The Books We Wouldn’t Have Without Shakespeare

The Books We Wouldn’t Have Without Shakespeare


William Shakespeare, the illustrious Bard who lived and died on his own birthday, would have been 450 years old today. The reach of his tragedies and comedies is unparalleled by any other author (or, depending which argument you subscribe to, authors)—but for the most part, people only know his movies. (After all, 10 Things I Hate About You and its ilk have made “Shakespeare in high school” its own movie subgenre.)

Did you know that Shakespeare inspired romances and absurdist plays from minor characters’ points of view; zombie YA; and even Klingon retellings of his plays? Celebrate the Bard’s birthday with the essential Shakespeare adaptation reading list.


The Comedy of Errors: One of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, it is also his most farcical and twin-oriented. Two sets of twins who were divided at birth happen to be in the same city; hilarity predictably ensues. Also the first Shakespeare play to spawn its own musical, The Boys From Syracuse in 1938. Not only that, but a hip-hop musical was written later: The Bomb-itty of Errors. Personally, I want to see both of these being revived on Broadway and theaters near you.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Commonly remembered as “the one with the faeries,” Midsummer is a fantastical romantic comedy about actors, supernatural beings, and—of course—some wickedly awesome villains. Chris Adrian‘s The Great Night places the faerie-court in the middle of Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008, where some young people accidentally wander into the dramatic intrigues of the faerie kingdom.

Twelfth Night: Katherine DaviesThe Madness of Love is a modern retelling of Twelfth Night‘s tale of mistaken identity derived from cross-dressing twins; but it includes the unusual stakes of a sprawling run-down garden that must be repaired for a lavish summer party. A different take on the raunchy tale of shipwrecked nobles is The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees, which has Violetta (Viola in the original play) relating her unbelievable adventure to Shakespeare himself. Littered with references to other plays, this is any YA Shakespeare nerd’s cup of tea.

Much Ado About Nothing: You may have recently watched the newest film adaptation of Much Ado(courtesy of Joss Whedon), or else the the older one with the beautiful Emma Thompson and dashing Kenneth Branagh. But you ain’t seen nothin’ until you read the hilariously-titled Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty by Jody Gehrman. Gehrman somehow manages to combine Shakespearian comedy, YA romance, and a heavy dose of realism into a cautionary tale for drinking too much coffee.

The Tempest: One of Shakespeare’s last plays (some say it is his last, but let’s not get into the authorship argument, or we’ll be here all night) The Tempest is not only a castaway tale, but also a psychological drama and a story of love at first sight. Ariel by Grace Tiffany is a wonderful look at the story from the point of view of the spirit who causes the noblemen to land on her island, all because she listens to her master, Prospero. For a classic bit of literary fanfiction, take a look at The Sea and the Mirror by W.H. Auden. The long poem explores what the characters from the original play would say after the plot Shakespeare gave us has ended.


Hamlet: Unsurprisingly, there are a ton of adaptations of Shakespeare’s brooding hero dressed in black. The fourth in Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next novels, Something Rotten, has the literary detective trying to untangle the comic The Merry Wives of Windsor from the sober Hamlet. Another fantastic bit of fun is To Be or Not to Be, a choose-your-own-adventure version by Ryan North. In Dating Hamlet, Lisa Fiedler gives us Ophelia’s version of events, while Tom Stoppard‘s classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead looks at the minor characters who are killed off halfway through the plot. Even John Updike wrote a novel about the apparent villains of the play, Gertrude and Claudius, which is a kind-of prequel to Shakespeare’s text. And last but not least, whether you believe it or not, there is a Klingon Hamlet. Yes. There is.

The Tragedy of King Lear: The story of a father’s descent into madness and regret, this is one of the best examples of Shakespeare’s use of the character of the Fool, which featured in almost all his plays in one form or another. In Christopher Moore‘s Fool that archetypal jester is given the name Pocket; the book includes some guest appearances by characters from other Billy Shakes plays. For something completely different, there’s the Pulitzer prize-winning book A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which retells Lear’s tale by placing him and his daughters into a contemporary Iowa farm.

Macbeth: An original of dramatic horror—blood, witches, curses and murders—Macbeth is so feared that actors refuse to say the word while inside a theater, because of the long history of terrible accidents occurring as a result. Terry Pratchett (long-time writer of the Discworld books) is irreverant, of course, and his Wyrd Sisters plucks the three witches from the original play and makes them entirely and wonderfully ridiculous. A more serious take, the historical The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert, takes us into the mind of one of those same witches, and tells us the gruesome story from her point of view.

Othello: When you think of Othello, you really don’t think “soccer.” Well, Mal Peet apparently did, because he took that story as the framework for Exposure, a novel of racial politics and celebrity. Toni Morrison‘s play Desdemona also takes a close look at race, examining the relationship between Desdemona and the African nurse who raised her.

Romeo and Juliet: Zombies are all the rage these days, and R&J never goes out of style. Put them together, and you get Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. (Plus, you can read the prequel, The New Hunger, on Zola Books.) Another great adaptation you might remember from your childhood is The Magicians of Caprona, one of the books in Diana Wynne Jones‘ Chrestomanci series.


Some authors don’t think it’s enough to just base their novels on one Shakespeare play—they want to make use of more than that. It’s pretty obvious what Poul Anderson‘s A Midsummer Tempest is packing together, but you may especially appreciate the premise of this sci-fi novel: Shakespeare was a historian rather than just a poet—everything that happens in his plays is fact in this alternate universe.

Silverlock by John Myers Myers has a huge cast of characters from a bunch of classic myths, tales, plays, and novels, including Puck (from Midsummer) and Hamlet.

Kill Shakespeare is a great collection of comic books by Conor McCreery, illustrated by Andy Belanger, that brings together Shakespeare’s heroes and villains and has them fight. We saw the recent stage adaptation and loved it.

Tales from Shakespeare, by the brother-and-sister duo Charles and Mary Lamb, is a classic retelling of the Shakespeare stories from the early 19th century, geared towards children.

And last, but certainly not least, using Shakespeare’s lingo to retell modern stories has become quite hip, and these two gems are the cream of the crop: The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.


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