Given that Shakespeare’s work unravels resonant, universal themes, it’s hardly surprising that his plays have inspired a host of novels, from obvious reinterpretations, to jazzier riffs. Forget much ado about nothing — the novels featured in this Collection are worth making a whole lot of ado about (the same goes for the inspirational quotes shared in our Book Chat feature on life lessons from the Bard).
As Shakespeare himself only wrote two wholly original plots (Love’s Labour Lost and The Tempest), the fact his work has been adapted so much is unquestionably apt. Yep, that’s right. The plots for the rest of his plays were actually borrowed from other writers — Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with input from Ovid, Seneca, and Chaucer, too. That said, Shakespeare played with the order of his source’s plots, added subplots, and created new characters, while removing those he deemed unnecessary.
But back to the books his work inspired, which we wanted to highlight for Shakespeare Week. While this annual celebration was created to foster kids’ engagement with the Bard, grown-ups shouldn’t miss out on this opportunity to discover his work in new ways. In fact, if you struggled with Shakespeare during your school days, exploring this collection of novels might help you appreciate his stories afresh.
Let’s take a few classics to kick things off. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick draws on King Lear and Macbeth, while Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World takes its title from a line in The Tempest: "O brave new world, / That has such people in 't!”.
Fascinating fact: Shakespeare’s version of The Tempest was inspired by a 1609 Bermudan shipwreck catastrophe. In turn, the play inspired John Fowles’ The Magus, and Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Re-casting Prospero as an artistic director who’s staging a version of (you’ve guided it…) The Tempest, this riotously inventive retelling is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which also includes Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), and Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy. Based on Othello, New Boy shifts the setting to an elementary school in 1970s Washington to explore race, romance and loyalty in thrilling, thought-provoking style.
Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars is another powerful reinterpretation of Othello, and hugely inventive with it too — the action takes place on a space ship. Meanwhile, Blackman’s seminal Noughts and Crosses retells Romeo and Juliet to challenge perceptions of race in an alternate-world story of ill-fated love.
Staying with the theme of love, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a funny, modern take on The Taming of the Shrew, with a green card twist on arranged marriage, while Angela Carter’s Wise Children is a riotous romp of a read — a gloriously gothic, magic realist, five act mash-up of Shakespeare’s works, including A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear.
If you loved (or struggled with) Hamlet, try Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers Club and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. As for Macbeth, read Hannah Capin’s fearless, feminist revenge thriller, Foul is Fair.
Read on to discover a host of brilliant books inspired by the Bard’s work — like we said at the start, these are novels worth making much ado about. And don’t forget to read our book chat feature on life lessons from the Bard.