10 Shakespeare Retellings Adapted for the Modern Era

To read, or not to read: there is no question

Romeo + Juliet screenshot

William Shakespeare is the Immortal Bard, the Sweet Swan of Avon, the National Poet of England, and, most importantly, the Overseer of High School English Curriculum. Having written more than thirty plays and one hundred sonnets, and coining over four hundred words still used today, Shakespeare’s influence on contemporary literature is undeniably prolific. Here are 10 writers who have reimagined Shakespeare’s work for the modern era.

The Taming of the Shrew

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Kate Battista is overworked and under-appreciated in this Pulitzer Prize winning retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. When Kate’s father, Dr. Battista, is on the brink of an academic breakthrough, his much-needed assistant, Pyotr, receives notice of his imminent deportation. Dr. Battista forms a convoluted plan to keep Pyotr in the country, relying on Kate to follow through.

Othello

I, Iago by Nicole Galland

I, Iago depicts one of literature’s greatest villains, Iago from the Bard’s Othello. The novel examines the unexpected series of tragic circumstances that transform Iago from a loyal friend to a traitor and asks: is evil a simple question of nurture or nature—or something entirely more complicated?

Desdemona by Toni Morrison

There is another version of this list that is dedicated solely to Shakespearean theater adaptations. That is not this list, but how could we not include Toni Morrison? In this retelling of Othello, the female voices of Desdemona and her African nurse, Barbary, are given space on the stage to speak and sing the narrative of Shakespeare’s doomed hero.

King Lear

Fool by Christopher Moore

King Lear is rewritten from the perspective of the moronic king’s jester, Pocket, in this hilarious new take that twists through betrayals, war, lust, revenge, and a ghost. Pocket maneuvers to save King Lear’s daughter, Cordelia, from being married off, but when she is dropped from the liege’s good graces, Pocket’s vendetta really begins. This fool is smarter than he appears.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, A Thousand Acres follows an Iowan farmer, Larry Cook, who divides his farm between his three daughters, until the youngest, Caroline, objects and is cut out of the agreement. Dark truths come to light, in this recreation of King Lear, as the patriarch deteriorates while his daughters cope with the stark reality of life in the Midwest.

Hamlet

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle transplants Hamlet to the Sawtelle farm in rural Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have bred dogs, and Edgar is prepared to continue the family tradition. When tragedy strikes, Edgar runs away to live in the woods, until he is forced to face the decision of leaving his family forever or go back home and confront the past.

The Tempest

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

The Tempest is retold in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. The novel follows Felix, the Artistic Director of the fictional Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. After his long-awaited production of The Tempest is cancelled, Felix is exiled to the backwoods of southern Ontario, where he is haunted by his daughter, Miranda. With the help of a local prison’s inmates, Felix directs his play . . .with a vengeful twist.

The Winter’s Tale

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

The Gap of Time by Jeannette Winterson

This adaptation of The Winter’s Tale is set in post-2008 financial crisis London and the fictionalized American city of New Bohemia. In the original play, the king’s jealousy causes the death of his wife and the banishment of his child to the Bohemian coast, until they are all reunited once more. Swap out these characters for a hedge-fund owner, his French folk singer wife, and their musician daughter, and you have the beginnings to the Gap of Time.  

The Merchant of Venice

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson explores the The Merchant of Venice’s unforgettable character, Shylock, as modern-day Simon Strulovitch. Strulovitch has to reconcile Jewish identity with his daughter’s betrayal when she becomes infatuated with an antisemitic footballer, all the while grieving the death of his beloved wife.

Sonnets

The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault

This one goes out to the poetry lovers. In this collection, all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are rewritten in refreshing English-to-English “translations” from 154 poet-translators like Paul Celan, Mary Jo Bang, Tan Lin, and Juliana Spahr. The bard’s poetry is revamped in the form of tweets, political and pop culture references, and homophonic adaptations.

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