There is a smorgasbord of Shakespeare adaptations and retellings out there, in both the book world and in film. His plays have endured the centuries because the stories in them contain universal elements and characters that everyone, across the ages, can relate to. It’s no wonder that we are tempted to change the window dressings of the narratives to update them for our modern world, while retaining the core themes of each work. Picking the best is no small feat, because the man wrote 38 plays, and I’m pretty sure well over half of those have been adapted. So how does one go about picking the best?
We already have some pretty great lists out there that highlight YA retellings for Shakespeare’s most famous plays. For this list, let’s change it up a bit. Let’s go wide instead of deep, because goodness knows we’d find an entire list of gems for Hamlet or Macbeth retellings alone. He had so many other plays with amazingly versatile and timeless tales that have been adapted, and they all deserve some recognition.
With that said, here is a list of the top picks for 12 of Shakespeare’s most well known plays. Pick your poison based on your favorite play!
The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig
This clever and funny Hamlet retelling follows Philip, 11 years old, navigating puberty and school bullies and the business of growing up, when his dead father appears to him asking to avenge him, naturally. But revenge is some heavy stuff, and Philip’s not even sure he has time for that. Except his father has given him a strict timeframe to make sure Philip’s uncle pays for what he’s done, so he has to figure something out fast — or his father’s soul is doomed.
As I Descended by Robin Talley
Our iconic Scottish rulers from Macbeth are reimagined as Acheron Academy’s power couple, Maria and Lily. They run the school and have a bright future ahead of them, with one exception: Delilah Dufrey. She is a legend, and a shoe-in for the coveted Cawdor Kingsley Prize scholarship. Maria and Lily can’t have that, and they will do anything to de-throne Delilah so that the pair of them can attend Stanford together. Maria and Lily harness some sinister powers to make their darkest dreams come true, but the consequences (and fatalities) are more than they can handle.
Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills
This A Midsummer Night’s Dream retelling begins with the breakup of it couple Paige and Iris, and how Claudia absolutely did not mean to eavesdrop on their painful conclusion. Now Iris is really unhappy with Claudia, and it leads to the two of them working together on their school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Claudia wanted to get through the school year without being noticed or putting her heart on the line again, but of course now there’s this boy complicating matters. This funny and endearing rendition captures the heart and soul of the play at its center.
The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson
In this Much Ado About Nothing adaptation it’s Trixie Watson’s senior year and she will do anything to knock Ben West out of third best in class and take his place. Because he is not better than her, and she will win this longstanding feud, so help her. But then her best friend starts dating Ben’s best friend, and now they have to play nice. It is painful, but Trixie finds herself coming to a tentative truce with Ben that, wonder of wonders, turns into a friendship. Their new friendship is tested, however, when Trixie’s friend is expelled for cheating, and Trixie and Ben may not choose the same sides in the end.
Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry
King Lear is reimagined for the modern era with the Torres sisters, languishing in their San Antonio neighborhood and eager to escape their needy, unreliable father. Ana, the oldest, escapes in a way she can never come back from by falling to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, the three remaining sisters are haunted, quite literally, by their sister’s death and their own grief. But Ana might be trying to send them a message — if only they can figure out what she’s trying to say from beyond the grave before it’s too late.
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Othello is brought to a 1970s Washington suburb schoolyard, where 11-year-old Osei Kokote, a diplomat’s son, is fated to attend school. Painfully new, he gravitates to and befriends Dee, the most popular girl in school. It’s a move that quickly earns him an enemy in Ian, who is determined to fracture this new relationship in acts of betrayal and bullying that send rippling effects throughout the school. The misunderstandings and outrageous escalations of the original play fit perfectly while mired in the emotions and drama of being in sixth grade.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julie Drake
This Twelfth Night–inspired tale follows the Larkin family, survivors all the way back to their great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck and founded Lyric, Maine, where she washed ashore and where Violet and her brother Sam now spend their summers. Tragedy always seems to find the Larkins, though, because Violet cannot get her act together and Sam attempts to take his own life. Violet is shipped back to Lyric while Sam is in treatment, and devotes herself to discovering the lost shipwreck their ancestor survived — a childhood dream of her and her brother’s. Helped along by a local amateur historian with the most beautiful eyes, Violet may find more than just a shipwreck; she may find healing and love, too.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
The Tempest meets steampunk in this retelling, where Prospero is an inventor and industrialist who keeps his daughter, Miranda, away from their dystopian society. Flash forward to Harold, imprisoned in a zeppelin that floats high above the city, who spends his time writing a memoir and listening to the disembodied voice of a young woman who is his only source of company or connection. Harold’s connection with Miranda spans years, and his attempts to save Miranda from her own father send them all on a harrowing journey that goes to unexpected places.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
Join us in Shanghai during 1926 for this Romeo and Juliet retelling. It is a time of feuding gangs, and the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Juliette Cai, has taken up the mantle to lead them once again. Their rival? The White Flowers, for generations now, and Juliette is more than a little familiar with the White Flowers heir, Roma Montagov. He was her first love, and her first betrayal, and she hasn’t forgotten. But instability is beginning to eat away the insides of each gang, and people begin to die. Juliette and Roma have to set aside their differences and work together to stop the carnage, because if they can’t, there won’t be a city to rule.
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Shylock and his story in The Merchant of Venice are brought to the present day in art dealer Simon Strulovitch, a man still grieving his wife while he watches his daughter, Beatrice, turn away from her Jewish heritage and succumb to the glitz and glamour of Manchester high society. This is both a retelling and a sequel of sorts, with a unique twist where the modern day counterpart gets to meet the original.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
In this updated The Taming of the Shrew, Kate Battista is stuck in a job where speaking her mind gets her in trouble (parents do not always like her teaching approaches for their little darlings) and running a household for her absentminded scientist father and prima donna little sister, Bunny. Her dad needs help keeping his brilliant lab assistant, Pyotr, from being deported, and of course his outlandish plan to do it involves Kate. As if she doesn’t have enough on her plate. But this plan of his may just do more than keep Pyotr in the country; it may be what Kate needs to help her start enjoying her life.
Exit, Pursued By A Bear by E.K. Johnston
A Winter’s Tale gets its modern day treatment with Hermione Winters, captain of the cheerleading team, envied by all, and ready to graduate on to bigger and better things. Then she attends a party, and someone slips something into her drink. Hermione is sexually assaulted, a trauma that she is determined to work through, helped along with a strong support network. This adaptation focuses on Hermione’s internal journey, and how much of an impact friendship can make in the healing process.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, but I leave you with 12 amazing Shakespeare adaptations to quench your thirst for modern, fresh twists on some of the oldest, most beloved plays in the English language. May these new bards weave tales that delight and surprise you. Goodnight unto you all!