April 28, 2020

What Makes for a Successful Novel Retelling a Shakespeare Play?

Pat McKee

When I thought about writing this article my initial reaction was, “Well, this will be a piece of cake! I just published a legal thriller inspired by Shakespeare. I know all about it.” You can almost smell the hubris wafting from the page as you read this, can’t you? While my novel Ariel’s Island presents a creative use of themes raised by Shakespeare’s Tempest, just a little research opened a universe of explorations of Shakespeare. Here are some examples of ways that inventive authors have turned Shakespeare’s plays into novels.

Minor becomes Major: The Play from a Minor Character’s View Point. Ophelia by Lisa Klein and Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Klein and Updike look at Hamlet from different angles; Klein imagines that Ophelia didn’t drown after all and took Hamlet up on his advice to go to a convent, while Updike tells of the passions that brought Claudius to murder Hamlet’s father the King and sleep with his mother the Queen.

Plot as Platform: Exploring Old Themes with New Lights. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and Macbeth by Jo Nesbo. Smiley and Nesbo use their play as the jumping off point to treat themes developed by Shakespeare from a contemporary perspective. Smiley follows the basic plot of King Lear but makes the characters and their motivations more complex and ambiguous, resulting from forces not present in the play. Nesbo follows the plot of Macbeth and gives it a fresh interpretation. The themes of ambition and violence fit extraordinarily well with the noir novel Nesbo has written.

Bard as Inspiration: Shakespeare beyond Shakespeare. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood and Ariel’s Island by Pat McKee. The Tempest, probably Shakespeare’s last play, has inspired numerous interpretations. Atwood’s treatment explores Shakespeare’s themes in the context of theatre, with a staging of The Tempest as the culmination of the plot. The protagonist of the novel ultimately frees the spirit as Prospero frees the spirit Ariel in the final act of the play.

It is this unresolved action – what happens when an all-powerful spirit is loosed upon the world? – I take as the central theme of my novel, Ariel’s Island. I set The Tempest as a legal thriller, with a young lawyer framed for the murder of a judge. Ariel, the spirit in the play, becomes its contemporary equivalent as an artificial intelligence program enlisted in clearing the protagonist’s name and rescuing an heiress implicated in the crime. In the novel Ariel’s creator frees her in appreciation for her help, as does Prospero in the play, and the novel explores the consequences of putting a powerful artificial intelligence program, unimpeded by law or morality, on its own.

Using Shakespeare as the jumping off-point for novelistic interpretation frees the author from feeling bound by the plot points and character development of the plays. This is the most fertile of all uses of the Bard’s infinitely inspiring work in crafting the contemporary novel. 

  Pat McKee: Orphaned at age 13, Pat McKee moved from Florida to Clinton, South Carolina with his younger siblings. There, they arrived at Thornwell Orphanage where Pat learned the value of education and the importance of hard work and leadership. Pat went on to study at Presbyterian College, Georgia State University, and Emory University School of Law. Pat later founded the law firm McKee & Barge where he represents educators and educational institutions. Always a lover of the written word, Pat decided in 2010 to enroll in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at Kennesaw State University where he combined his legal knowledge with imaginative storytelling and a newly sharpened writing technique. A member of the Atlanta Writers Club, Pat was awarded the honor of Best Manuscript Sample for “Ariel’s Island” in both 2017 and 2018. When Pat isn’t writing legal thrillers, he’s spending time with his wife in their Georgia home, or visiting their two children and their granddaughter. To learn more about Pat McKee’s life and work, visit


  1. What an interesting way to tell a story, from a minor character's POV. I have not read the book yet, but how did you handle getting into the other characters's heads? Or is it very much like 1st person? I'm curious. I guess I'll have to buy the book to see. :)

  2. I agree with Ane Mulligan, a very interesting way to tell a story. Also I found it interesting how you talked about the jumping off place. Great.

  3. "and the novel explores the consequences of putting a powerful artificial intelligence program, unimpeded by law or morality, on its own." What a great premise for a novel! I just bought the eBook and look forward to reading it.
    I also have incorporated some Shakespearean quotes in my WIP, "Dead Man's Watch," as two of the protagonists spar over their knowledge of the Bard's work. I was concerned about doing it since I'm not an expert in Shakespeare, but then "Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt."