We have Shakespeare to thank for helping to shape the English language, and the preeminent playwright’s influence on literature is evident in the works of everyone from Herman Melville to William Faulkner. We wanted to examine how a few contemporary authors have been injecting new life into the Bard’s creations, which have been forever embedded in our collective cultural mythos. Inspired by the New York Times’ article about Maurice Sendak’s connection to Shakespeare, here are ten novels that tackle the dramatist’s theatrics.
Christopher Moore brings his absurd wit to Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy King Lear, chronicled by the character of the Fool (named Pocket). In the play, the mad king’s court jester becomes a narrator for the royal’s weary conscience. The book honors the character’s role, but elevates him to a hilarious, raunchier version of the courtier with a razor-sharp tongue à la Eddie Izzard.
Katharine Davies’ debut novel lends a wistful, but enchanting air to her version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The comical, interconnected lives of an undercover bookstore clerk turned horticulturist, an eccentric piano teacher, and a dreamy — albeit grieving — teacher bloom in the forgotten garden of a seaside town. The heartsick madness dizzies a young student who copes with the intricacies of adolescence.
Matt Haig’s Dead Fathers Club embraces the murderous Oedipal tendencies of its inspiration, the Bard’s Hamlet. Transplanting the introspective, brooding princeling to contemporary Britain, the author’s teenage hero is exhorted to dispatch a villainous uncle by his deceased — and apparently murdered — father. Substituting a local pub for the court of Denmark, Haig’s quirky treatment of the venerable source material, viewed through the prism of his hero-narrator, brings familiar dynastic struggles to the fore.
Adolescent angst and crises abound in Louisa Luna’s Brave New Girl — a play on Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World, the title derived from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The snarky and raw coming-of-age novel sees outcast protagonist Doreen railing against her dysfunctional family and intensely bonding with best friend Ted over The Pixies. (The book gets a mention in Pixies documentary loudQUIETloud.) Sharing close ties with Holden Caulfield and Huxley’s disillusioned, erudite “Savage,” Doreen brings a redemptive, feminist air to The Tempest’s male sphere.
Jess Winfield’s debauched debut, My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare, besmirches the rep of the literary icon, pairing a historic, pseudo-biographical Shakespeare narrative with that of a latter-day namesake, one Willie Shakespeare Greenberg. Lackadaisical stoner Greenberg — also a scholar of the 16th-century laureate — finds himself embroiled in narcotic, and sometimes erotic escapades, which are spliced with the similarly dissolute misadventures of his time-twin back in 1580. Blending wordplay and humor with period detail, the author advances a provocative critical notion: that his playwright subject may have been a covert Catholic — and, hence, a religious heretic in his own epoch.
Controversial scribe Bret Easton Ellis shuffles autobiographic fact and wildly skewed fiction in 2005’s Lunar Park, which explicitly nods towards Hamlet, also alluding to the anarchic engulfment of The Tempest. The tale’s eponymous protagonist (who lives on “Elsinore Lane”) poignantly reflects on the death of his father and discusses his meteoric rise to success within the literati. Much like the magical dabbling of Shakespeare’s Prospero, the power (or, here, imagination) of the author-god begins to malevolently permeate his world, as a copycat killer begins to reenact the yuppie slayings of perhaps his most famous work, American Psycho.
Neil Gaiman’s intricate paen to Stratford-upon-Avon’s finest export is contained within Dream Country, an anthology of the acclaimed Sandman comic series. One of its most lauded chapters, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, exposes Shakespeare’s exceptional gifts as the rewards of a pact with the dream-master, Morpheus, and the titular drama receives its premiere. Played out in front of an audience of fantastical characters drawn from the text, Gaiman’s offering surreally merges narrative reality with metafiction.
A struggling novelist (and the novel’s author) faces a convincing myth of epic proportions as he attempts to get his con artist father’s “lost” Shakespeare play published (included in the novel). New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote of Arthur Phillips’ clever story:
“Not only does Mr. Phillips have a lot of fun concocting this play, borrowing a little from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Hamlet and even Macbeth along the way, but also in writing The Tragedy of Arthur — the book we hold in our hands, not the play within it — he’s constructed a sly, spirited novel that deftly showcases his own versatility and shiny literary panache.”
Admittedly, Angela Carter’s final novel is the oldest book on our list (published in 1991), but the English writer’s free-flowing Shakespearean references in Wise Children makes it a must. “[I wanted] to have a transparent prose that just ran, I wanted it to be very funny, and at the same time I wanted the complex ideas about paternity and the idea of Shakespeare as a cultural ideology,” Carter said of her carnivalesque family saga.
Orson Welles staged a groundbreaking production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Mercury Theatre (founded by the director) in 1937. This is the lively setting of Robert Kaplow’s novel Me and Orson Welles. A precocious New Jersey high school student fulfills his dreams of the stage and screen, and joins the burgeoning film legend’s theater troupe. The young man soon finds out that love is no tonic when it comes to facing the genius Welles’ ego. The novel was later adapted into a Richard Linklater drama.