We’ve all read or seen Shakespeare plays at some point, but contemporary authors have taken things a step further and used these iconic plays as inspiration for new and intriguing stories. The rich characters of these plays have turned out to be irresistable to many authors, who have created their own stories by adapting, retelling, or filling in the blanks of Shakespeare’s works. These are just a few of the best novels that take their inspiration from Shakespeare—and we bet you’ll like them whether you’re a Shakespeare nerd or not!
Beatrice and Benedick
When we first meet Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, it’s clear that they’ve had a whole backstory long before we joined them. Marina Fiorato’s Beatrice and Benedick dives into that story, providing details of how the two knew each other and how their complicated dynamic formed. Plus, it intriguingly brings Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy into a “shared universe” with another Shakespeare play in a surprising way.
Lisa Klein’s YA novel Ophelia has a straightforward premise: retelling Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective. Rather than the alternately docile and mad girl of Shakespeare’s play, Klein’s version turns Ophelia into an intelligent and deeply loyal young woman, a favorite of the queen and, secretly, an herbalist in training, before she gets entangled with her beloved prince’s increasingly mad schemes. The book was recently adapted into a movie starring Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley.
The Pulitzer-winning author Anne Tyler tackles The Taming of the Shrew and sets Vinegar Girl in the modern day, with a different arranged-marriage plot: Single preschool teacher Kate is pushed into an arranged marriage to keep her father’s research assistant from being deported. It really plays merry havoc with the oft-debated gender dynamics of the original without losing the sharpness of the banter.
As you might expect, Margaret Atwood manages to make Shakespeare’s play The Tempest even darker, following a haunted director out for revenge and directing a theater class at a nearby prison.
Hag-Seed deals with many of Shakespeare’s themes—family tragedy, the loss of a child, a thirst for revenge—and tells the story of a man cast down from what would have been his crowning achievement, now looking for a second chance of whatever kind presents itself.
The title of I, Iago makes it pretty clear what the premise of Nicole Galland’s novel is. The book flips Othello around and dives into the backstory of the scheming villain Iago. Without giving this infamous villain a heroic makeover, the book manages to give Iago a backstory and offer one potential explanation of how he became the instigator of so much tragedy and destruction
A Thousand Acres: A Novel
A Thousand Acres is Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning retelling of King Lear, set on an Iowa farm, where a wealthy farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters, cutting off the youngest when she raises objections. It’s intriguing for being neither a fast-paced “contemporary” setting nor a period piece, capturing the pace of Shakespeare but in a more modern world.
The Last True Poets of the Sea
A YA retelling of Twelfth Night, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake centers on a young woman setting out to learn more, with the help of an amateur historian, about a fabled shipwreck that plays a big part in her family’s lore. While her brother struggles with his own demons, Violet sets out on their childhood quest to find the real shipwreck, all while embracing that hard-to-categorize genre mashup of the original play.
Shylock Is My Name
Rather than a direct adaptation or update of a Shakespeare play, Howard Jacobsen’s Shylock Is My Name is a two-pronged story that both explores the motivations of Shylock and narrates the story of a modern-day “counterpart,” a Jewish art dealer. In one era, art dealer Simon Strulovitch struggles when his daughter is whisked into high society by an anti-Semitic athlete; in the other, Shylock grieves his wife and is increasingly angered by his daughter’s abandonment of her Jewish roots, leading him to his famed depiction in The Merchant of Venice.
The Gap of Time
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time tackles a lesser-known play: The Winter’s Tale. It has a particularly interesting take, too, setting the action in the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, across two continents and a storm-ravaged fictional city as a family is torn apart and brought together again among a storm (literal and figurative) of discoveries and revenge.