Sunday, April 24, 2016

BORROWED FROM THE BARD: book titles taken from William Shakespeare

Saturday – April 23rd – was the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard, William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer in the English language.

By the time he died, in Stratford-upon-Avon, he had written 38 plays and 154 sonnets, as well as a number of other works. He was only 52, although that was considered quite a good run in Elizabethan times, when the life expectancy of the average Londoner was 35.

Shakespeare’s work has been translated into every major living language, and his plays are constantly re-imagined for each generation, bringing new meaning each time. It could easily be said that the themes and schemes and tribulations of his characters are just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.

His characters, words, and phrases have seeped into everyday life to such an extent that they are everywhere you look. And nowhere more than in the chosen book titles of other authors.

BRAVE NEW WORLD, Aldous Huxley
The title of Huxley’s 1932 science fiction classic is take from lines spoken by Miranda to Ferdinand and his companions in The Tempest:

"O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world
That hath such people in it"

MacBeth has provided inspiration for many other writers when it comes to naming their work.

Alistair MacLean’s 1973 novel, THE WAY TO DUSTY DEATH comes from MacBeth’s soliloquy when he hears of the death of Lady MacBeth:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

THE SOUND AND THE FURY is also the title of William Faulkner’s 1929 novel.

Ellery Queen used DOUBLE, DOUBLE, again from the witches in MacBeth for his 1950 novel:

“Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!”
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

Ray Bradbury’s 1962 dark fantasy takes its title from the second witch in MacBeth:

“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. [Knocking]
Open locks,
Whoever knocks!
[Enter MacBeth]

Agatha Christie used a several Shakespeare quotes and references as titles of her novels, including from that same speech in MacBeth:

SAD CYPRESS, 1940, from “Come away, death” a song in Twelfth Night
ABSENT IN THE SPRING, 1944, from sonnet 98
THERE IS A TIDE, 1948, (later renamed TAKEN AT THE FLOOD) from Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar

And her famous play The Mousetrap, 1952, is apparently taken from Hamlet’s answer to Claudius regarding the play the court had just watched.

Erle Stanley Gardner took the title of his 1956 Perry Mason novel THE CASE OF THE GILDED LILY, from a speech made by Salisbury in King John:

“Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

Frederick Forsyth took the title of his 1974 thriller THE DOGS OF WAR from a speech by Marcus Antonius in Julius Caesar:

“And Caesar's spirit, raging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.”

I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t listed here. What are your favourite crime novel titles taken from Shakespeare quotes, or do you have a quote for which you have yet to find the right story to fit it?

My own favourite is actually a stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR. I’m sure someone’s beaten me to it, but it’s a great title.

This week’s Word of the week comes from Shakespeare, appropriately enough, and is Anthropophaginian, meaning one who eats human flesh, used in humorous context in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“What wouldst thou have, boor? what: thick-skin?
speak, breathe, discuss; brief, short, quick, snap.”

“Marry, sir, I come to speak with Sir John Falstaff
from Master Slender.”

“There's his chamber, his house, his castle, his
standing-bed and truckle-bed; 'tis painted about
with the story of the Prodigal, fresh and new. Go
knock and call; hell speak like an Anthropophaginian
unto thee: knock, I say.”


  1. Oh, Zoe, this one really strikes a chord with me--Bardolator that I am. I could talk about my love of Will for hours, but I will confine myself to your question for the sake of our readers. My working title for my second mystery novel was Death in an Undiscovered Country--lifted from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. The story takes place in Paraguay, a country almost no one knows much at all about. But through my first three books, my publisher had a ban on titles with the words "death" or "murder." So the best I could do was "Invisible Country." It broke my heart to give up my original. Little Shakespeare allusions show up in all my stories. I don't do it on purpose. When my brain casts about for good words so many of Will's are in my brain that they leak down my arms and onto the keyboard.

    1. What a shame your publisher nixed that one. I'm tempted to extend the quote, if it then wouldn't be far too long, to something like 'no traveller returns from the undiscovered country'

      Love the idea of the words leaking down your arms!

  2. Jeffrey Siger, Mykonos After Midnight.

    In Twelfth Night, SIR TOBY BELCH says:

    A false conclusion. I hate it as an unfilled can. To be up after midnight and to go to Mykonos then, is deadly, so that to go to Mykonos after midnight is to go to earth betimes.

    Honest to the Bard, I can't make this shit up!

    1. Yes you can, EvKa. And I think you just proved it :-)

    2. "A false conclusion" to be sure. Out, damned spot! out, I say! - One: two: why, then, 'tis time to do't. - EvKa is murky!

  3. Our first Detective Kubu novel, A CARRION DEATH, comes from Merchant of Venice. The Prince of Morocco opens a golden casket and says:
    "O hell, what have we here?
    A carrion death, within whose empty eye
    There is a written scroll."

    I was Salerio in a school production of the Merchant. Ever since then I and other friends, when we see something unusual, exclaim "What have we here?" The response to which is "A Carrion Death in whose empty eye there is a written scroll." Hence the title!

    1. The original working title for my first standalone novel was THE CARRION CREW, because the head of the crime-scene clean-up company was called McCarron. I kept his name, but it was suggested that title had horror overtones, so it eventually became THE BLOOD WHISPERER instead.

    2. And what a good book The Blood Whisperer was too!

  4. There is a delightful British comic novel, a modern setting in Italy that is a witty retelling of Midsummer Night's Dream, called Love in Idleness.That is the name of Puck's magic flower. (author is Amanda Craig)
    "Before, milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
    And maidens call it love-in-idleness."

    A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 2, Scene 1)

    1. It's a great title, Triss, and very apt considering the subject. There are so many romantic entanglements in Shakespeare's plays that they provide rich pickings.