Throw a stick and you’ll hit a Shakespeare Retelling (but also, don’t throw sticks. It’s not nice). From Romeo and Juliet, to Henry V, there are some fantastic Shakespeare Retellings available whether you’re just a passing fan or a ‘Bard at Heart’. So, I thought, rather than just review them in the context of whether those retellings are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (which is subjective) – I’d review ten retellings based on whether they’re true to the original Shakespeare play – or if they’re just sitting on the shoulders of a giant.
My review score will be out of Bards (of course):
- 5 Bards for a ‘Totally True to Shakespeare’ Retelling.
- 4 Bards for ‘I see what you did there,’ Retelling.
- 3 Bards for ‘You’ve added your own flair. I can respect that.’
- 2 Bards for ‘I think you just like the odd quote.’
- And 1 Bard… ‘Couldn’t even tell this was a retelling…’
These are in no particular order! Though it will be clear which books I OVERTLY recommend.
The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig
It’s pretty clear from the title that The Dead Fathers Club is Haig’s retelling of Hamlet. When 11yr old Philip Noble attends his father’s funeral, his dad appears to him as a ghost and explains that he has been murdered. But Philip isn’t alone, in fact, there’s a whole club for kids just like him – looking to avenge their fathers who’ve been murdered.
This has been described as a ‘quirky update’ and I like the fact it’s a homage to the original rather than a beat-for-beat retelling. Much like Haig’s later writing, the writing style is intentional and crafted (especially in the opening chapters) to let the audience fill in their own grief and empathy for the characters.
I’m giving this YA novel 4 Bards, for Haig-isms that shine through a tragic story we’ve seen before.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
I’ll be honest, until someone told me We Were Liars was a King Lear retelling I just didn’t see it. But once you see it, it is there. Thinly veiled, hiding in plain sight. The main character, Cadence, and her mother visit the family’s private island for summer every year. Her mother, and her aunts, play the roles of Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, arguing over how much of the estate will be left to them once their father dies.
There are some plot elements that scream ‘Shakespeare’s King Lear’, but to be honest, it is the least Shakespeare-y in this list. The lyrical writing style and internalisation of the conflict stands well on their own. I don’t feel any different about this novel since finding out it’s a retelling, but I would be interested to reread it now that I know.
I’m giving this YA novel 1 Bard.
Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton
Lady Hotspur is a Historical Epic with Fantasy elements, inspired by and retelling the story of Henry IV; but with an LGBTQ+ cast, feminist protagonists (in a gender-bent matriarchy rather than standard feudal patriarchy) and root magic.
There are several Shakespearean traits about Gratton’s retelling, even outside the clear inspiration for this novel. The first is that the Title Character is not the ‘lead protagonist’. Though one of three powerful women in this Epic Historical Fantasy, Lady Hotspur is the catalyst for this novel. Both protagonist and antagonist, a classic technique of Shakespeare’s and I love that. Because this is a Historical Fiction novel, the grandiose language and style choices also help bed-in the Shakespeare themes of war, betrayal, and found family.
I’m giving Lady Hotspur 5 Bards. Because if you told me Shakespeare had written this novel, I’d believe you.
Much Ado About You by Samantha Young
Much Ado About You is a very cosy, very ‘beach read’/’holiday’ style romance, but it isn’t overtly a retelling as far as the narrative goes. Our main character is a Shakespeare aficionado, and when she gets the opportunity to run away to a quaint English village, live in a bookshop, it’s the dream vacation. Of course there’s a love interest, Roane Robson, a local farmer oozing charisma. But the narrative is less of a ‘will they/won’t they’ in the traditional Much Ado sense (aka, we the audience know they’re perfect for each other – when will these characters work it out?) And more a question of: will Evangeline (our MC) give up her life in Chicago for this potential romance?
It’s very Hallmark Romance, and not very ‘Shakespeare’. 2 Bards.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Much like Lady Hotspur, Hamnet is a retelling which borders the original story enough to be believable as a retelling; whilst still holding its own as a novel. However, unlike other retellings in this list, Hamnet is not a retelling of a Shakespearean play, but of Shakespeare himself. The narrative follows the familial life of a playwright and his family during the late 1500s. Agnes (instead of Anne) settles with her husband in Stratford and has three children: Susanna, Judith and Hamnet. Four years after Hamnet dies, his father writes a play and calls it Hamlet.
This is a retelling for fans of The Familiars and Wolf Hall, where the time and place is second to the well crafted story around empathetic characters. I’m giving it 4 Bards, because I see what you did there, and I love it.
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
This is another fantastic novel which evokes the great themes and tropes of Shakespeare without being a direct retelling. Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But with the added twist of Murder, this novel falls so perfectly into the Dark Academia/Thriller category. If We Were Villains doesn’t overtly call-back to a Shakespearean play, so if you’re more interested in a loose retelling/inspired novel this would be at the top of my recommendations list. It’s uneasy, calculating and manipulative. Much like the characters.
I’m giving this one 3 Bards. For the sheer audacity.
As I Descended by Robin Talley
Macbeth drips from every pore of this fantastic LGBTQ+ & Gender-Bent retelling. As I Descended modernises the tragedy, without losing what makes the original narrative so important. Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are cruel, ambitious, and they have a plan. Unseat Delilah, get the Kingsley Scholarship, and continue to live their ‘happily ever after’, even if it ruins a few lives on the way.
Macbeth, to me at least, is a prime example of how ‘before their time’ feminist Shakespeare could be. Lady Macbeth is my favourite Strong Woman character, so to have a book full of them? Who could resist?
It’s 4 Bards from Me.
Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is an icon. So when I found out there was an Atwood retelling of The Tempest? Yes please. Hag Seed explores the drama of a Theatre’s Artistic Director and his devious assistant who is out to destroy him. But much like any Atwood novel, the tragedy doesn’t end there. We have hallucinations of 12 years dead daughters, manipulation and cruelty.
Much like If We Were Liars, Hag Seed has Shakespeare plays as a key theme as well as a general inspiration, and Felix’s determination to create the perfect Tempest is a driving conflict that draws you in regardless of how you feel about the original.
This one gets 3 Bards from me.
Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin
Another day, another Macbeth retelling; but this one bites. Foul is Fair is the ‘Very Promising Woman’ styled thriller we all need. On Elle’s Sweet 16th Birthday, she’s sexually assaulted by the Golden Boys of St Andrew’s Prep School. But they’ve picked the wrong girl. Elle swears revenge, taking their power, their control, and their lives.
This is one of those retellings that feels like one, but unless you knew to look you might blink and miss it. It’s bloody, exciting and powerful all on its own, and just like with As I Descended, full of Lady Macbeth vibes which I adore.
This retelling also gets 3 Bards. (And my HIGHEST recommendation).
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
I love, love, love this Romeo and Juliet retelling. Set in 1920’s Shanghai, with a dark monster lurking, murdering and generally causing chaos, this narrative takes place ‘after’ the original play (though, they seem to have survived so far in this rendition). And whilst the characters and setting might not be what you’re used to, you can expect to be bowled over by the powerful woman, charming men and wonderful writing of this rendition. Did I mention I love it? Everyone needs to read These Violent Delights, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not.
I’m giving this retelling 4 Bards!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of ten Shakespeare retellings. If you think we’ve missed any, let us know! And if you’re interested in purchasing any of the retellings mentioned in this list, click here!