Shakespeare’s impact on literature and culture cannot be overstated; put simply, his plays have had a monumental effect on literature and the English language in general, and continue to inspire to this day. Yet for some, puzzling through that archaic language can be an intimidating challenge. No worries: here are 21 novels based on or inspired by the Bard that give you at least a fraction of the benefits of Shakespeare’s genius—without the iambic pentameter.
A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
Inspired by: King Lear. Smiley’s story of a family farm being incorporated and divided between three daughters follows the fundamental plot of King Lear pretty closely, mapping the major elements to a modern world. Smiley takes the story to an even darker place than Shakespeare, however, and as a result captures the terrifying chasm of darkness at the heart of the narrative in a way that faithful stage productions sometimes can’t manage.
New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
Inspired by: Othello. By setting her reworking of Othello in a middle school in Washington state, Chevalier underscores the primal forces examined in the original: jealousy, rage, vengeance. Far from mocking the savage forces driving the main characters, by making the characters children, Chevalier gets to the root of the matter faster, making this a brutal ride from beginning to end and conveying the power of the original almost effortlessly.
Gertrude and Claudius, by John Updike
Inspired by: Hamlet. Updike wasn’t the first writer to rework a Shakespeare play from an inverted angle, and he certainly won’t be the last, but by making Gertrude and Claudius, the morally-challenged parental figures whose machinations drive Hamlet insane, the protagonists instead of supporting players, Updike manages to drill down into what makes Hamlet one of the great stories of all time, even without the pretty language Shakespeare seemed to effortlessly produce. Updike went back to the source material Shakespeare himself used to construct his story, making this a shortcut to deep research on the play as well.
The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson
Inspired by: The Winter’s Tale. One of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays (to defend and enjoy), The Winter’s Take seems like a tough sell for a reworking in a modern novel, but Winterson’s transformation of sexual subtext into text slams this story into high gear. Hedge fund manager Leo has an unspoken sexual spark with video game designer Xeno, and when he jealousy comes to believe Xeno is having an affair with his pregnant wife, Leo launches into a rage of violence that resembles the shocking opening act of the play in a wonderfully evocative way.
Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood
Inspired by: The Tempest. Atwood’s great achievement with her novel is the fact that you don’t need to know a single thing about The Tempest to find the book pretty amazing. The revenge tale Atwood crafts is small-scale in the biggest way possible, centered on a theater festival and its wronged director. Atwood doesn’t hold back—one thing she carries over from Shakespeare is the idea that no idea is too silly, too shocking, or too broad, as long as you have the talent to pull it off.
The Dead Father’s Club, by Matt Haig
Inspired by: Hamlet. Haig chooses a different route from most authors re-working Shakespeare, in that his story, though modernized, is pretty faithful to the original: the ghost of Phillip’s father visits the young man and implores him to murder his brother to prevent him from marrying Phillip’s mother and taking over the family business. Phillip pursues this goal, but slowly comes to doubt whether his father is right, while the reader begins to doubt Phillip’s grasp on reality.
The Taming of the Drew, by Stephanie Kate Strohm
Inspired by: The Taming of the Shrew. One thing about Shakespeare’s plays: they sure were written in the 16th century. Offering all the sass and smart language of the Bard, plus some refreshingly inverted sexual politics, this take on the classic comedy switches the sex roles reads like a literary version of 10 Thing I Hate About You.
The Madness of Love, by Katharine Davies
Inspired by: Twelfth Night. Davies smartly ejects much of the madcap comedy inherent in Shakespeare’s original play, mining the confusion of the multiple couples in this story for pathos and a hint of horror. By following a small-scale modernization, the story’s complexity is preserved, but takes on a morose, solemn feel that rings truer on the page than the zany atmosphere of the play.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston
Inspired by: The Winter’s Tale. Another brave author taking on a difficult story, Johnston captures the savagery and violence of the play in the sexual assault of the main character, competitive teenage cheerleader Hermione Winters. The bones of Shakespeare are at times hard to see in this novel, but the effect is similar; anyone who wants to know what it might have been like for an audience to watch The Winter’s Tale back in the day can read this and get a pretty good idea.
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion
Inspired by: Romeo and Juliet. If there’s a less obvious way to retell Romeo and Juliet than through zombie apocalypse, we don’t know what it is. Marion’s classic is inspired, however, because star-crossed lovers is an eternal theme that always works, whether the reasons you can’t be with your love involve family politics or, you know, an undead epidemic.
