It was Oscar Wilde who once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If that’s truly the case, then perhaps no one who should be more flattered than the late, great William Shakespeare. In the centuries since his death, his plays have become pop culture mainstays—and a list of every Bard-inspired work would be longer than a drawn-out Shakespearean monologue.
If you’re lost in the great world of Shakespeare retellings, the 11 novels below—both recent and not-so-recent—are some of the standouts. From a circus-going, magic-wielding Romeo and Juliet to a hilariously astute and fetal Hamlet (yep, you read that right), these books are as varied and entertaining as the man who inspired them.
A Midsummer Night's Dream & The Tempest
A Midsummer Tempest
Prince Rupert is a prisoner of war in 17th century England, held captive by the Roundhead family. By a stroke of fate, he finds love and freedom with his jailer’s daughter. Though they’re bound by an magical ring ceremony, the couple must part if they hope to save their country. An ingenious blend of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Poul Anderson’s fantasy adventure follows Rupert and Jennifer as they encounter familiar Shakespearean faces and fight to return to each other.
The Merchant of Venice
Rather than reimagine one of Shakespeare’s plays, Shylock’s Daughter reimagines the very Bard himself. Jessica Pruitt is a fading Hollywood starlet, reeling from an ugly custody battle. While preparing for her role in a Merchant of Venice adaptation, she stumbles into 15th century Italy—and Will Shakespeare’s arms. After agreeing to star in his new project, Jessica realizes she wants a relationship that goes beyond the stage. So begins a sexy, liberating romance worthy of the Globe Theatre.
Romeo and Juliet
Crushing on a Capulet
Devin and Frank may be the leads in their class production of Romeo and Juliet, but that doesn’t mean they understand their lines. With opening night just around the corner, they turn to their trusted magical library for help...and receive a hands-on crash course in Shakespearean tragedy. Transported back in time and into the heart of the Montague-Capulet war, they decide to rewrite the couple’s fate and give them they “happily ever after” they deserve. The result is a fun, light-hearted YA novel for anyone who’s scratched their heads and asked, “What does this even mean?”
The Night Circus
For Celia and Marco, it's their destiny to become working members of Le Cirque de Reves, the traveling circus that appears and vanishes without warning. With years of training in their arsenals, the two magicians vie for the spotlight—and eventually, each other’s hearts—when Le Cirque makes another unannounced return. But a mysterious danger lurks within the striped tents, and more than Celia and Marco’s relationship is at stake...This New York Times-bestseller is Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers without the eye-rolling frustration, but an added jolt of fantasy.
While we adore the heroes of our favorite stories, there’s nothing like reading the outrageous shenanigans of their villains (Cersei Lannister, anyone?). In her novel, Nicole Galland fleshes out the life of the much-maligned Iago—Othello’s traitorous ensign. From his boyhood as a precocious outcast to a rising military man on the brink of success, we get a deeper sense of the man behind the monster.
Taming of the Shrew
In her hilarious nod to the Shakespearean comedy, Anne Tyler’s modernized “shrew” is a disgruntled preschool teacher. For years, Katherine Battista has played the dutiful homemaker to her sister and quirky scientist father—with little thanks and even littler success. So when her father’s assistant faces deportation, she’s reluctant to go along with their crazy rescue plan...After all, making dinner is one thing, but marriage? That’s quite another.
Countless authors have put their stamp on Shakespeare’s enigmatic prince, but Nutshell (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell…”) is one of the most ambitious in recent years. Here, Hamlet is an unborn child in his mother’s womb, and in the manner of a Shakespearean aside, he narrates the dramas of the outside world. The main conflicts between his mother, father, and uncle parallel Hamlet’s: adultery and betrayal, brother vs. brother, and murder by poisoning...But you’ll have to read the book to see exactly how a fetus avenges his father.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Though not strictly a retelling, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between “The Scottish Play” and Tom Ripley, a ruthless social climber. Both men want something they don’t have and will do anything to get it—even if that means spilling blood. This first installment in the Ripley saga introduces young Tom as he launches a murderous ascent to power and insanity in the seedy world of Manhattan.
A Thousand Acres
The Pulitzer Prize winner A Thousand Acres opens as the “Lear”-esque patriarch divides Iowa farmland among his daughters (and yes, there are three of them). When the youngest, Caroline, is written out of the will for bemoaning her allotment, the very fabric of their family begins to unravel. Thematically, the novel hits all the right marks—gender roles, generational drama, jealousy, nature and humanity—while imbuing the Shakespearean classic with new life and ideas.
Artistic director Felix has found the fame he’s always dreamed of. But while staging an anticipated (and cathartic) production of The Tempest, he’s ousted by his trusted mentee. Enraged, Felix dreams of vengeance—and finds the perfect opportunity, years later, with a prison’s amateur theater group. Once again, he’ll put on the famous Shakespearean play, but this time Felix won’t be the one who falls...or so he thinks. The Bard and his beloved Prospero have never been in more capable hands.
The Winter's Tale
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
In the small town of Palermo Heights, there’s no higher honor than being on the high school cheer team. As captain of the squad and a graduating senior, Hermione Winters is the town darling—until a devastating sexual assault turns her life upside down. Named for the famous line in The Winter’s Tale, this heartbreaking novel never flinches from the trauma of rape as it portrays a young survivor’s dogged journey towards healing.
Featured photo of William Shakespeare: Wikimedia Commons