Shakespeare is an icon and a god of the Western literary canon, and so many people have revisited his works through a modern lens. Our list, below, features some of the best Shakespearean reworkings that would have surely made him proud were he still alive today.
Nutshell, Ian McEwan (inspired by Hamlet)
Summary: Nutshell is a classic story of murder and deceit, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. A bravura performance, it is the finest recent work from a true master. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, the art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things.
Why You Should Read It: Shakespeare clearly loved the weird and abnormal, and, without a doubt, would have devoured McEwan’s adaptation of Hamlet. Only Ian McEwan would have thought to retell this beloved classic from the point-of-view of a fetus: it sounds like a gimmicky plot device, but this Man Booker Prize-winning author makes it work. Nutshell is hysterical, extremely clever, and brilliantly written.
A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (inspired by King Lear)
Summary: Aging Larry Cook announces his intention to turn over his 1,000-acre farm–one of the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa–to his three daughters, Caroline, Ginny, and Rose. A man of harsh sensibilities, he carves Caroline out of the deal because she has the nerve to be less than enthusiastic about her father’s generosity. While Larry Cook deteriorates into a pathetic drunk, his daughters are left to cope with the often grim realities of life on a family farm–from battering husbands to cutthroat lenders. In this winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of such a life with stark, painful detail.
Why You Should Read It: If you’ve read King Lear, then you know it would be hard to paint Lear’s two eldest daughters as redeemable or worthy of sympathy. Smiley takes this famous tragedy, brings it to late 20th century rural Iowa, and filters it through a feminist lens. Filled with themes of betrayal, loyalty, and love, Smiley gives Shakespeare’s hated characters a backstory and an objective for their questionable actions.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear, E.K. Johnston (inspired by The Winter’s Tale)
Summary: Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don’t cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team’s summer training camp is Hermione’s last and marks the beginning of the end of… she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black. In every class, there’s a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They’re never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she’s always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn’t the beginning of Hermione Winter’s story and she’s not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.
Why You Should Read It: We all love some well-written feminist YA fiction, and this retelling of The Winter’s Tale does not disappoint. Johnston explores the sexual abuse that Hermione experiences in the original Shakespeare play, but through modernized characters: high school cheerleaders. The author approaches the sensitive topics with nuance and vulnerability, and the result is a lyrical adaptation that will take you through all of the extreme emotions, both negative and positive.
Prince of Cats, Ron Wimberly (inspired by Romeo and Juliet)
Summary: A hip-hop retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that focuses on Tybalt (derisively referred to as “the Prince of Cats”) and his Capulet crew as they do battle nightly with the hated Montagues. Set in a Blade Runner-esque version of Brooklyn, PRINCE OF CATS is a mix of urban melodrama, samurai action, and classic Shakespearean theater…all written in Iambic Pentameter!
Why You Should Read It: Shakespeare revolutionized the dramatic genre, so it’s fitting that his works would extend into different written forms, including graphic novels. Prince of Cats is an artistic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, that focuses on Tybalt, Juliet’s brother. This graphic novel is urban and gritty and twists the original play into a unique story filled with spark and gripping action.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard (inspired by Hamlet)
Summary: Hamlet told from the worm’s-eye view of two minor characters, bewildered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Echoes of Waiting for Godot resound, reality and illusion mix, and where fate leads heroes to a tragic but inevitable end.
Why You Should Read It: A classic in and of itself, this play by Tom Stoppard focuses on two of the tertiary characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s absurd, tragically comical, and filled with moments of Samuel Beckett-esque existentialism: Shakespeare would have approved. If you don’t want to read the play, the movie is also excellent.
Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood (inspired by The Tempest)
Summary: When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution. Eventually, he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?
Why You Should Read It: The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project that started in 2015 which recruits well-known modern authors to write modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Hag-seed, written by the revered Margaret Atwood, is a retelling of The Tempest, set in a correctional institution. This novel deals with themes of captivity, the art of performance, and grief with enough Shakespearean references to make any die-hard fan swoon.
What is your favorite Shakespeare adaptation?
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