Shakespeare: words, words, words

“Remember first to possess his books; for without them he’s but a sot.” (The Tempest) Born 450 years ago this week, William Shakespeare drew from a variety of sources for his work and has inspired generations of writers to do likewise. Here are ten works of fiction indebted to the Bard.

Shakespeare. Photograph: Getty Images

Shakespeare. Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Apr 23, 2014, 01:00

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)

Famed for its complex narrative style and difficult voices, The Sound and the Fury takes its title from a quote in Macbeth. Described by its author as ‘a real son of a bitch’, Faulkner’s fourth novel is a renowned example of the stream of consciousness style of writing championed by modernists in the early twentieth century. Relating the disintegration of the Compson family, Southern aristocrats in decline, the novel is split into four sections, the first three narrated by family members and the last employing a third person omniscient view of events. The novel’s preoccupation with the darkness that underpins human existence is implied in the title and understood in the context of the wider Shakespearean quote: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

Miranda’s famous quote from The Tempest is the ironic title of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel and the ‘wonderful’ world supposedly free from misery and discontent that it depicts. The author’s loveless utopia is the London of 2540 (or 632 AF, After Ford) and he tackles with foresight big issues such as psychological manipulation, classical conditioning and reproductive technology, highlighting the dangers they pose to society. Often listed among the greatest novels of all time, Brave New World tells the story of ‘savage’ John, the illicit son of the Director and Linda, as his outsider idealism is punctured by the harsh realities of a new and sinister world. Raised on the Savage Reservation of Malpais, John has read nothing but The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which he quotes extensively and often to great satiric effect, as with the repetition of Miranda’s quote over the course of the novel.

Wise Children, Angela Carter (1991)

Twins were used by Shakespeare, notably in his plays Twelfth Night and A Comedy of Errors, to add complexity and humour to his plots and explore themes such as identity and gender. Multiple sets of twins feature in Angela Carter’s final novel Wise Children and their convoluted, destructive and incestuous relationships form the basis of this study of a bizarre theatrical family. With plotlines that involve a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in addition to numerous references of other Shakespearean works, British writer Carter creates a carnival-esque family saga with the Bard as its cultural ideologue.

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1992)

One of the most successful examples of Shakespearean intertextuality in modern literature is American author Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the plot of which closely follows King Lear. From the moment father of three Laurence Cook cedes control of the family farm, readers familiar with Lear know that tragedy will ensue. Smiley subverts the original text in her Pulitzer winning novel by giving the narrative over to one of the ‘bad’ daughters, Ginny, adding a dark back story of sexual abuse that renders the motivations and resentments of each sister more relatable. The saintly Cordelia from Shakespeare’s original work is also viewed in a new light, as Smiley points out how easy it is to preach from afar, untainted by the murky politics of daily family duties.

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