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Writing Tips for Retelling Shakespeare: From Atwood's Hag-Seed to Updike's Gertrude and Claudius

Novelist Pat McKee shares 5 writing tips he learned while retelling Shakespeare's play Tempest as the novel Ariel's Island.

Novelist Pat McKee shares 5 writing tips he learned while retelling Shakespeare's play Tempest as the novel Ariel's Island.

Retelling Shakespeare

So, you’ve decided to write a novel based on one of the Bard’s plays. You join the ranks of novelists Atwood, Updike, and Nesbo, among others—not to mention Tchaikovsky and Verdi, Hogarth and Fuseli, Eliot and Huxley—all of whom were inspired by Shakespeare to create their own works of art. Where to begin? In addition to thought of taking on Shakespeare himself, the aforementioned litany of great composers, artists, and writers who have found their inspiration in the Bard can be intimidating, so a necessary first step: A bit of self-confidence! You can do it!

Beyond what in our more sober moments may seem to be irrational self-assurance in taking on such a project, there must be a few practical pointers one can derive from those who have gone before, some things that can help bolster the flagging courage necessary to see one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Shakespeare’s, right? Having just published Ariel’s Island, a novel that explores themes raised by the Tempest, I have confronted the imperious blank sheet of paper and have a few thoughts about how to get beyond it.

  1. Go with a play you like. Don’t choose your inspiration solely because you think it will appeal to others. You are going to live with this play for some time—maybe years—so you should base your work on one that speaks to you. It’s a fact that Hamlet has been done more than a few times, but it’s also fair to say that each one of the Bard’s plays has inspired some further artistic exploration. Even the difficult Winter’s Tale inspired Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Gap of Time. As Alexandra Alter explains in her article, Novelists Reimagine and Update Shakespeare’s Plays, “Ms. Winterson . . . chose the play partly because she related to the abandoned baby at the center of the story. Ms. Winterson was taken in by well-meaning strangers after her mother gave her up for adoption . . . .” (New York Times, October 5, 2015.) For me, my choice of the Tempest recalls the exhilaration of exploring T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland for the first time, with those eyes, something that is echoed on the cover of Ariel’s Island. Explore the plays to find your own personal inspiration.
  2. Use the plot loosely. Don’t be a slave to the intricacies (or not) of Shakespeare’s plots. Some are hard to follow; others, paper thin. As Adam Gopnik in his article Why Rewrite Shakespeare? observed, “the story content of a Shakespeare play is the least content it has.” (The New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2016.) And few of Shakespeare’s plots readily translate from the Elizabethan to the twentieth century; many plot points involve supernatural intervention: ghosts walk, witches curse, spirits command, and magicians conjure. Not to denigrate the Bard, but it’s a whole lot easier to make things happen when the author can call upon a spirit. One can almost hear Shakespeare thinking as the plot in A Midsummer’s Night Dream unwinds: “I need to have this Queen fall in love with a common laborer—how in the world? . . . I’ve got it! I’ll have a sprite put a spell on the Queen, and for good measure make the laborer look like a donkey! Brilliant!” Hmm. But for those of us with a more realistic bent, I suggest following Jane Smiley’s lead in her retelling of King Lear, A Thousand Acres. There the author follows the basic plot; a patriarch decides to divide his farm among his three daughters, but Smiley leans on the characters and their motivations to take her novel where the play does not go. Follow the plot loosely, and don’t be afraid to go in your own direction when your characters demand.
  3. Make your characters your own. One might say Shakespeare’s characterization is the most daunting aspect of his work—that and his unmatched use of language. The great scholar Harold Bloom, whom we have recently lost, goes so far as to say “Shakespeare’s originality was in the representation of cognition, personality, character,” that “he invented the human as we continue to know it.” Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, xviii (1998). But I suggest we need not try to replicate a Hamlet or Falstaff in contemporary garb so much as use them as inspiration for our own characters. An example from Ariel’s Island might serve to show what I mean. In the play Prospero is a wizard and the former Duke of Milan; his brother, Antonio, has stolen his dukedom, and Prospero enlists the spirit Ariel to extract revenge on his brother. In my novel the brothers Placido and Anthony Milano have inherited the multi-billion dollar conglomerate Milano Corporation from their father; Placido is the head of R&D and Anthony is CEO. Once Placido develops a hugely profitable pharmaceutical, Anthony uses the corporation’s law firm to wrest ownership from his brother. Ariel, an artificial intelligence program, helps Placido seek revenge for his brother’s treachery. There is a loose correspondence between the characters of the play and the novel, but the characters in the novel stand on their own. Make your characters your unique creations.
  4. Take care in naming your characters. It seems reasonable to name your characters the same as those in the play; after all, Shakespeare named his prince “Hamlet,” shouldn’t you? (It’s likely that even Shakespeare didn’t use the original name for his character, who was probably “Hamnet” in real life.) And it is tempting right about here to break out a Shakespeare quote and to muse, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet,” but it’s so obvious that I won’t do it. So, while it is certainly reasonable to name your characters the same as those in the play—Nesbo names his Macbeth “Macbeth”—I suggest you should do so only after careful thought. Naming the characters the same as those in the play can be somewhat constricting; your readers will be disappointed that you have failed to note a particular character trait from the play they deem compelling in your character Ophelia. On the other hand, if you use a name that suggests the name of a character in the play—Placido for Prospero, say—then your readers will more likely be looking for and satisfied in discovering ways that you make them the same, a far different and more engaging exercise. I again bring up the example of Jane Smiley from A Thousand Acres; Larry, the patriarch and his daughters Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, have names similar to Lear, Goneril, Ragan, and Cordelia, but the differences in names suggest differences in character that the author exploits throughout the novel. You should consider doing so as well.
  5. To rewrite, or not to rewrite, the famous soliloquy. Shakespeare’s language has proved immortal; how should a mere mortal approach it? To start, I refer you back to the first step above: A bit of self-confidence! In almost every play there is a speech, a soliloquy, a quote, that the play is known for, one that we were all forced to memorize in high school and which still rattles in our brains whenever we think of Hamlet, or Lear, or Romeo & Juliet—see? So what to do with them; ignore them, rewrite them, or even quote them? Talented writers have taken varied approaches. In Hag-Seed, Atwood stages the Tempest within the novel, giving her multiple opportunities to echo the language of the play. In Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson uses Portia’s Christian “quality of mercy” speech to give Shylock an opportunity for a Jewish rejoinder. Given the closeness of the plot and characters of your novel to the play you have chosen, there will be numerous opportunities to be referential as well. But unless these points fit neatly within your plot or align closely with your characters, it is my advice to resist the urge to do so. As the lame reference above to Hamlet’s soliloquy demonstrates, such attempts can be distracting. It may well be better to suffer the slings and arrows of those critics who say you have missed your opportunity to improve upon Shakespeare than by trying, so to take arms against a sea of troubles, and thus, failing miserably. Take my advice. I know.

[Read more writing tips that can be learned from Shakespeare's work here.]

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