Writing

His Brief Candle Burns On: 25 Authors on Shakespeare’s 400th

Illustration by Manuja Waldia

We’ve all encountered Shakespeare’s work in one form or another. His language, at first, may have felt arcane and impossible to decode. But if you kept at it (or were forced to keep at it by your middle school English teacher), after a while, something clicked. A quote, forever underlined and marked in the margins of an old copy of King Lear; a quiet gasp in the dark of a theater; a copy of a sonnet given to you by an old flame, kept in a box under your bed. Shakespeare’s writing has the remarkable ability to cut through life’s mundanities and reach the marrow of things.

The debt we owe him lives on in a culture infused with endless variations of his work, from “She’s the Man,” to “West Side Story,” to Schubert’s “Who is Silvia?” He’s influenced artists of all kinds for centuries, most especially writers. In honor of the 400th anniversary of his death, we’ve called on twenty-five authors to share their fondest memories of, and first encounters with, the Bard’s work. Reminisce along with us in the comments below.

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Dan Vyleta (Smoke)

This is what Shakespeare means to us now. I am on a train from Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, to the big, ugly, exciting city that is Birmingham. The Royal Shakespeare Company is showing a new Hamlet at the moment. A young woman and a young man are arguing in the seat in front of me. She is dressed in the uniform of a retail store and speaks slowly, distinctly, is fond of expletives. He answers in broad, quick Brummie [Birmingham accent]. I listen, pretending not to listen. They seem to be arguing about a friend. It only gradually dawns on me they are talking about the Prince of Denmark.

She maintains that he is all talk, no action. “Bloody frustratin’, like.”

The young man is more sympathetic, pointing out that Hamlet has been asked to do something that is against his nature. “He’s supposed to kill someone. But he’s just isn’t that sort of bloke.”

She has a parting shot, just before she hops off the train. “You know what he’s like? He’s just like your dad.”

It makes my day.

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Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters)

I do enjoy reading Shakespeare, but I far prefer to enjoy it as it was meant to be experienced – as a performance. A really talented group of actors can make the language not only easy to understand, but beautiful, and I’m amazed by how every production brings out something new. And though I’ve seen Shakespeare at the Folger Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, I really think you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a middle school production of Hamlet.

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Margaret Atwood (Hag-Seed)

The Tempest has always been a favourite of mine, and working on it will be an invigorating challenge. Is Caliban the first talking monster? Not quite, but close.

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Alexander McCall Smith (The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine)

So much that we study at school fades from the memory, but not Shakespeare. He is always there in the back of the mind, as powerful and as lasting as the times tables we learnt by heart.

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Rachel Caine (Midnight Bites)

In my sophomore year in high school, my amazing English teacher recognized that I was reading far ahead on assigned material, and put me on a self-study course that encouraged me to read classics and turn in written reports each week. She suggested I start with Shakespeare’s plays, and I started with Hamlet. I was immediately hooked, though it was a little hard going at first — no “Shakespeare for Dummies” in those days. But there were ghosts! Murders! Intrigues! Madness! In short, I was fascinated. From there, I plowed through almost all the plays during the year, and as I got more familiar with the language I really fell in love with the way he blended high tragedy and low comedy, love and loss, death and danger. And it made me feel empowered. Someone wrote those brilliant words. And that meant I could aspire to do the same.

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Michael Golding (A Poet of the Invisible World)

When I was ten years old, I saw Hamlet on “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” on TV. It was as if a portal had opened onto another world: more rich, more real, more alive than virtually anything I’d known until then. Nothing — thank God (and Shakespeare) — has ever been the same.

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Jo Nesbo (Midnight Sun)

Macbeth is a story that is close to my heart because it tackles topics I’ve been dealing with since I started writing. A main character who has the moral code and the corrupted mind, the personal strength and the emotional weakness, the ambition and the doubts to go either way. A thriller about the struggle for power, set both in a gloomy, stormy crime noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind. No, it does not feel too far from home. And, yes, it is a great story. And, no, I will not attempt to do justice to William Shakespeare nor the story. I will simply take what I find of use and write my own story. And, yes, I will have the nerve to call it Macbeth.