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
Inspired by: The Taming of the Shrew. The Taming of the Shrew is in some ways the easiest of the Bard’s plays to adapt to modern life, dealing as it does with (regretfully) familiar gender politics. Tyler is one of the few authors who manages to retell the story and keep the Bardiness intact while also making a book entirely her own; from the quirky heroine to the setting, this is an Anne Tyler novel, full stop, which just makes the Shakespearean aspects icing on the cake.
Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson
Inspired by: The Merchant of Venice. Jacobson explores the perpetual question of whether Shylock is a hero or a villain by transcending the play entirely and bringing Shylock—the character—to modern-day England to make a case for himself. That might sound kind of wonky, but it works brilliantly, allowing Jacobson to not so much re-tell The Merchant of Venice as to repackage its concerns for a modern generation.
The Prince of Cats, by Ron Wimberly
Inspired by: Romeo and Juliet. Not so much a retelling as a reimagining of the Shakespearean sensibility in a modern comic format, Wimberly’s striking images and ability to apply classic Shakespeare lines in new and startling contexts (as well as write fresh lines that have the same brilliance of rhythm and imagery) makes this an exciting way to get the sense of what makes Shakespeare so important without actually reading one of his plays.
Something Rotten, by Alan M. Gratz
Inspired by: Hamlet. Why rework Hamlet as a hardboiled detective story? For goodness sakes, why not? Gratz sees past the old-school flowery language and the endless school essays to the essentials of Hamlet‘s appeal: it’s a murder mystery and a revenge tale, two things that, when combined, produce a noir atmosphere almost spontaneously.
Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, by Adam Bertocci
Inspired by: The Two Gentlemen of Verona. You might think retelling this play with the characters and plot trapping of the film The Big Lebowski is a gimmick, but it’s actually a genius way of modernizing the spirit of the thing—and the general spirit of Shakespeare transforms a classic movie into a modern-day Shakespearean tour-de-force.
Ophelia, by Lisa Klein
Inspired by: Hamlet. When pivoting off of a classic play, you can reinvent it, you can reset it, or you can do what Klein does and tweak the plot in one important way. In this case, she imagines that Ophelia doesn’t drown in Hamlet, but rather fakes her death and runs off to a nunnery as advised. She then narrates the story of what happened at Elsinore from her perspective, offering the modern reader a way into the story that’s fresh and new.
Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle Gorge
Inspired by: Much Ado About Nothing. It’s possible that Shakespeare was a time traveler who visited the 1920s, because Much Ado About Nothing almost perfectly evokes the wild energy of that decade—something Gorge uses to great advantage in this retelling of the play. All the characters and plot points are there, as is the effervescent energy of the source material.
The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
Inspired by: Macbeth. Not so much a retelling of Shakespeare as a strange celebration of his work, in the context of a smart family dealing with tragedy. Brown’s characters will make you understand why some people are still more than happy to bend your ear endlessly about how fantastic Shakespeare’s plays really are. She takes plenty of bits and pieces of Macbeth for her story of three sisters crashing back into each other when they return home to deal with the illness of their mother (a Shakespeare scholar). You” come away with a love for her characters and a burning desire to read the Bard.
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Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty, by Jody Gehrman
Inspired by: Much Ado About Nothing. If your worry about reading Shakespeare is the outdated language and impenetrable slang, rest easy: Gehrman not only sets the story in the modern day, she writes it in a sharp, thoroughly contemporary voice that is both hilarious and unflinching, following our narrator to the bathroom and back without missing a beat. As a result, all the lively energy of Shakespeare’s language is captured without directly quoting him once.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
Inspired by: Richard III. One of the best mystery novels ever written uses Shakespeare’s Richard III as a catalyst. Playing with the idea that history is written by the winners, Tey has her convalescing policeman investigate the supposed crimes of Richard III from his hospital bed, referring to the play as a knowing perpetuation of propaganda and making the reader want to read it just to compare the Bard’s depiction of the king with the conclusion Tey comes to at the end.
Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø
Inspired by: Macbeth. If there’s one author whose plan to re-interpret Shakespeare should get you excited, it’s Nesbø, whose upcoming novel takes the Scottish Play and sets it in a small-town police department, with Inspector Macbeth dealing with a dark past of drug addiction as he investigates a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Macbeth is one of the easiest plays to relate to the modern sensibility, as its themes of power, guilt, and manipulation are unfortunately evergreen—as we fully expect Nesbø to demonstrate.