The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0425  Tuesday, 22 July 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Subject:    Top 10 Novels Influenced by Shakespeare

FROM: The Guardian Online

Matt Haig's Top 10 Novels Influenced by Shakespeare
Tuesday May 30, 2006

Matt Haig's latest novel, The Dead Fathers Club, features an 11-year-old boy 
living above a pub in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and gives more than a nod towards 
Hamlet. Matt also has a forthcoming children's book, Shadowforest, to be 
published next year by Random House Children's Books.
Matt Haig's website

"Vivien Leigh once said that acting in a Shakespeare play was like 'bathing in 
the sea - one swims where one wants'. Writers seem to find the same freedom when 
working under his influence. There is certainly no one 'type' of writer who 
deliberately draws on Shakespeare. In fact, there's a strong argument that 
everyone writing in the English language is influenced by Shakespeare, because 
to a considerable degree he shaped that language. As that's the case, a top 10 
list of novels influenced by Shakespeare might look identical to a top 10 list 
of novels full stop. So, I've limited my selection to those writers whose works 
clearly advertise that influence."

1. Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
There are a lot of nods to the Bard in Updike's work. The Witches of Eastwick 
clearly drew on the 'weird sisters' in Macbeth, although added more sauce to the 
cauldron. Gertrude and Claudius is a prelude to Hamlet and draws on the ancient 
Scandinavian legends that first inspired Shakespeare to flesh out a life for 
Gertrude. She famously doesn't say much in the original play, but triumphantly 
emerges here as a warm and clear-headed woman who sees life 'as a miracle daily 

2. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Smiley's prize-winning novel transferred the story of King Lear to the American 
mid-west, with brutal results. If you take on Lear, you've got to be able to 
rise to the challenge and Smiley doesn't flinch from the dark heart of the 
story. Indeed, she heads deep into that darkness with the suggestion that Lear 
sexually abused two of his daughters.

3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
"A fellow of infinite jest" is how Hamlet describes the dead court jester Yorick 
in the famous graveyard scene. Infinite Jest in Wallace's satirical, 
zillion-page novel is the name of a film produced by Poor Yorick Productions. 
The film eventually kills its viewers by entertaining them to death. Wallace, 
like Shakespeare, is always aware of the skull behind a jester's smile.

4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The title of Huxley's classic dystopian novel comes from Miranda's words in The 
Tempest, and the book is full of Shakespearean references. In the novel, John 
the Savage quotes endlessly from Shakespeare as he has read nothing else. The 
point seems to be that Shakespeare's vision of humanity, with all its complex 
and messy emotions, can't fit into any utopian society.

5. Ulysses by James Joyce
"Elizabethan London lay as far from Stratford as corrupt Paris lies from virgin 
Dublin. . ." The bit where Stephen Dedalus suggests that the ghost of Hamlet's 
father is in fact Shakespeare talking "his own words to his own son's name", and 
that Ann Hathaway is the "guilty queen", must surely be the most ingenious 
example of lit crit ever to make it into fiction.

6. Money by Martin Amis
The bloated, debauched and delusional figure of John Self may have epitomised 
the greed-fuelled 80s, but he owes more than a drunken nod to his Elizabethan 
counterpart Sir John Falstaff. Self is certainly a character of Shakespearean 
proportions, and could easily have asked Falstaff's question "What is honour?" 
In a novel gleefully drunk on literary allusions it's more than fitting that 
Self ends up on a park bench, slugging back a bottle of 'Desdemona Cream'.

7. Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess
Years before Shakespeare in Love, Burgess offered this darker imagining of our 
Will's love life. The incredible achievement of this novel is how well Burgess 
managed to adopt Shakespeare's language into the narration. As with James Joyce, 
Burgess also has his doubts about Shakespeare's much maligned wife. He suggests 
the reason Shakespeare only left his 'second best bed' to Anne was because he 
found her there making the beast with his brother.

8. The Winter of Discontent by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck was a writer who understood that Shakespearean intrigue and tragedy 
should not be the sole preserve of Kings and Princes. The titular reference to 
Richard III is used here to add a certain grandeur to this moving tale of 
dispossessed grocery clerk, Ethan Hawley.

9. Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
The Bret Easton Ellis of this novel lives on Elsinore Road, visits a nightclub 
called Fortinbras and even receives a phone call from his father's spirit. 
Brat-pack novelist as tragic hero was too much for some critics to stomach, but 
I'm someone who believes most father-son stories end up being Hamlet stories, so 
you might as well be transparent about the fact.

10. Wise Children by Angela Carter
Carter's novels were always Shakespearean in their playful mix of the high and 
the low, but Wise Children owes a bigger debt than her others. The book begins 
on Shakespeare's birthday and follows the lives of two chorus girls, Dora and 
Nora Chance, who are the illegitimate daughters of a well-known Shakespearean 
actor. It's peppered with lots of Shakespearean references (the sisters grow up 
on Bard Road, for instance), and is even sliced up into five 'acts'. It's full 
of that truly anarchic spirit that people used to sitting in quiet theatres 
sometimes forget is at the heart of Shakespeare's plays.

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Tuesday May 30 2006.
It was last updated at 14:55 on July 22 2008.

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