16 Shakespeare-Inspired Books for Readers of All Ages

16 Shakespeare-Inspired Books for Readers of All Ages

Your relationship with William Shakespeare likely depends on your high school English class experience. I’m fortunate that my first Shakespeare experience, Romeo and Juliet, was reasonably interesting in the hands of my 10th grade English teacher. (When she attempted to tactfully explain the bawdy humor, the room full of young teens was SHOCKED.) Later, I truly enjoyed The Merchant of Venice.

Subsequent college discussions (in the sorority house!) of films based on R+J and Hamlet convinced me that the Bard’s worth is worth diving into.

You don’t need to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in order to gain a new appreciation of his work; these days I’m more inclined to soak in some Shakespeare through clever adaptations and retellings. (1990’s teen rom-com Ten Things I Hate About You is a particular favorite).

This month in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club Community, we’re revisiting Shakespeare by reading The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett. This literary mystery is set in the world of antiquarian book collecting, and the plot revolves around the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. (Do you know about the conspiracy theories?)

I can’t wait to ask more questions about his writing inspiration and his days as an antiquarian bookseller when I chat with Charlie —live and in person at Bookmarks NC! —on October 17. (The event is free; registration is required. If you can’t make it to NC—which will be most of you—this event will be streamed and recorded via video for Book Club members, so you can view it at a later date.) If you aren’t signed up for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, you can do that here and mark your calendars for the event. 

After rereading The Bookman’s Tale, I started thinking of other Shakespeare-inspired stories that capture the wit and wisdom of the Bard. Shakespeare is worth revisiting, if only in fiction, because his themes and characters remain distinctly modern. Today I’m sharing 16 titles for readers of all ages to celebrate Shakespeare. There’s something for everyone on this list, including historical fiction, family sagas, graphic novels, and charming board books.

Bonus recommendation: Our October flight pick is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It might not be Shakespeare-inspired, but this literary mystery is atmospheric, absorbing and delightfully bookish. 

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Shakespeare-Inspired Books for Readers of All Ages
The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars

Author:
Holling Hoodhood has big things to worry about, like bullies, the Vietnam War, and staying out of trouble. While the rest of his seventh grade classmates attend religious instruction on Wednesday afternoons, he spends that time with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker. The worst part: she makes Holling read Shakespeare’s plays outside of class. He considers this a huge waste of time and assumes that Mrs. Baker simply does not like him. However, as Holling navigates the twists and turns of fate, and middle school, he recognizes parallels between his life and the works of Shakespeare. Adults will get just as much joy out of reading this Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel about courage, destiny, and Shakespeare’s legacy. More info →
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William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope

Author:
This is Star Wars, Shakespeare-style, and it is genius. We stumbled upon this at our local indie bookstore and snatched it up, and soon my middle schooler was learning all about iambic pentameter, how to read a script, stage directions, and a whole bunch of tricky vocabulary, because Star Wars. Fun for its own sake, but an easy introduction to the Bard for young students. More info →
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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Author:
This is not your average Shakespeare biography. Bill Bryson and his down-to-earth wit take what little we know about Shakespeare and turn it into an engaging, colorful picture of the larger-than-life historical figure. Follow Bryson on his Shakespearean research journey via short interludes, including a trip to the bunker-like structure that houses the First Folios. With Bill as your genial guide, learn about how Shakespeare has impacted the English language and why he remains an important figure today. More info →
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How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

Author:
Scholars estimate that Shakespeare invented around 1700 commonly used words in the English language, plus countless phrases and colloquialisms. Movies, television, and popular culture frequently borrow from his plays and archetypes. According to Ken Ludwig, studying Shakespeare gives kids a head start on language and cultural references they’ll use for years. Ludwig's fun and, at times, unconventional methods connect Shakespeare’s timely themes to modern life. Adults will also gain appreciation and learn much from this kid-centered guide. More info →
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Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl

