Brush Up Your Shakespeare*

What would you think of this scenario as part of a crime fiction story? A man has committed a murder to advance his career. It wasn’t really his idea, but he’s the one responsible. He’s afraid that the two people framed for the murder might claim to be innocent, so he arranges to have them killed. He gets the career advancement he wants, but he’s raised some suspicions, and there are people who want him gone, and that leads to open conflict between them. Does that sound like it could be a good crime novel? The fact is, the things I’ve mentioned here are part of the plot of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. Most people don’t think of Shakespeare as a crime writer, but many of his plays have crime-fictional elements in them.

For instance, there’s another Shakespeare play about a man who finds out that his father was murdered, and swears to avenge that murder, so long as what he heard was true. He decides to pretend to be insane while he finds out whether his father really was killed, and by whom. He lays a trap for the person he thinks is the murderer, but through some twists of events, ends up killing someone else. There’s more to Hamlet than that, of course, but it’s definitely a crime plot. And, in fact, there’ve been several other crime stories based (some closely, some more loosely) on the play.

And then there’s this story. A man gets furious because he thinks he should have been promoted and wasn’t, so he decides to get back at his boss. He convinces his boss that his wife’s been unfaithful; that makes his boss so jealous that he ends up killing his wife. That’s not the only murder in the story, either. Othello shows just how far revenge and jealousy can push a person, and we see that in plenty of other crime fiction, too.

There are about 35 other Shakespeare plays, and not all of them involve a murder. But plenty do, and several of them involve other crimes, too, like theft, abduction, and treason. And they explore the very human experiences that go with crime. There’s guilt, grief, despair, and more. And there’s jealousy, greed, fear, revenge, lust, and the other human emotions that can lead to crime. There are also the after-effects of crime, and its impact on others.

With all of the similarities there are between Shakespeare’s plays (well, several of them) and crime fiction stories, can we call Shakespeare’s work crime fiction? Arguably some of it could be classified that way, although that category of writing didn’t exist as such in his time. You could certainly argue, though that contemporary crime fiction owes much to Shakespeare, and that there are real links between his work and the stories we generally think of as crime fiction.

For one thing, plenty of crime novels have been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, and the way they explore themes. There are even crime stories (I won’t list them all, as there are too many) that involve those plays, or that integrate them into the plot. I’ll bet you could think of more examples than I could from among the books you’ve read. Sometimes authors directly credit Shakespeare; other times, the influence isn’t quite as obvious, but it’s there. For another thing, Shakespeare explored the human condition and how that’s related to crime in the context of his plays, just as much crime fiction does. And there are several sorts of characters in Shakespeare’s plays that we also see in crime fiction (the killer who’s overcome with guilt, the unwitting dupe who ends up killing because of manipulation, the accidental killer, and so on). Of course, you might say we see some of this in a lot of fiction, not just crime fiction, and you’d be right. But there really are close parallels between the stories, themes, characters and ‘big questions’ in Shakespeare’s work, and those that we see in crime fiction.

It’s safe to say that Shakespeare has had a major impact on crime fiction. It’s also arguable that he wrote crime fiction himself, depending on exactly how you define that term. And the fact that his work still influences other writers is a real tribute to a man who was born 458 years ago. So, a very happy birthday to Shakespeare. You really need look no further than some of his plots for an excellent idea for a crime story…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Cole Porter.



8 thoughts on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare*

    1. When I think about it, KBR, I’m amazed at how many different plots he created (or, at the very least, enhanced)! And, as you say, that’s nothing to the influence he’s had on our language. Little wonder he’s still being studied over 400 years later!

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  1. That’s very clever, I love the plots described as crime plots – wholly convincing both as plays and detective novels! He has also given us a lot of book titles – Hamlet alone must have inspired a dozen or so titles, I tried to list them once: With a Bare Bodkin, Put on by Cunning, even The Moustrap. And the other plays have plentiful quote-titles. I’m sure you could do a great post on that! (no pressure…)


    1. Thanks, Moira! When you think about it, several of those plays really could count as crime fiction, even though people don’t really put Shakespeare’s work in that category. And yes – the titles we’ve gotten just from his plays! I hadn’t thought about that specifically, so I’m glad you brought it up. I just might try a post like that – thanks for the inspiratioN!


  2. Very true, Margot! It’s a real indication of his influence that so many crime writers have used quotations from the various plays as their titles. And there was a little spate a few years ago of crime writers re-imagining some of the plays as novels, though not always very successfully from the one or two I read. We also tend to use his characters as a short-cut when talking about characters in books too – she’s a real Lady Macbeth, etc.


    1. You know, you’re absolutely right, FictionFan, about the way we use some of Shakespeare’s characters. I hadn’t thought about that as much when I was writing this post, but it’s quite true. And yes, there are so many titles out there that make use of quotes from his work. I really must do a post on that at some point! It’s funny, too, about those novels. Shakespeare’s plays were, of course, meant to be viewed, not read, so it’s a real challenge to tell the story in novel form. It’s not surprising that sometimes it worked, and sometimes… not. I felt the same way about an adaptation I read of one of Christie’s plays. It’s very hard to make that leap!

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