Matt Haig’s top 10 novels influenced by Shakespeare

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.

“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 renewed’.

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.


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