Author:
Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew has been adapted for everything from film to opera to ballet to musical theater. Both Kiss Me, Kate and the 90s high school movie 10 Things I Hate About You (LOVE it) are based on the play. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler brings a witty contemporary retelling for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This one's on my TBR largely because of NPR, who calls this a "screwball of manners, more sweet than acidic, that actually channels Jane Austen more than Shakespeare." More info →
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The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession

The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession

Our October Book Club pick is a literary mystery tailor-made for bibliophiles that begins in 1995 Hay-on-Wye, and then travels back in time, first to Victorian England, and then to Shakespeare’s time, all in the pursuit of the bookish truth. Robin Sloan says, "With The Bookman's Tale, Charlie Lovett tells us a terrific story—there's mystery and suspense, murder and seduction—but more important, he shows us how it's all connected, all of this: the reading and the keeping and the sharing of books. It forms a chain long and strange enough to tie a heartbroken young scholar from North Carolina back to the Bard himself, who might or might not have been William Shakespeare." More info →
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The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters

Author:
Bianca, Cordelia, and Rose had the ultimate literary childhood. Their father, a famous Shakespeare professor, answered every question in Shakespeare quotes, named them after Shakespearean characters, and encouraged them to fight bullies by calling them "fat kidneyed rascals”" instead of jerks. The sisters all love to read, but that’s about all they have in common. Because they were all lost in their books, they neglected one another. When the sisters return home to grapple with their mother’s cancer diagnosis, they must confront their secrets, their shared histories, and their sisterhood. More info →
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Little Poet William Shakespeare BabyLit

Little Poet William Shakespeare BabyLit

These board books make the perfect baby shower gift for a literary friend. A Midsummer Night’s Dream BabyLit is particularly dreamy. It takes elements from the play and pairs them with beautiful, simple illustrations in a “baby’s first counting book” style. Romeo & Juliet BabyLit includes pages like “One Balcony” and “Four Roses” along with snippets of Shakespeare’s poetry. Fortunately, the Romeo and Juliet board book takes great liberties with the play. No tragedy to be found in this adorable adaptation. More info →
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The Shakespeare Stealer

The Shakespeare Stealer

This middle grade adventure story resembles a kid-friendly version of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. Widge’s master tasks him with stealing and copying Shakespeare’s newest play. When he enters the Globe Theater in order to find Hamlet, Widge gets swept up in the world of performers and stagehands. Full of sword fights, Shakespearean twists, and rich historical detail, this fast-paced middle grade novel makes a great family read-aloud or road-trip audiobook. More info →
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Ophelia

Ophelia

Author:
Ophelia takes center stage in this dark, romantic Hamlet retelling. Smart, ambitious, and beautiful, Ophelia grows up at Elsinore Castle and eventually catches Prince Hamlet’s eye. When murder and mayhem erupts in Denmark, Ophelia must choose between her secret love or saving her own life. She plans a dangerous escape and becomes the hero of her own story. Klein’s plot points and even some of the dialogue come directly from the play itself, but her retelling takes a refreshing look at an oft-overlooked character. More info →
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The Steep and Thorny Way

The Steep and Thorny Way

Author:
Fans of Dreamland Burning will enjoy this Hamlet retelling. Hanalee Denney faces hatred and discrimination as a mixed-race young woman in 1920s Oregon. Her father, Hank, died in a drunk-driving accident last year, and now his killer is out of jail, claiming that Hank was actually poisoned by the town doctor--the doctor who happened to swoop in and marry Hanalee’s mother. Hanalee wants answers, and in order to get them she consults a wandering “haint,” her father’s ghost. More info →
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Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies

Author:
Audrey Niffenegger calls this Romeo and Juliet retelling "A strange and unexpected treat…elegantly written, touching, and fun." R is not your average zombie. Yes, he eats the occasional human, but he also enjoys simple pleasures, like Frank Sinatra’s music and collecting apocalyptic tchotchkes. When he meets Julie, all of the love-at-first-sight cliches come true. He feels warm, human again, but their star-crossed romance causes unexpected implications for humanity at large. More info →
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Prince Of Cats

