On Writers Taking on Shakespeare, and Why It’s More Than Okay

Detail from cover of Dunbar

“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet, preparing to ensnare his murderous uncle in a confession. Scores of writers since Shakespeare’s time have found his plays equally useful for providing plots, archetypes, and timeless conflicts. It would be hard to write a book about the folly of teenage passion without even subconsciously referencing Romeo and Juliet, or have a character suffer romantic jealousy without evoking Othello. And who could come up with a story of political intrigue and betrayal that didn’t rely, in some way, on Julius Caesar?

In fact, it might be harder to compile a list of novels that don’t reference Shakespeare, directly or obtusely, than those that do. The obvious reason is the way his stories, rather than feeling outdated, seem to get more prescient and relevant with the centuries. But his characters are also irresistible to any writer interested in the way humans deceive others, and themselves, about their true motivations. Some writers make no attempt to hide their liberal borrowing from the Bard (who himself stole plots and characters freely), instead writing updated homages to the master of English literature. Here’s a sampling:

  • The cover of the book Dunbar


    St. Aubyn updates of King Lear, Shakespeare’s tragedy about an aging king who distrusts the one daughter who tells him the truth, and divides his kingdom between his scheming other daughters – then suffers the consequences. Lear becomes Henry Dunbar, a Rupert Murdoch-like baron whose daughters have drugged him into paranoia and locked him in a mental institution in order to poach the family fortune. Aided by his rhyming, word-playing fellow inmate, he makes a break from his confinement, and a tragic attempt to regain control of his destiny.

  • The cover of the book A Thousand Acres

    A Thousand Acres

    Also taking Lear as its source material, this novel moves the action to an Iowa farm where the aging patriarch is preparing to divide his ‘thousand acres’ among his three daughters. Smiley tells the tale of familial striving and dischord from the point of view of the youngest daughter, who, in refusing to flatter her father with pledges of fealty, loses her inheritance.

  • The cover of the book Nutshell


    A Novel

    In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the moody prince is a thirty-year-old man. In Ian McEwan’s reimagining, he’s a fetus, brooding impotently in his mother’s womb while she and her lover, Claude, plot to eliminate her problematic husband. Taking its title from Hamlet’s famous lines, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” McEwan literalizes the frustrations of Hamlet’s powerlessness.

  • The cover of the book Gertrude and Claudius

    Gertrude and Claudius

    A Novel

    If you ask Hamlet, his mother and step-father (who also happens to be his uncle) are the worst. Claudius murdered his father, the king, and Gertrude, his mother, wasted no time marrying her former brother-in-law and hoping into bed with him. But in this novel Updike imagines the story before the play – what if the couple’s love was actually true, and Hamlet in fact as mad as he pretends?

  • The cover of the book Brave New World

    Brave New World

    Huxley peppers this dystopian futurist tale with quotes and references to Shakespeare throughout, but most of them (including the title) point to The Tempest.  Caliban, the stranger in a strange land, here is updated as John, a visitor to a perfectly engineered future state where all human emotion and yearning has been mechanically eliminated.

  • The cover of the book Love in Idleness

    Love in Idleness

    What better setting for an updating of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Tuscany, the idyllic Italian countryside where everything really does feel caught in a romantic spell. In this novel, Polly and Theo, standing in for Titania and Oberon, assemble guests at their villa hoping to play matchmaker – and, in true Shakespearean fashion, the results go horribly, comically awry.