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Courtney Carbone (OMG Shakespeare Series)

When I was 11 years old, my parents encouraged me to get involved in children’s community theatre at the local high school. After a handful of classes practicing tongue twisters and breathing with our diaphragms, we were ready to put on an actual show: Hamlet. The director held tryouts, which retrospectively had less to do with actual talent, and more to do with who best fit each costume. But as luck would have it, no one fit into that sky blue, crushed velvet tunic better than me–and I was cast as the Prince of Denmark. It was a dream come true. I won’t say the show went perfectly–we forgot the sword fight at the end–but I’ll never forget how that experience opened my eyes to the magic of Shakespeare.

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Brett Wright (OMG Shakespeare Series)

In ninth grade, we read one of two Shakespeare plays, depending on which teacher you had: Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Venice. I was in the class that read The Merchant of Venice. It was fun and funny, but I remember being jealous that I didn’t get to read Romeo and Juliet. Despite knowing the general story for a while, I had never actually read Shakespeare’s “greatest love story.” So I decided to read it on my own — and, looking back, I’m thankful I read it alongside The Merchant of Venice. The two balanced each other out, but both made me feel challenged in ways I never had before. I had to really dig in to figure out what was happening behind all the beautiful language — layered, double-meaning poetry that made me realize the power of emotionally-charged writing.

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Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl)

[Hamlet has] long been a fascination of mine: murder, betrayal, revenge, deceit, madness – all my favorite things…What (slightly cheeky) writer wouldn’t be tempted to reimagine it?

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Andrea Chapin (The Tutor)

Our fourth grade class in Durham, New Hampshire put on Macbeth. I still have the purple mimeographed copy of the edited version of the play we used. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Bassett, our gray-haired teacher who wore thick, black-soled tie shoes and glasses on a chain around her neck, we built a theater-in-the-round in the gymnasium and rehearsed after school and on the weekends. I was Lady Macbeth, and I can, to this day, spout many of my lines.

I’m a big believer in introducing Shakespeare to kids early. Kids get the drama, characters, emotions, and motivations, and even if they don’t quite get all the language and imagery, they get the sound, the rhythm, and some of the magic. I remember being astounded and intrigued by the idea of “the milk of human kindness” and that people could read a face like a book, “Your face, my thane, is a book, where men/May read strange matters,” or that someone could act one way while thinking something quite different:

“…Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent
flower,
But be the serpent under ‘t.”

Andrea Chapin - Shakespeare

Andrea Chapin as Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene.

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Emma Campion writing as Candace Robb (The Service of the Dead)

When searching for an epigraph, I pluck my Riverside Shakespeare off the shelf. Will’s plays are so familiar and populated by archetypes, the language so rich, I know I can count on him. For my latest book, I wanted to set the scene—a young woman wooed, used, and discarded. Fatal cruelty. I turned to Hamlet:

We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
Hamlet, Act V, scene 1

And, within the quote, I found my title: The Service of the Dead. Came through for me again, Will. You’re the man.

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Elda Rotor (Publisher, Penguin Classics)

My first experience with Shakespeare was reading his sonnets, not his plays, in elementary school, which inspired me to write poems, preferably in verse, through high school, a useful vehicle for both the drama and comedy of being a teen. In college, there was one book that I thought was a trip, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, and let’s just say it annotated the Bard in a whole different way and I declared my English major pretty soon after. One of the best things in New York, and growing up in the city it was a ritual and tradition, was waiting in line for hours in Central Park for Shakespeare in the Park tickets. Seeing a Public Theater production outdoors, with the skyline and Belvedere Castle in the background, either under a clear moonlit sky or toughening it out in a poncho in the rain, was the very best way to take in Shakespeare. You wanted to be there, and so did a diverse community of theatergoers all prepared to be entertained for the evening. The city becomes part of the stage, you take in the actors, the set, the words, and literally magic can happen. It’s still one of my favorite experiences.

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B. Coates (Shakespeare Basics for Grownups)

We both first encountered Shakespeare at school. For E. Foley this involved acting out the political intrigues of Julius Caesar in her 4th Form English class, which was particularly memorable because the cleverest girl in school fatally embarrassed herself by pronouncing the famous ‘Et tu, Brute’ line in an impeccable French accent. At the tender age of 11 B. Coates was introduced to the somnolent arcadia of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she and her classmates were tickled endlessly by the scatological implications of Bottom and Titiana. As grown-ups, we have a more mature response to the Bard. E Foley’s favourite play is Antony and Cleopatra for its beautiful poetry and depiction of an earth-shaking love affair, whereas B. Coates favours the dark delights of the Scottish play with its unforgettably ruthless female lead.

