s love life. The story, told from the perspective of William Shakespeare, goes over his entire life, but focuses heavily on the various affairs and trysts of which Shakespeare is thought to have been a part. Though the work is entirely fiction, Burgess theorizes on Shakespeare’s romances with a distinct voice and thorough speculation.


Shakespeare-Inspired Plot

Some Shakespeare novels don’t feature Shakespeare or his characters as players in the plot, but instead revolve around the modern culture of Shakespeare performance and scholarship. These novels do not revise or theorize Shakespeare, but instead simply celebrate him as a poet and a playwright.

Image result for if we were villainsIf We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Oliver Marks has just been released from prison when he is approached by the retired detective who worked his case, asking for the real story of what happened ten years prior. The novel is told through Oliver’s perspective, detailing his final year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where he is one of seven actors in a Shakespearean troupe. Despite having been closely knit their first three years at school, their final year seems to turn everything around, eventually ending in a tragedy that puts Oliver in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Cover ImageThe Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charles C. Lovett
Peter Byerly, a collector and restorer of rare books, has moved to the English countryside following the death of his wife, Amanda. As he searches through old documents on Shakespeare, he finds a Victorian painting of a woman who looks strikingly identical to his late wife. Consumed by a need to uncover the mystery of this doppelganger, he becomes consumed with learning the history of the painting, the Shakespearean study, and Shakespeare himself. Through his research, he is able to commune with Amanda’s spirit, putting a supernatural spin on the mystery.

Cover ImageStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In this futuristic novel, a devastating flu epidemic has collapsed society. Kirsten Raymonde travels between post-apocalyptic settlements with a troupe of actors and musicians dedicated to maintaining culture and art. Though they perform other works as well, overwhelmingly the troupe finds that audiences prefer Shakespeare. As they move throughout the wasteland, Kirsten and her troupe must face hardships, a dangerous prophet, and threats against the very things they hold dear. A beautiful novel in its own right, Station Eleven examines how Shakespeare can be enjoyed by truly any audience.

Cover ImageTrust Exercise by Susan Choi
At a highly competitive performing arts school, two young students, David and Sarah, fall in love while acting in a Shakespeare play. Their relationship goes mostly unnoticed, and is subtly manipulated by their drama teacher. At first things are great between the two, but eventually things turn sour. Fourteen years later, it is revealed that what happened to David and Sarah is not all that it seems. As the plot moves forward, it becomes less and less apparent who to trust in this tangled web of truths and lies.

Cover ImageInterred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell
This book touches on a common theme in the genre of Shakespearean modern fiction: a lost manuscript. Shakespearean scholar and theater director at Shakespeare’s Globe, Kate Stanley is told of a long lost Shakespeare play by her mentor on the eve of the theater’s big production of Hamlet. Before she can get anymore information, her mentor is murdered, and a string of murders, matching those that happen in Shakespeare’s works, begin cropping up around the world. Kate now must race to not only find the missing manuscript, but also to stay alive.

Cover ImageThe Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
This book takes the lost Shakespeare play trope and gives it an interesting spin. Arthur and his twin sister have long-learned not to trust their father; he is a con artist, after all. The only think Arthur knows for sure is true is that his father, and sister for that matter, has an unwavering love for the works of William Shakespeare. After getting arrested and nearing the end of his life, Arthur’s father gives Arthur and his sister what he says is Shakespeare’s long lost play: The Tragedy of Arthur. His dying wish is that his children have the play produced and recognized as one of Shakespeare’s own. Is this his father’s greatest secret, or just his greatest con?