Prince Of Cats

This graphic novel Romeo and Juliet adaptation comes highly recommended by Brenna, producer of What Should I Read Next. Written in iambic pentameter, this hip-hop retelling is set in a "Blade Runner-esque" version of Brooklyn. Elizabethan theater meets samurai action movie as Tybalt and his Capulet crew battle it out with the Montagues. Tybalt gets top billing rather than the doomed couple, creating a fresh perspective on a tale as old as time. More info →
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Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs

Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs

"Thou art a flame that burns within my breast, the singular desire within my heart..." You may not recognize these famous lines from The Backstreet Boys. Along with other chart-topping songs, “I Want It That Way” receives the Shakespeare treatment in this hilarious collection of pop song sonnets. This poetry collection includes exclusive song rewrites from the creators of the Pop Sonnets blog. Their clever wording makes me chuckle, and this little book will surely delight the English teacher, musical theater fan, or aspiring poet in your life. More info →
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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel

An atmospheric Midwestern version of Hamlet makes perfect fall reading. Edgar Sawtelle lives with his parents on a farm in northern Wisconsin. Born mute, he communicates via sign language and helps his family raise and train "Sawtelle dogs," a fictional breed. Edgar's peaceful world is disrupted when his uncle Claude returns to the farm. When his father dies unexpectedly, and Claude romances Edgar's mother, Edgar tries to prove his uncle played a role in his father's death, but flees to the wilderness when his plan fails. After coming of age in the north woods, Edgar turns toward home. More info →
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A Thousand Acres: A Novel

A Thousand Acres: A Novel

Author:
Take King Lear, a sweeping epic about father-daughter relationships, cutthroat competition, and politics. Set it in modern day Iowa farmland. Win the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jane Smiley’s stark yet beautiful retelling begins with aging farmer Larry Cook bequeathing the family farm to this three daughters. When Caroline appears less-than-thrilled, her unsentimental father cuts her out of the will, exposing long-buried truths and repressed emotions. As Larry’s health declines, his daughters are tasked with running the farm in a harsh patriarchal world. Stunningly written, this complicated family drama is great on the page or via audiobook. More info →
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What’s your relationship to the Bard? Have you read any of the titles here? What do you recommend adding to the list?

P.S. There’s something about Shakespeare that feels like fall to me. Click here for more seasonal reading suggestions.

69 comments | Comment

69 comments

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  1. Heidi Benson says:

    “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel” by AJ Hartley and David Hewson is a fantastic reiteration of this play. Read by Richard Armitage, it won Audible awards in 2015. I’ve read all of Shakespeare (sonnets, too) and many adaptations: this is one of my favorites.

    • Nancy says:

      I read A Cue for Treason in grade 7 and thought it was fabulous…all about two young people embarking on an adventure in Elizabethan England as part of a theatre troupe. Classic and a great intro to Shakespeare’s world with a superb plot twist.

  2. Kacie says:

    We like Bruce Coville’s editions of Shakespeare stories for kids. Well written and illustrated.

    Charles Lamb, and Edith Nesbit each have Shakespeare tales suitable for younger listeners.

  3. Shana says:

    I love Shakespeare, and Hamlet is my favorite. I really enjoy the various retellings, so thank you for some new ones to look into.

  4. Meg says:

    I loved Hagseed by Margaret Atwood (The Tempest) and Macbeth by Jo Nesbo, which were part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Anxiously awaiting Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet coming 2021.

    • Meghan says:

      I absolutely loved both of these, too! I also enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Nutshell and am eager to see what Flynn makes of Hamlet.

  5. Stacey says:

    I have loved other books by Anne Tyler (and absolutely love 10 Things I Hate About You!) but I hated Vinegar Girl – it was full of lazy stereotypes about scientists. I expected more from Tyler!

