Fav Five Shakespearean Work Not Written By Shakespeare


shakespeareThe works of Shakespeare have been staged more times than is possible to count, and the film adaptations are likewise so numerous, that keeping track of them would be next to impossible, whether it is a screen adaptation of plays like Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, Baz Luhrmann’s, Romeo + Juliet, and the forthcoming Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, or more creative reimaginings of Shakespeare’s narratives, like West Side Story, My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Lion King and She’s the Man.  Shakespeare made his name off of taking the stories of others and re-creating them, thereby breathing new life into them, so it’s only natural that fans of his work might do the same.  Whether its appropriating Shakespearean characters for new narratives, or placing Shakespeare himself into a fictional world, authors seemingly feel compelled to create new fictions based on Shakespeare and his work.  Below are a list of five of my favorite Shakespearean plays that are not by Shakespeare.  This are not simply re-makes or retellings of the Shakespeare’s stories, but original narratives featuring Shakespeare and/or his characters.  Essentially, five Shakespearean works that are not by Shakespeare.


5: Shakespeare In Love, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard


Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Viola in Shakespeare in Love.

Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Viola in Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare In Love, the only film on the list, is at least written in part by a playwright (Tom Stoppard), who penned the screenplay in concert with a screenwriter (Marc Norman).  The two won the Oscar for best original screen play, and though some have questioned the play’s originality (accusations of plagiarism abound), as well as a number of historical inaccuracies, the film does feature excellent story telling brought to life by a superb cast and the production was good enough to garner 7 Academy Awards and three BAFTAs, so the work is generally excepted for its high level of excellence.  As is the case with Shakespeare’s own plays, and other works inspired by the works of Shakespeare, such as Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet and Elizabeth Rex, the concept of performative gender roles is present in the film as Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) auditions for a role in one of Shakespeare’s plays, but must pretend to be a man since women were not allowed on the stage.  She then must act like a man who acts like a woman.  This is akin to structure of John Lyly’s Gallathea, where the title character, played by an actual boy, had to act as a girl who in the course of the play acted like a boy.  These layers of gender performance then question not only how we perform gender roles, but offer insights into the way in which we think others perform their roles, as well as how they perceive we play our owns. These gender roles peel away like the skin of an onion, deconstructing how we construct our concepts of gender.  The film is about much more than that, though, and for any Shakespeare fanboy/girl, the film peppers a number of references to Shakespeare’s other plays.  So long as hard-core Shakespeare fans can get past the inaccuracies, there is much to enjoy in this work.



4: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard


For some, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the template against which all other work rooted in Shakespeare should be compared against, and for those giving the play a ranking of fourth likely seems sacrilegious, but it is not for any perceived lack of merit that I do not place the play at the top of the list, merely a preference for some of the work put out by several Canadian playwrights.  Besides, Tom Stoppard has two works in this list, which is more than anybody else, so I feel I am giving him enough love already.  That said, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is without a doubt a marker of excellence in drama that employs metatheatrics to deconstruct dramatic theory and practice, but it does so in a manner that allows the audience to be entertained, not lectured to.  As is often the case with Stoppard’s work, there are both absurdist and existentialist elements as the clownish titular characters try to come to an understanding of their significance, or rather insignificance in the grand narrative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The play weaves scenes from Shakespeare’s play, but rather than follow the tragic orator of Shakespeare’s most famous speech, the play follows the peripheral characters who are used only for comic relief in the source material.  The play demonstrates how one man’s footnote is another man’s tragedy, challenging the exalted nature of the grand narrative and framing the lives of those who people the history from below as comically tragic pawns.  The film adaptation is brought to life by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman who play the title characters with expert comedic timing and precisely the right amount of pathos.  It’s well worth watching.


3:  Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, by Ann-Marie MacDonald


A cover for the publication of the play that encapsulated the process of pastiche employed by MacDonald.

A cover for the publication of the play that encapsulated the process of pastiche employed by MacDonald.

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet reads like a Master’s thesis on gender roles in Shakespeare that has been brought to life, and though that may not sound like a compliment, it is intended as one.  The play is one-part Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and one part existentialist feminist manifesto.  The protagonist, Constance, is a likeable graduate student who has internalized her own oppression and lacks the confidence to go after her own academic aspirations, though she is far more qualified than she realizes.  The narrative follows Constance she finds herself suddenly immersed in the plays Othello and Romeo and Juliet and attempts to undo the tragic nature of both plays by empowering the women and thereby transforming the plays into comedies.  This process allows Constance to work through the deterministic elements of patriarchal society and finds a way to define herself on her own terms in what might aptly be called an existentialist feminist narrative.  The play is fun, engaging and offers a hilarious skewering of the world of academia.


