The best novels relating to Shakespeare

The Books I Picked & Why

No Bed for Bacon

By Caryl Brahms, S.J. Simon

Book cover of No Bed for Bacon

Why this book?

Brahms and Simon wrote this in 1941 as bombs fell on London. Featuring the likes of Queen Elizabeth I and Will Shakespeare, jokes fly fast. I recommend it for its humor in perilous times. The 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love replicates much of the story: see Ned Sherrin’s introduction to the 1999 paperback. What I love is the playfulness and clever liberties the authors take with their illustrious characters. They suggest that I’m overly earnest about names and chronology, though in Bedtrick, a historic male actor in Shakespeare’s troupe was born female. I can’t imitate Brahms and Simon’s light-hearted approach to historical accuracy, but No Bed for Bacon is a frolic that encourages a lighter touch, and my affection for my characters, I hope, equals theirs

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Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare's Love-Life

By Anthony Burgess

Book cover of Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare's Love-Life

Why this book?

Readers will either be drawn to this book by a novelist who studied Shakespeare in depth or put off by Burgess’ language. His wordplay is quite mad at times, especially when ‘WS’—Will Shakespeare—is drunk. No contemporary novelist would likely create such a mixture of Elizabethan and modern English. Despite Burgess’ knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, much of the plot is fanciful. However, his daring is encouraging, his imagination freeing. I never considered writing a book where Shakespeare speaks, but Nothing Like the Sun suggests, why not? Many biographies seem fictional in their guesswork; Burgess’ vitality and imagination outshine the strictly biographical. I found his ground-breaking work inspiring, and it’s a bawdy lark for readers who persevere!

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The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet

By Myrlin A. Hermes

Book cover of The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet

Why this book?

Hermes’ novel displays a different sort of playfulness, opening in Wittenberg with Horatio as narrator. It connects not only to Hamlet but also Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare is a character in the topsy-turvy fashion, not speaking directly. I loved the clever weaving of Shakespeare’s lines into the dialogue and the suspenseful, twisting plot. Hermes employs gender-bending differently than I do and touches on the authorship controversy, as I do not. Her identification of the dark lady and fair youth of the sonnets is unique. I appreciate her creativity and her way of incorporating quotations. In my work, there are speeches from plays and poems spoken aloud, as my protagonist is an actor, but in the 11th century they resemble natural speech. Moving forward and backward in time, this novel inspires flights of imagination.

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The Daughter of Time

By Josephine Tey

Book cover of The Daughter of Time

Why this book?

This novel’s focus on Shakespeare’s Richard III makes the playwright ever-present though he doesn’t appear in person. It’s a mystery story featuring a hospitalized police detective and a bright young American whose research into the historical Richard questions his being a villainous hunchback who murders the two princes in the Tower. In my own work I too like secrets and revelations; the way Tey builds her story is instructive. When the policeman opens a novel about Richard’s mother Cecily Neville, he comments that it’s ‘the almost-respectable form of historical fiction, which is history-with-conversation, so to speak  . . . an honest affair according to its lights.’ I love the idea of historical fiction being honest ‘according to its lights.’ My goal too: dramatizing personal interactions within historical facts. 

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Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare's the Tempest Retold: A Novel

By Margaret Atwood

Book cover of Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare's the Tempest Retold: A Novel

Why this book?

The chronology of my Shakespeare-era novels hasn’t reached The Tempest, but I love how this novel features a production of the play—in a prison. The relation of the inmates to their roles and the protagonist’s personal crisis give Prospero and his island new life in a setting also set apart from society. I enjoyed how the characters come to realizations about Shakespeare’s play as they rehearse, the goal of my own novels from a different angle. Many spinoffs from Shakespeare use his plot devices, but Atwood relies on The Tempest for her plot. Each ‘best’ novel here reveals new visions to the reader and gains plot and suspense from the links to Shakespeare. Though my goals aren’t identical to these authors', their works offer inspiration.

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