    • Byrd says:

      You might be onto something – I loved Vinegar Girl as a fun romance that was unusually well written, but have not liked other works by Tyler.

  6. jaimee driscoll says:

    Have to add two outstanding options: New Boy – Othello on the playground and Hag Seed – The Tempest via Margaret Atwood. Both very worthy additions to this list.

    • Sue says:

      Have you seen that movie with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson? My mother saw it about 6 times, and took different groups of teens each time, and every time, the whole theater stood up and gave it a standing ovation, including the kids she brought who thought they didn’t like Shakespeare. I ended up using the glorious triumphant music from the end of this movie for my Wedding music!

      • Brigette Hill says:

        Yes! I love that movie and a more recent one made. I also love seeing it done as Shakespeare in the park and the setting in different time periods.

        • Cara says:

          The Joss Whedon one? Yeah, I love that one, and I enjoyed listening to the cast commentary track. They’re all talking and laughing so much you can’t hear any of the dialogue, but it’s hilarious.

  7. Clover says:

    Nutshell by Ian McEwan (the author of Atonement and other novels) is fantastic! A retelling of Hamlet from the perspective of an unborn baby! It sounds wild, and it is, but so good!

  8. CHERYL R. says:

    I also read Romeo & Juliet my 10th grade year and was not a fan in spite of a great teacher. Read Macbeth on while on home instruction my senior year and LOVED it!

  9. Susan says:

    I highly recommend Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills. It’s a loose retelling of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, so has a lot of humor and flirting and engaging characters.

  10. Mindy says:

    Fabulous list! I will be adding many of these to my TBR.

    For those of us who like nonfiction, The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays was excellent!

    It is the story of Shakespeare’s first folios and one man’s love (obsession) of Shakespeare and quest to buy as many first folios as possible. After reading the book, readers in the Washington, DC, area should look into visiting the Folger Shekespeare Library (and see a play).

  11. JT Ellison says:

    I took a college class in Shakespeare and the prof used Patrick Stewart’s various renditions of the plays as the supplemental text. Read the play, watch Stewart’s performance, discuss. It was glorious!

  12. Laura says:

    Edgar Sawtelle is remarkably good. It helps to go in knowing that it’s a retelling or else it just seems unnecessarily dark (as multiple people in my book club did).

  13. Sue says:

    I’m not a fan of Shakespeare, his plots were too ridiculous, but as I said above, I have enjoyed some of the movies. They make his language come alive. The 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet is still my favorite, it’s luscious and delightful, as well as Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh. Funny side story: Whenever we went into a video store (in the 90’s) we’d ask for Much Ado About Nothing, and the young clerk would say (EVERY TIME!), “Much to do about WHAT??”

  14. Gina says:

    Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is a must-see. Featuring Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, and Keanu Reeves, it would be a great introduction to someone who feels intimidated by the Bard.

  15. Cheryl says:

    This is perfect! My high school senior has just finished Hamlet, and she surprised herself by loving it. Ophelia looks perfect for her.

  16. Buford Stowers says:

    Shakespeare-inspired novels are quickly becoming one of my favorite genres to read. Many of these on the list are wonderful adaptations. I would recommend Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth, where a teenage stage manager falls through a trapdoor in her high school’s auditorium only to be transported back to the Globe Theatre and get to work with the original cast of Hamlet. I also enjoyed Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story by Lisa Fiedler. This character with no lines in the original play tells her version of the events of the doomed star-crossed lovers.

  17. Janine says:

    I would add Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time” to this list — I adored the book and it was an interesting perspective on Richard III. And we LOVE the Shakespearian Star Wars books — they are hysterical!

  18. Jennifer Haddow says:

    I have to give you another series to check out. It was recommended to me by a local bookstore owner in Edisto Island, SC – they even had a real bookstore cat! It’s the Mary Russell series by Laurie King. It’s a fictional look at Sherlock’s life after retirement when he takes on a young female)!) apprentice.

