Queering Shakespeare is a popular academic subject—and why not? Shakespeare was bisexual himself, and his plays are packed full of cross-dressing and other queer shenanigans. Personally, I love a good retelling, especially one that features queer women, so I had to see if I could put together a list for today’s theme. Sadly, there are a lot fewer LGBTQ retellings of Shakespeare than I expected, especially Romeo and Juliet. Is retelling a forbidden love story as an F/F or M/M romance too obvious?
Worse, I could find no examples at all of queer Shakespeare retellings by authors of colour. I’d love to see an author like Anna-Marie McLemore spin a well-known Shakespeare plot into a new diverse queer reincarnation of itself. Adam Silvera sure seems like he could reinvent a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s been a while since Ash, Malinda Lo! Maybe a historical fiction Chinese F/F Romeo and Juliet story? I’m just spit-balling here.
Although I’d like there to be more, we do have some excellent bi and lesbian Shakespeare retellings out there, so without any more preamble, let’s get into it!
As I Descended by Robin Talley (Macbeth)
I’ll start with what I believe is the most well-known example. As I Descended is Macbeth as a queer southern gothic YA set at a boarding school. This doesn’t follow every plot point of Macbeth, but it firmly establishes a broody atmosphere and is filled with revenge plots.
This story starts off spooky (with a Ouija board), and steadily gets darker as it progresses, ending up in seriously unsettling territory. Keep in mind the source material and don’t expect a cheerful ending, but because there are so many queer characters (including a Latina main character and a main character with a disability), there is no token queer character to kill off. This is perfect for a fall evening while listening to the wind howl outside your window.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (Twelfth Night)
This is an atmospheric, absorbing story of Violet’s attempts to understand her complicated family by searching for a lost shipwreck that changed the direction of their lives. It turned their family into survivors—at least, that’s what they tell themselves. But siblings Violent and Sam are on a downward spiral, and when Sam attempts to take his life, partier Violet is sent away. The Last True Poets of the Sea includes family secrets, a bisexual love triangle, a failing aquarium, and an F/F romance with a fellow wreck hunter. Perfect for fans of Ashley Herring Blake or Summer of Salt.
Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett (The Tempest)
This one isn’t actually a retelling as much as a sequel. Miranda and Ferdinand are in Milan to be married, ready to start their Happily Ever After, but Miranda does not get the welcome she expected. Instead, she finds herself isolated. The only person willing to keep her company is her maid, Dorothea, a queer Black Moroccan Muslim woman with her own magic powers. Part fluffy F/F story, part creepy magic, this novella has Miranda reexamining all of the events of The Tempest, and what her father is responsible for.
If you asked me to predict which Shakespeare play would be the most popular to adapt into a sapphic story, I wouldn’t have chosen The Tempest, but here we are. This one is also part Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and takes place between two islands: Crab, the tiny island in Maine that Miranda grows up on, and Manhattan, where she ends up. This is a story about loneliness, even when transplanted to the big city. Miranda has to decide which path she should choose (including how to resolve a bisexual love triangle). The strength of the book is Sweeney’s restrained, poetic style.
Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton (Henry IV)
While The Queens of Innis Lear implied a lot of characters were either bi or pansexual, Lady Hotspur centres its queer main characters. It also takes its time in establishing the world, so be prepared for hundreds of pages of epic fantasy. This loose retelling of Henry IV—a sequel to her take on King Lear—is an ambitious book that is quite divisive: it’s the kind of story people seem to love or hate. If a gender-swapped fantasy version of Henry IV with a complex sapphic romance sounds up your alley (and why would you be reading this post if it wasn’t?), give this one a try and decide for yourself.
Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee (Romeo and Juliet)
And finally, I have to recommend this adorable middle grade book about a girl who finds herself playing Romeo in the school play—and falling for her Juliet. But she’s had a crush on a boy before! What does it mean? This has some parallels to the play, but mostly it’s about putting on the production itself, including some discussion of the themes and ideas embedded in it. This was one of the first middle grade books to feature a bisexual main character (the paperback edition even uses the word “bisexual” on the page!) It is sweet and well done, and I’m so grateful we have books like this being published now.
This isn’t a complete list, but hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the sapphic directions that authors have taken Shakespeare in. In 2021, keep an eye out for the upcoming YA anthology That Way Madness Lies edited by Dahlia Adler. This is a collection of Shakespeare retellings, and Dahlia has told me there will be some queer stories in here by authors of colour! In the meantime, keep on keeping Shakespeare queer!
This post originally ran on Book Riot.
Support the Lesbrary on Patreon at $2 or more a month and be entered to win a queer women book every month! $5 and up patrons get guaranteed books throughout the year on top of the giveaways!