Top 10 Shakespearean stories in modern fiction

Countless books have the Bard’s dramas at their core. From Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to Withnail and I, here are some of the best

Some years ago, I went to see a production of King Lear and read a theory in the programme that he married twice. Regan and Goneril were the children of his first marriage – so the production proposed – but the younger daughter, Cordelia, on whom Lear so dementedly doted, was the child of his second wife and the love of his life. I have no idea if this thesis has any credence in academic circles but the thought stayed with me.

And so, when I came to write my new novel, Let Go My Hand, I decided to blend this idea with my story plan. Or, rather, to play with it a little; to make the three daughters into three sons and to narrate from the point of view of the youngest. This seemed like a way to revivify the relationships between four such characters; to refigure the complex emotional geometries of fraternity, paternity and filiality.

There’s something tectonic about Shakespeare’s work that appeals endlessly to other writers – not just the language (although that, too) but the dramatic structures, the simple-but-then-again-complicated trigonometry of the relationships, which can be drawn and redrawn. As is the way with the writing of long-form fiction, my own story soon started to germinate in ways that had little obvious resemblance to the initial thought. But, still, that seed is still buried deep in the novel somewhere … And so it is with these books, which likewise take the great man’s plays as their point of departure.

1. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
First published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch, this is a terrifying novella of sex, murder, madness and flagellation and is the better known companion piece to Turgenev’s short story Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District – probably because Shostakovich made it into an opera. There’s something about Shakespeare that appeals directly to Russians. I have a pet theory that this is because Shakespeare was also writing on the border between the medieval and the modern – just a few hundred years earlier.

2. Asterix and the Great Divide by Albert Uderzo
After the heavy Russian opening, a little light relief. I loved Asterix as a boy and this is one of the funniest. Two chieftains divide their town in two with a big ditch and fight for supremacy. But Histrionix, the son of one, and Melodrama, the daughter of the other, are deeply in love and their love reaches across the divide. Romeo and Juliet are reborn as cartoon Gauls.

3. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
When this came out, I was trying to write a (mercifully unpublished) novel of my own and had been reading too many British writers bogged down in the class system. But this was just a wide-open, soul-raging prairie epic based on King Lear – about three daughters and their monstrous dad who leaves them (and their husbands) his farm. I was electrified – and powerfully reminded that contemporary fiction could be so intelligent, so readable, and so widescreen.

4. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
Published in 1974, this is one of the great classics of Canadian literature. Laurence was an early supporter of Nobel laureate Alice Munro and is considered one of Canada’s great novelists. This book is loosely based on The Tempest and swirls across time and space with magic, depth and darkness. Ostensibly, it’s about the relationship between a Scottish-descended single mother, Morag, and Jules, a Métis songwriter. But it ends up being about everything. A hidden gem worth digging out.

Not to be joking ... Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe in the title roles of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at this Old Vic in March 2017.
Not to be joking ... Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe in the title roles of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at this Old Vic in March 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
A sneak-in. One of my English teachers made us read this, even though it wasn’t on any syllabus. My eyes and ears were opened by the fast, elliptical, clever, musical dialogue. The sheer verve of it. This is the story of Hamlet’s two friends who have been asked by his parents to hang around Elsinore and divine what the hell is the matter with the mopey prince. Except, of course, Hamlet is going to send them to their death. Just brilliant.

6. Indigo by Marina Warner
Another novel by a shimmeringly intelligent writer. This was given to me by my then girlfriend when we were both studying English, so I read it in that peculiarly collusive state of student intimacy that entails hanging around in bedrooms and (not) writing essays. It’s another loose reworking of The Tempest, set in both the 17th and 20th centuries. Most memorably, Warner expands the character of Sycorax, Shakespeare’s vicious unseen witch and mother of Caliban.

7. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Philips
Ostensibly, the book announces the publication of a newly discovered play by Shakespeare – but one that the narrator thinks is actually a forgery written by his own father. The play is included in the book – written by Arthur Philips in full Bard mode – along with an extended introduction and several footnotes from academics debating authenticity. This introduction turns out to be a brilliant and oblique memoir detailing the father-son relationship. And the play? Oddly convincing.

8. Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
This book is almost unknown in Europe and yet it has a claim to be the great masterpiece of Brazilian literature. Machado de Assis was a translator of Shakespeare and the novel is thronged with references – to Much Ado, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. But this is a sad story of an insanely jealous husband – so yes, we’re in Othello territory. Bear in mind the protagonist’s name is Bento Santiago.

9. Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
I have liked Jacobson ever since he did a Channel 4 TV essay on the Bible – its errant and endemic foolishness, its consolation and its power. So, as an atheist, I read his books not so much because he wrestles with Judaism but because he uses its stories as a way into the human questions. The conversations between Jacobson’s Shylock in this novel and the wealthy art collector Simon Strulovitch are worth the cover price alone.

Princely performance … Richard E Grant as Withnail in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail and I.
Princely performance … Richard E Grant as Withnail in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail and I. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

10. Withnail and I by Bruce Robinson
This screenplay is so good that it qualifies as a regular book. I read it straight through one afternoon when I was 22 and living near Camden Town in London, where Robinson’s story is set. I don’t know how, but everything is in there: failure, success, friendship, loss, love, life, England. And it’s so funny and so very beautifully written. Nothing is ever word perfect in the world of words. But this is as close as it gets. Hamlet in the last days of the 1960s.


Edward Docx

The GuardianTramp

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