  19. Jessica says:

    Perfect timing! My sons ages 13, 16 and 18 and I are today just finishing our “readers theater” together with MacBeth! It is assigned reading for my middle son and the given book is SO boring with more pages of analytics than the play itself, and I didn’t want it to be a drag. We pass around No Fear’s graphic novel during the day, then once the younger siblings are in bed we pull out costumes and cookies. Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, they grumble about it every week but I figure they will at least remember having read it 😉

    I personally love the Usborne book adaptations of Shakespeare. Even my 4 year old can tell the story of Julius Caesar with them!

  20. Cady says:

    Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. One of his funniest books anyway, but the sustained riffs on Macbeth, Hamlet and what could happen if they intersected with the ‘real’ world, the ‘pick that scene’ from numerous other plays and the trials and tribulations of being a player are masterful.

  21. Beth says:

    When I saw Shakespeare in the subject line, I could not open the e-mail fast enough. My high school English classes were a good introduction to Shakespeare, but my college Shakespeare class in London was amazing. Every week we read a play and then went to see a performance of it. Thank you for the recommendations!

      • Anne Weldon says:

        A very worthy goal! The Globe will make a Shakespeare lover of anyone. The West End usually offers at least one of the plays. Then do a Shakespeare walking tour, visit Southwark Cathedral, and dine at the Swan in the Globe complex.

  22. Dee says:

    Oh, my gosh, I love this. You just gave me a bunch of new books to put on my TBR. I love Shakespeare! Enjoyed it in high school, was an English major so Shakespeare was part of the canon of requirements, and enjoy going to Shakespeare plays with my teenage son. These are great!

    My one caveat is that I despised A Thousand Acres. I wonder if I’d known it was a King Lear retelling if that might’ve helped my opinion of it. I did also watch the film – and hated that, too.

  23. Debbie says:

    The play Something’s Rotten is a take off on many Shakespeare plays. It does center around the play Ham-a-lot and another playwriter. Lots of humor.

    • Nancy Willard says:

      “Something Rotten”…,.I love that musical, (and also Shakespeare) and have seen it several times. It’s fun whether you’re a Shakespeare lover or not, but familiarity with and affinity for Shakespeare’s works make watching it that much more enjoyable!!
      “It’s Hard to be the Bard”

  24. Camille says:

    The Wednesday Wars is a
    favorite of our book club (for grown ups!) Beautiful writing! I love the Shakespeare Stealer series too! Another terrific Shakespeare related book is King of Shadows by the sublime, divine Susan Cooper. Wonderful to have these titles included which are wonderful for all ages.

  25. Anne Y Spillers says:

    If you ever get the chance, make a pilgrimage to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. I live about 30 minutes away and am buying myself a season pass. It is the only recreation in the world of the indoor Shakespeare theater (Blackfriars). You can sit on the stage and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The actors are amazing and it is just so much fun. I really think everyone should go at least once. Then you can come to Charlottesville and see all the great bookstores we have! https://americanshakespearecenter.com/blackfriars-playhouse/

  26. Amanda Lamb says:

    Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth is a really fun time travel YA that delves into more of the stuff behind the scenes of the play with a girl at its center.

  27. Silvia Ponedal says:

    The Quality of Mercy by Faye Kellerman is a wonderful, inventful retelling of The Merchant of Venice. Rebecca, the headstrong daughter of a Jewish conversos, flees an arranged marriage for the heady world of Elizabethan London. Disguised as a man, she embarks on an adventure that plunges her into the sinks and stews of Elizabethan England with the equally headstrong and romantic Will Shakespeare. An early novel for Kellerman, this one feels fresh rather than formulaic and the language is lovely.

