Reading Companions to Shakespeare Week

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Shakespeare Week (18–24 March) is an incentive created by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2014, aiming to introduce The Bard to primary school students in fun and accessible ways. Ten years later the project is as popular as ever, having reached 11,000 primary schools since its inception and also expanding into other facets of education and heritage sectors such as universities, museums, and libraries. Though he died over four centuries ago, his works are still as relevant and important as ever.

There are a plethora of ways Shakespeare lives on in the present day. From the productions of his plays that are regularly staged at The Globe and Stratford-upon-Avon, to the modern reimaginings we see on film from the early 2000s (watching Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man were I’m sure for many—myself included—seminal childhood moments), Shakespeare’s words are still very much around.

But this interest is not limited to just films and modern-day theatre productions. In the world of literature, authors are also constantly finding ways to remodel and rework Shakespeare’s characters and plots. So if you are interested in dipping your toe into Shakespeare Week, and are looking for something modern that goes beyond the original texts, here are some of the books that have been published in recent years that bring a fresh, new perspective to some of his most famous plays:

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, turned into a successful West End show, and currently in the early stages of a film adaptation, this novel took the world by storm when it was released four years ago. O’Farrell expertly crafts a poignant and immersive reimagining of Shakespeare’s family life, transporting us away from the world of Renaissance London theatres and instead placing us in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare’s wife and children stayed behind as he travelled to the capital to stage his plays. Never mentioning Shakespeare by name, O’Farrell cites Germaine Greer’s book Shakespeare’s Wife in an interview with The Guardian as an inspiration for her empathetic approach to Anne (or Agnes as she is called in the book) Hathaway, exploring her complex, rich, and charming inner world as well as the burdens she navigated while her husband was away. 

More than anything, Hamnet is a powerful exploration of childhood, love, and loss, particularly as we poignantly learn how the tragic events surrounding one of his children, Hamnet, speculatively inspire Shakespeare to write his seminal play Hamlet sometime between 1599 and 1601. O’Farrell combines beautiful prose and an exceptional insight of the human condition to pose the question, how do the events in peoples’ lives shape their writing?

All’s Well – Mona Awad (2021)

Uncanny, magical, and darkly funny, this novel follows the life of the chronically ill drama professor Miranda Finch at an American liberal arts university as she tries to put on a production of All’s Well that Ends Well. Faced with a group of mutinous students wanting to perform Macbeth instead, Awad explores the lengths to which a woman will go to prove the healing powers of Shakespeare to a world that does not fully acknowledge her pain. 

After the success of her novel Bunny (2019) Awad returns with her classic magical realism-infused writing that often verges on the unhinged and leaves the reader reeling and disorientated in the best way possible. Though Miranda Finch oscillates between being highly dislikeable and a deeply sympathetic character she remains compelling and intriguing throughout, as other-worldly transformations take place at times the reader least expects. All’s Well not only continues to establish Awad as one of the most unique voices currently in publishing, but also takes an innovative and subversive approach to one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays and gives it the twist of a lifetime.

Extra points also go to the gorgeous and striking covers of all the editions of this book.

Hex – Jenni Fagan (2022)

At just over 100 pages, this short book is the perfect fit for anyone interested in the historical context behind the witches in Macbeth. Hex narrates the final hours of Scottish woman Geillis Duncan, accused of witchcraft and executed in 1591. For anyone familiar with the geography of Edinburgh, reading about the real-life locations in the city where Geillis is tortured, imprisoned, and killed provides a chilling effect to the narrative, as the sixteenth century version of the Royal Mile—a place many now associate with the joyful chaos of the Edinburgh Fringe—is soberly brought to life. 

Fagan’s prose is brimming with anger and deep empathy for the women who suffered incredibly under the superstitious King James I. We are given an entirely new perspective of the women associated with magic at the time, one that is highly sympathetic towards them, rather than the old, gnarled, and demonic depictions often shown in productions of Macbeth, written around 10 to 15 years after the death of Geillis. No one knows how many people were persecuted for witchcraft in the 1500 and 1600s but estimates of deaths always lie in the thousands. Hex provides speculative insight into this time period but perhaps more importantly makes the reader forcefully question how much things have really changed for women since then. 

400 years on, Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and landscapes continue to inspire writers in new ways and enthral readers with innovative, page-turning stories. From the solemn and poignant, to the witchy and fantastical, there is something for everyone when it comes to these Shakespeare-inspired narratives. Though it can feel that his writing is outdated, ancient, perhaps even inconsequential to the present day, O’Farrell, Awad, and Fagan all prove otherwise. Instead, they make a highly compelling case that Shakespeare’s work continues to be more relevant and important than ever in today’s world. 

Words by Sofia Cristobal Holman-Smith


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