2:  Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Finley


Timothy Findley

Timothy Findley

Though Timothy Finley is perhaps more famous for his novels, the Canadian writer also penned several plays, the most famous of which is likely Elizabeth Rex.  The play imagines a world in which Queen Elizabeth I had William Shakespeare’s own comedy troupe perform for her on the night before the execution of a man she may have loved.  The Queen, however, has had to forgo her love and act like a man that she might appear powerful.  She visits a barn to speak with Ned Lowenscroft, a gay actor who has likewise had to hide his love as homosexuality is forbidden, and who likewise also performs the part of the opposite gender, acting as a woman on stage.  The play is both funny and engaging and does a great job of highlighting the performative nature of gender roles, thereby undermining rigid gender prescriptions.  The play also has parallels with the HIV/AIDS crisis as Lowenscroft has contracted a sexually transmitted disease from his now deceased lover, causing lesions that could be linked either with Kaposi sarcoma, or lesions that appear in the advances stages of AIDS.  The play is beautiful weighted with drama and comedy and creates a construction of gender consistent with Shakespeare’s own work, but constructing it for contemporary audiences and thereby demonstrating how Shakespeare’s work remain relevant today.



1:  The King’s Attrition, by Jason John Horn


One of a number of beautiful illustrations done by Andrew Verhoeckx for The King's Attrition.

One of a number of beautiful illustrations done by Andrew Verhoeckx for The King’s Attrition.

Before Malcolm ascends to the throne in the final act of Macbeth, he first questions Macduff, who offers Malcolm his support.  Malcolm warns Macduff that Scotland’s “maids could not fill up the cistern of [his] lust and my desire all continent impediments would o’erbear that did oppose my will”.  Macduff brushes off this confession, suggesting that there are more than enough willing women in Scotland, and Malcolm concedes that he was only testing Macduff.  But was he?  I always thought it would be interesting to see Malcolm’s story unfold with these personal demons tainting his rule and weighing down his conscience.  The King’s Attrition is an exploration of that scenario.  The play is comprised of excerpts cut and pasted from each of Shakespeare’s plays to create a new narrative that follows Malcolm as his tyrannical rule spirals into its despair.  The only tragedy on the list, the play explores themes of gender, perceived race, orientation, and kyriarchal systems through a postmodern structure that embraces appropriation, the pastiche and juxtaposition.  It may be inappropriate of me to place this at the top of my list, given my overt bias, but everybody is allowed to have their own Kanye West moment of shameless self-promotion, and this is mine.


Honourable Mention


Anonymous, by John Orloff


A poster from the film Anonymous.

A poster from the film Anonymous.

I have heard a number Shakespeare enthusiasts express their distaste for this film, primarily because it engages in the authorship question.  The narrative suggests that Shakespeare was a fraud and that another was the author of the plays.  Though the authorship question does raise some interesting questions and casts doubt of the authorship of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, the evidence presented in arguments that suggest Shakespeare is not the author is not introduced in this narrative. Rather, John Orloff uses the premise as a means of creating a narrative that might explain it.  If you don’t mind that the film plays fast and loose with history for the sake of the narrative, and can get over the suggestion that perhaps Shakespeare is not as omnipotent as some would like to believe, then the narrative serves as a compelling political thriller that draws on Roland Barthesquestions about the importance of the author, creating a tragic narrative that Shakespeare would certain admire.


Paint, by Grace Tiffany


GraceTiffanyPaintThough I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading this piece, I include it on the list because Grace Tiffany’s academic work has displayed a thorough and engaging understanding of the work of Shakespeare, as demonstrated in her monograph Erotic Beasts and Social MonsterPaint is ideal for those who love historical fiction, and also for fans of Elizabethan England and courtier culture as it tells the story of Emilia Bassano, a young woman in her teens who finds herself immersed in the Elizabethan court where she is “pitched among the poets, politicians, and painted women” of the era.  With introverted tendencies, Emilia initially attempts to maintain her own personal sanctuary, but the ravenous eye of the most eccentric figure of the court takes an especially strong interest in the young protagonist.  This is how one scholar imagines the likes of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson might interact with a beautiful young woman at the court.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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