  28. I wish someone would write a modern version of Shakespeare’s *Measure for Measure*. I directed it in the spring of 2018 at our local community college as the Harvey Weinstein scandal was raging. It’s a play that centers around a young woman, Isabella, who wants to be a nun. However, to save her brother from being executed for fornication, she must sleep with the judge. It’s not one of Shakespeare’s more well known plays, but it’s message is timely. I highly recommend it to Shakespeare lovers.

  29. Annie says:

    Dreamers Often Lie by Jacqueline West is a unique and beautifully written YA novel with an unreliable narrator and many Shakespearean elements. Highly recommended!

  30. Jeannette says:

    So many of my favorites are mentioned here. Another soft entry into Shakespeare might be that episode of Moonlighting (with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd) in which they re-enact Taming of the Shrew complete with all the iambic pentameter. It makes me laugh just to think about it- and Taming of the Shrew is such a great story.

  31. Caroline says:

    I really enjoyed Vinegar Girl! And A Thousand Acres is excellent. Being an actor nearly all my life I have I done plenty of Shakespeare!A performance tip:;Say your lines FAST!

  32. Donna says:

    “Still Time” by Jean Hegland, about an aging Shakespeare professor who is losing his memory. Very moving. Have a tissue box handy especially if you have a parent in a nursing home.

    “Juliet” by Anne Fortier, a past and present story related to Romeo & Juliet.

    “Mistress Shakespeare” by Karen Harper, about one possible identity of “the Dark Lady” of the sonnets.

    “The Tragedy of Arthur” by Arthur Phillips, about a man,his twin sister, and their relationship with their art forger/con artist father. Their dying father gives them a previously undiscovered copy of a Shakespeare play that no one has ever heard of. Is it really by Shakespeare? Or was it his father’s final con of his son?

    Non fiction
    Shadowplay by Clare Asquith which asserts that he was a Catholic and filled his plays with coded language for the recusant cause.

    Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates. It’s a memoir about her experiences teaching Shakespeare to prisoners, specifically to those who were in solitary confinement.

  33. Lisa F. says:

    Lots of books here to add to my list! I love the Folger Library Editions of Shakespeare’s plays–they have a glossary on each facing page of the play and lots of background information on the time and Elizabethan theater. These books really opened up the plays for me.

    I also love the Kenneth Branagh version of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as well as his “Henry V” (both two of my favorite plays). For more movie versions, I also like The Hollow Crown series of history plays and the delightfully hilarious “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the title roles–another view of the Hamlet story.

  34. Angela says:

    Call me old-fashioned and even immutable, but this English major firmly believes that everything you need to know about human behavior can be found in the works of the Bard.

  35. Katy Kenney says:

    I am loving this thread! I would recommend seeing Shakespeare live, anytime– seeing Shakespeare on stage is what made my daughters love him (my “authority” as an English teacher was summarily dismissed). Also, the popular YA book, _We Were Liars_ by E. Lockhart, is a re-telling of _King Lear_, and the middle grade (or lower?) book _King of Shadows_ by Susan Cooper is a great introduction to Shakespeare’s time and the excitement of theater for younger (and older) readers. The Canadian TV series _Slings and Arrows_ is a fantastic examination of the ability of Shakespeare’s plays to speak across time and space.

  36. Alina says:

    Great list, thank you! Just to add “Shakespeare saved my life” by Laura Bates and “Undiscovered Country” by Lin Enger (retelling of Hamlet)

  37. Carol says:

    Thank you for the recommendation of “The Shakespeare Stealer”. I purchased a copy for my uncle, a retired English Professor. His thank you note said, ” The words of the text rolled smoothly out of the pages and into my vivid imagination, in stark contrast with the jumbled and confusing passages of another tome which someone had loaned me with the highest recommendation. Your gift was much better written and restored my pleasure in reading a truly good book.” This uncle introduced us to the Shakespearean Festival in Ashland, Oregon when we were kids. I also highly recommend Ashland and I also loved the book, thank you!! I have a lot more to read thanks to you and everyone else.

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