About a year ago, I completed my goal to read the entire works of William Shakespeare. I actually had a lot of fun along the way and am glad I decided to make that a goal of mine. I then published a post ranking every single Shakespeare play – which has been completely blowing up this year for some reason (seriously, it just beat out my homepage for most views so far this year). But, even before that became the most popular post on my blog, I’d been planning this one.
Obviously, I love Shakespeare. I also know there are a lot of good retellings or modernizations out there (hello, Ten Things I Hate About You). So I decided to read modern retellings of the top five plays on my list to see what I think of them. I have everything from contemporary young adult to high fantasy to a crime novel by a well-known writer of Nordic Noir on my list. So… this should be interesting.
Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood – The Tempest
This was not my first retelling of The Tempest. I was really hoping that I could tell you that I liked this better. But I was not expecting to give a Margaret Atwood book two stars. I feel weird even writing that. But this book was just… meh. The retelling part didn’t feel fresh or exciting. I feel like if there weren’t so many actual references to the original play, it might have felt more unique. But it was very clearly a retelling, to the point that it was a little distracting. I also didn’t love the main character – he seemed quirky in the beginning, but quirky gradually became insane. And not in a fun way. I also didn’t really like what Atwood did with Miranda’s character in this book. She deserves more.
Overall, I didn’t love this as a book on it’s own. And I didn’t particularly enjoy it as a retelling of one of my favorite plays. Which is extra disappointing because I love Margaret Atwood. So we’ll just forget this one ever happened, it’s fine.
The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton – King Lear
This was a fairly good retelling of Lear. I liked the idea of adding magic to the original story, but didn’t think it served enough of a purpose to justify this being a fantasy. And while the writing was beautiful, and I was genuinely really enjoying it in the beginning, I started to kind of lose interest when the author kept throwing in more and more POV characters (there are eight, I counted). I felt it made the story unnecessarily long. And, coupled with the random flashbacks (which weren’t really necessary), this book was really slow. I may or may not have skimmed large portions of it because I was just tired of reading it and knew if I put it down, I wouldn’t want to come back to it.
That said, I didn’t think it was bad, it just wasn’t enough to keep my attention. If this had been a 350-page book (instead of 575) with just Lear’s daughters as POV characters, I might have loved it. I feel about this book pretty much exactly how I feel about The Priory of the Orange Tree, which is super popular, so take this with a grain of salt. As a retelling, it was good, but I think it would have been better had it been more concise.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbø – Macbeth (obviously)
This was an interesting reading experience. Because, as a retelling, I loved it. I thought Nesbø did a really great job at modernizing Macbeth. However, as much as I appreciated the retelling, this book wasn’t for me. Cop and detective dramas are not really something I enjoy reading (they’re probably the genre I pick up the least because I don’t typically end up liking them). Despite that, I was pretty into this book for the first third or so. But once the novelty of reading Macbeth in a modern setting and the story slowed down a bit, this book was kind of a slog. It was just too slow and too long for me, personally.
This gets full marks for being a brilliant retelling of Macbeth, and it was fun to listen to the audiobook in a Scottish accent, but it sadly wasn’t my cup of tea. Still a three-star read, you might really like it if you enjoy detective novels. Both this and Hag Seed are from the Hogarth Shakespeare collection.
Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Hamlet
Full disclosure: I actually read Nutshell back when it was released in 2016. I really enjoyed it then, and I thought it might be interesting to read it again after having read Hamlet to see if my feelings had changed. And… they didn’t. I appreciated the retelling a little bit more this time around, now that I’ve read Hamlet, but I think I was familiar enough with the story when I read this the first time that it didn’t make a huge difference (I might have liked it a little bit more this time). I still do really like this retelling!
Hamlet from the perspective of an unborn fetus, listening to his mother and uncle plot his father’s death is just really clever. Despite this being decidedly a drama, it is a fun read. The storytelling is so creative and done so well that it’s hard not to enjoy this book. I was a little worried that six years of learning, studying literature in grad school, and reading the original Shakespeare might lessen my enjoyment of this book, but was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t. Still a great read. Now I just need to read more Ian McEwan.
Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Do you know how difficult it was to find a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Very. Even harder to find one that didn’t have terrible ratings and actually sounded like something I would like to read. This was a very loose adaptation of Midsummer. Maybe not so much a retelling as “inspired by”. Which I’m kind of okay with, because I feel like any Midsummer retelling that is too close to the original might end up feeling like a very confusing acid trip (that play is insane, but in the best way).
Foolish Hearts was just a cute YA novel with a heavy helping of Shakespeare. Not my favorite, but I think that’s just because contemporary YA isn’t usually my thing. Still, I really enjoyed the writing and the characters and, of course, the Shakespeare. I’m not convinced it’s a retelling, but it did make sense why (and why a retelling of Midsummer was so hard to find). Overall, I thought it was cute, but not really that memorable.
I’m calling this experiment a success! I may not have liked every one of these books, but it was a lot of fun to dive back into the Shakespeare world in this way.
I hope you enjoyed this post! I’m planning on doing a few more of these reading experiments/secret TBRs this year – so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see.
What’s your favorite Shakespeare retelling?