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Michelle Ephraim (Shakespeare, Not Stirred)

“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous.”
–King Lear 2.4

After King Lear foolishly gives away his kingdom to his cruel daughters, he still insists that they honor, not undermine, his “need” for power: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous.” Lear’s an irrational, impetuous disaster of a father and king, but he captures a human truth: no matter who we are or what we have, and regardless of logic, reason, or sense, we are fundamentally moved by our desires.

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Caroline Bicks (Shakespeare, Not Stirred)

Malcolm: Dispute it like a man.

Macduff: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.

                               (Macbeth 4.3.222-24)

This exchange is, for me, Shakespeare’s most powerful commentary on manhood. Macduff, off protecting Scotland, has just found out that his wife and children were slaughtered because he wasn’t there to protect them. Through this unthinkable loss, he learns that being a man isn’t just about taking manly revenge— it’s about fully feeling your human connections, even when the pain seems unbearable.

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Manuja Waldia (illustrator)

Shakespeare influences my work by influencing my work ethic. His vast body of writing, each title more genius than the next, is a testament to his relentless hard work. His work also seems to come from the depths of his individual experiences, something which makes it highly original. This encourages me to use my own voice in my work as much as I can, and also to be as observant of people, quirks, environments, and emotions, and to notice little things with which I can texturize and enrich my art.

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Benjamin Wood (The Ecliptic)

Every complexity and dimension of humankind can be found in Shakespeare’s work, along with the profoundest feats of literary artistry. His influence remains as fundamental to the written word today as gravitation is to apples falling from a tree.

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Pauline Kiernan (Filthy Shakespeare)

How long have you got?! His towering genius resides in his matchless understanding of what makes us human. He makes us feel on our pulses his profound insights into psychology, philosophy and politics, as they affect and shape our world. There is nothing he has written that does not offer astonishing resonances for the life we live today. Being in his company for so many years of my life, is an experience hard to sum up. That a single individual understood so much about the human condition never ceases to take my breath away.

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Dan Falk (The Science of Shakespeare)

Shakespeare wasn’t a scientist, but he had many of the traits that would make a good scientist: He was fascinated by the human condition as well as the natural world that we inhabit. One of my goals in writing The Science of Shakespeare was to use his writing as a lens to examine our understanding of the world – the nature of the cosmos, and our place within it – as it was some four centuries ago. This year we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – but thanks to his remarkable plays, poems, and sonnets, his world still seems remarkably close to our own, something we can almost touch, at least in the mind’s eye.

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Jennifer Chiaverni (Fates and Traitors)

From the first time I read William Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays as a student, I’ve marveled at his mastery of the music of language and all its melodies, rhythms, tempos, and rhymes. But he not only used language brilliantly, he also invented it—and Shakespeare is not “belied by false compare” when I say that he influenced the English language more than any other person. From the words he invented—dauntless, gnarled, excitement, and so many others—to the evocative phrases he said first and best, even today, four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s language adds color, depth, and dimension to our thoughts, our speech, our literature, and our daily conversation.

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Richard Cohen (How to Write Like Tolstoy)

The first Shakespeare I ever read was Antony and Cleopatra, when I was 13 and under the disapproving eye of my English master, a seventy-year-old Benedictine monk. For me, it is one of the best plays W.S. wrote, with some of the sublimest poetry and greatest doomed lovers…”We have kissed away kingdoms and provinces”!

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Lee Child (Night School, Jack Reacher Series)

When I was about nine years old my mom joined a club that gave out cheap tickets to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford on Avon. Back then I was a street kid and went very reluctantly, totally prepared to hate the whole thing. It was Henry IV Part 1 – and I was totally entranced. It was one of those evenings that seemed to be over in about ten minutes. I loved Shakespeare ever since and went back to Stratford hundreds of times – and even worked there for a summer. Never did a cheap ticket have more effect.