By Megan Powell, Lucy Carr and Sarah Goosem.
Classic literature is highly influential by itself, earning many adaptations and much esteem throughout the years. The remarkable stories found in classic literature have become instantly recognisable – and some have even become a household name. This has provided the opportunity for many talented authors to reimagine the classic stories and provide a social critique, update them to a modern context and/or provide voices to previously overlooked characters. This helps classics remain relevant to a contemporary audience. Here are some of our favourite classic retellings.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor figures in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; they serve as intermediaries between Hamlet and King Claudius, and are seen as ineffective, feeble characters who are mostly indistinguishable from one another. Tom Stoppard’s play reimagines Hamlet from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, giving the duo depth and humour.
First performed in 1966 at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stoppard’s absurdist tragicomedy made him famous overnight, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has remained a popular retelling, becoming a classic in its own right. The two titular characters enter into existential philosophical discussions and tell jokes in between the scenes they appear in in Hamlet. Whilst in Hamlet they are largely inconsequential characters, Stoppard transforms the twosome into sympathetic, witty and interesting characters who grapple with themes of death, identity and free will. Pushed towards a fate they cannot control, Stoppard paints their passivity in a more sympathetic light, highlighting how confusing it can be to make decisions in a world you don’t understand.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
In 1966, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial and feminist response to Charlotte Brontë’s beloved 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. The book gives a voice and identity to the previously silenced Bertha Mason, the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic, and explores themes of race, identity and colonialism.
Brontë’s novel likens Bertha to “some strange wild animal” and refers to her as an “it.” She is stripped of her humanity and treated primarily as an obstacle to the marriage between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys introduces a much more complex character, who she renames Antoinette Cosway. The first part of the book introduces readers to Antoinette as a young girl living on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. In the second part, Antoinette finds herself married to an unnamed Englishman, however both she and her husband carry doubts about the arranged marriage they have hastily entered into. By the end of the novel, Rhys’s narrative begins to more explicitly overlap with Brontë’s, with Antoinette confined to the attic of her husband’s home in England and losing her grip on reality.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
When it comes to classic retellings, you need look no further than this work by the phenomenal Angela Carter. There is not just one but ten retellings within this collection. Published in 1979, Angela Carter offers a collection of short stories in The Bloody Chamber which are heavily influenced by many familiar fairy tales. All ten stories are a retelling of recognisable folktales, including Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots to name just a few.
Carter’s take on each story is powerfully original, applying a feminist tone to the whole novella which entwines the narratives to achieve her overall intention of a feminist critique. All stories contain various elements, borrowing from multiple genres to create the retellings. Mainly, Carter follows gothic conventions with worldbuilding and leans towards uncanny characteristics to fuel her message, while postmodern conventions help the bold characters convey the unorthodox ideas of Carter. This author brilliantly reimagines the role of female characters from the classic origins, challenging the fairy tales’ limited representation of women. This is paired with the clever choices of genre to break away from tradition and build in its place a platform for liberation.
Circe by Madeline Miller
If you’re a fan of Greek mythology, Madeline Miller’s novels are must-reads. Her first novel, The Song of Achilles (2011), adapted Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, reimagining the story by focusing on his love affair with Achilles during the Trojan war. Her second novel, Circe (2018), is just as beautifully written, cementing Miller as a master of retellings of Greek mythology.
Circe is an enchantress and goddess in Greek mythology, renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and magical ability to transform her enemies into animals. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Circe is only mentioned in passing, but, in her novel, Miller delves into the enchantress’ coming of age story, giving us a fresh perspective on a classical character. Circe is a novel about healing, self-discovery, family, power and love amidst other themes, and Miller’s depiction of Circe is one that will leave you thinking about this novel long after you’ve finished it.