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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

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.

It Means Mischief, Kate Thompson (1999)

Northern Irish romance writer Kate Thompson studied English at Trinity College and used her background as an actress to inform her debut novel, It Means Mischief. The narrative follows young Dublin actress Deirdre O’Dare as she lands her first big role in a national production of Hamlet. Rivalries, love trysts, mysterious notes and opening night nerves comprise the romantic adventures of heroine Deirdre as she learns the difference between infatuation and love over the course of a summer. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another young innocent, Ophelia, asks the prince to explain a mime show at the castle in Elsinore. His response inspired the title of Thompson’s book: “Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.”

Me and Orson Welles, Robert Kaplow (2003)

With a plot that centres on Orson Welles’ ground-breaking production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Mercury Theatre in 1937, Robert Kaplow’s novel follows a precocious teenage boy as he tries to fulfil his dreams of becoming an actor. A chance meeting with the legendary film director snares Richard Samuels the role of Lucius in Welles’ upcoming production, but Welles’ womanising and ego eventually causes the young actor to pit himself against his hero. Although the anti-fascist production of Shakespeare’s play is a huge success, Richard finds himself fired and back in high school in New Jersey after opening night. Quotes from the play pepper the novel, which in turn inspired a film version starring Claire Danes in 2008.

Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis (2005)

Bret Easton Ellis’ mock memoir Lunar Park starts off as a parody on the author’s hedonistic rise to fame before switching to a fictional liaison with actress Jayne Dennis and their subsequent foray into marriage and parenthood. Set against a post-9/11 backdrop, the couple move to Midland, an affluent, suburban town in New York State under threat from various terrorist acts such as suicide bombings in Walmart. With explicit nods to Hamlet - the couple live in Ellis’ McMansion on Elsinore Lane - the book reflects on the death of the protagonist’s father and the paralysing effect this has had on his life. The Tempest is also heavily referenced in the novel, with Ellis’ turn as lead role in his own creation mirroring Prospero’s puppetry and powers. This desire to play God backfires when a copycat killer begins to re-enact the yuppie slayings of Ellis’ most famous work, American Psycho.

New Moon, Stephenie Meyer (2006)

From forth the loins of the Capulet and Montague households, a host of star crossed couples down through the ages have been born. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are the template for doomed love across a range of art forms, from ballet to theatre to contemporary young adult fiction. A bestselling example of this latter category is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, the vampire themed romance novels that chart the adventures of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. The second book in the series, New Moon, has the closest links to Shakespeare’s original text, with heartbroken heroine Bella pining after her lover Edward. Intertextual references abound, including a scene where Bella convinces Edward to watch the 1960’s film version of the play with her. New Moon’s epigraph is a quote from the second act of the play: “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume.”

Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig (2006)

Following the premature death of a beloved father, a young man is visited by a ghost bent on revenge. Throw in a morally ambiguous uncle, an attractive widow and a protagonist plagued with indecision and it’s clear to see that Matt Haig’s novel has taken its inspiration from a certain Danish prince. Haig’s rewriting of the tale has much to recommend it however, from the working class setting of Newark-on-Trent, to the Castle and Falcon pub that’s up for grabs following Brian Noble’s death, to the distraught and intelligent voice of the book’s eleven-year-old hero Philip Noble as he frets over the right path. A study on grief and how we deal with loss, the British writer’s second novel is a clever and unsettling book that succeeds in developing a mysterious plot despite its well-known origins.

The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips (2011)

Formatted as a lengthy introduction to an apparently lost Shakespearean play, Phillips’ book offers up the strange, eventful histories of twins Arthur and Dana as they respond in very different ways to the deceits of a con-man father. In prison for most of the book, Arthur Senior is an enigmatic character. A ghost that haunts his son, an inspiration to his daughter, a creator of fantasies, a puppeteer who controls from the sidelines - just like the Bard he so reveres. Although a knowledge of Shakespeare will undoubtedly add to the reader’s enjoyment, Arthur’s attempts to uncover his father’s greatest con are rendered with such humour and compassion that this book, which blurs the lines of fiction, drama, memoir and literary criticism, will please anyone interested in the mechanics and magic of writing. Shortlisted for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin award, Phillips’ clever fifth novel points out the dangers of believing too much in illusion, and then sets the trap for the reader to fall.


Sarah Gilmartin