Why is riffing on—and ripping off—Shakespeare so incredibly enticing? It must be the compelling characters, the memorable lines, the intricate plots. And the fact that Shakespeare may be the one English-language writer whose oeuvre everyone knows. Or at least, everyone feels like they ought to know Shakespeare. Embarrassing as it is, I have to admit that at the moment when I came up with the idea for Juliet’s Nurse, which imagines the 14 years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet as told by the woman who was both insider and outsider among the wealthy families of Verona, I realized I hadn’t actually read the play since high school. I pulled my copy off the shelf, devoured it in a single sitting, and happily discovered the nurse was every bit as ribald, comic, and tragic a character as any novelist could hope for.
Not that the Shakespearean riff on/rip off is limited to novels. Shakespeare allusions appear everywhere from LOL cats to cell phone commercials to the best television series ever. And of course, there are the films. During the past century, moviegoers have been treated to so many screen adaptations of Shakespeare, it’s easy to believe that if the Bard were alive today, he’d be making movies (or maybe video games) instead of writing plays. But I like to believe that given Shakespeare’s mastery of language, the genre into which he would want to delve wouldn’t be so visual. It would be the novel, which relies on words alone to create whole worlds.
Shakespeare lived before the novel emerged as a literary form, yet at times he struggles in his plays to do what a novelist does. Hamlet’s soliloquies and Iago’s asides are a strained theatrical convention, forcing a character to voice his thoughts aloud for the benefit of the audience (we novelists just use a thing called narration). Even when Shakespeare’s characters do actually speak to each other, they push up against the limitations of dialogue. In the first scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which we meet the nurse (and Juliet), Lady Capulet asks how old Juliet is. The nurse takes three speeches totaling over 40 lines to answer, shoehorning in all sorts of backstory about her life, her daughter, and her husband, along with flashbacks to Juliet’s toddler years. Among the things we learn is that Juliet has been weaned for over a decade, which makes you wonder why her wet-nurse is still hanging around the house. It’s because Shakespeare needs her to “narrate” key details, and to move his plot along. No wonder he made her a big-mouth and a scene stealer. As a riffing novelist, all I had to do was give her a chance to tell her version of what preceded, and followed, the five days depicted in the play.
But writing a prequel or narrating from a single character’s perspective aren’t the only ways an author can invoke Shakespeare. What most amazes me about the following novels is the variety of approaches they take to Shakespeare riffing/ripping. About all our books have in common is our shameless use of Shakespeare as a source. And what could be a more appropriate tribute to a writer who was always riffing on and ripping off earlier sources himself?
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Lear gave away his kingdom. Larry Cook turned his family farm into a corporation. The latter might seem far less cataclysmic, but in translating Shakespeare’s tragedy to the ’70s American heartland, Smiley explores the petty ways in which family members tear each other, and ultimately themselves, apart. The story is narrated by Ginny, the eldest of Larry’s three adult daughters—a provocative choice, given that Shakespeare’s Goneril is too ruthless to elicit much sympathy. But Ginny’s version of events isn’t so much an exoneration of her own actions as an exploration of what an individual lets herself know or not know about the past, and an indictment of what she chooses to reveal or withhold in her telling. Which is pretty much the story of every family you ever met.
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
If I describe Warm Bodies as “Romeo and Juliet with zombies,” I realize eye-rolling might seem a warranted response. But this novel is worlds away from Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires or the Bennet sisters battling brain-eaters between dress balls. It is a parable about how society demonizes (and even tries to obliterate) those it deems to be different, and it comes complete with a warning that if we follow along, we risk destroying our own chance for happiness. Like Smiley, Marion takes essential conflicts and themes from Shakespeare and transposes them to an entirely new (and in this case post-apocalyptic) setting, then makes them his own. But he is borrowing from more than one source; my beloved Nurse is transformed here into a teenage friend of Juliet’s, a la West Side Story. Spoiler alert: “Happily Ever After” takes on a whole new meaning if you’re undead.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher
Do not read this book. Don’t get me wrong—I am recommending it. It’s fantastically wrought, bringing together the best of both Shakespeare and George Lucas. But Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. Star Wars was meant to be watched as a film, not read as a screenplay. The same goes for the clever language in Doescher’s mash-up. To appreciate it, you really want to listen to the audiobook, which I did with my 9-year-old neighbor. He hasn’t seen much Shakespeare. I haven’t seen Star Wars since it first played in movie theaters. We both loved it. Who knew that along with all those beeps and whirrs, R2D2 was capable of such soliloquies?
Fool by Christopher Moore
King Lear as comedy. If the very idea seems profane, it’s just a slight glimmer of the profanity, puerility, and vulgarity soaking every page of Christopher Moore’s retelling of Lear from the point of view of the king’s court jester. Although Pocket, as he is named here, may be literally a fool, he’s the calculating hero of this tale, managing to fell whole armies in between remarkably frequent and varied sexual escapades. Moore does know his Shakespeare—he actually throws in references to several other plays as well—although he’s never shy about adulterating it. The result is a bit like having King Lear retold by the weirdo stoner dude who sat behind you in English class during sophomore year of high school—an oddly appropriate approach, given that was probably when you were first made to read Shakespeare’s play.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
Oh how the mighty have fallen! As the 20th century wanes, the Hazards, a dynastic British family of Shakespearean actors, have been reduced to hosting cooking shows, game shows, and kiddie shows on the telly, not to mention hawking margarine on the commercials that air in between (even Juliet’s nurse—embodied by the Hazard family’s aged nanny—briefly sinks to serving as an attendant in the women’s loo). Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks (or really the Thames), the Chance sisters, illegitimate identical twin daughters of one Hazard male or another, make their way in the world as song-and-dance girls, until even musical theater goes the way of the gramophone. If all this seems like a lament about the extent to which low culture has usurped high culture in the public’s attention, fear not: Shakespeare retains his currency, literally, with his face plastered on the 20-quid note. Carter’s clever weaving of madness, mismatched brides and grooms, the occasional bout of incest or murder, and a plethora of twins all come with Shakespearean overtones, and often direct allusions. Some critics label the book’s fantastical elements “magical realism,” but I’d say it’s more of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Sequence. The result is a Shakespeare-imbued tale of the 20th century.
Lois Leveen is the author of the novels Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and on NPR. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with two cats, one Canadian, and 60,000 honeybees. Her website is loisleveen.com, and you can follow her at Facebook and on Twitter @LoisLeveen.