Breaking Bard — how to get inspiration for your book title from Shakespeare and The Bible

Do you have problems finding just the right title for your book? You could try taking a leaf out of two of the best-selling books of this year and last year which have titles inspired by Shakespeare and The Bible.

Those two books are The Fault In Our Stars by John Green and Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee.

Green’s YA smash has sold at least an astonishing 12 million copies and the title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2):

Cassius: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

The title of Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, coming out in July with an initial print run of two million, has its origins in the Bible (Isaiah 21:6):

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Macbeth is a popular source of inspiration for authors and two famous books use consecutive lines from the play, with Agatha Christie’s By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, being followed by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Macbeth, which is Shakespeare’s shortest play, also provides us with The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck (Banquo: How goes the night, boy? Fleance: The moon is down. I have not heard the clock) and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett.

Notable thrillers with Shakespearean titles include The Dogs of War by Fredrick Forsyth — from Julius Caesar (Marcus Antonius: Cry Havoc!, and let slip the dogs of war/ That this foul deed shall smell above the earth/ With carrion men, groaning for burial), and Alistair Maclean’s Where Eagles Dare — from Richard III (Richard: I cannot tell. The world is grown so bad/ That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch./ Since every jack became a gentleman,/ There’s many a gentle person made a jack.)

Steinbeck took another of his titles — The Winter of our Discontent — from the famous opening line of Richard III (Gloucester: Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York) and he used The Bible for another of his books, East of Eden, which comes from Genesis 4:16: And Cain went out from the presence of the Lords, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Other notable titles from the Bard include, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, from The Tempest (Miranda: How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in ’t!), and several from The Sonnets.

These include Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (Sonnet 30: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past) and two titles (at least) taken from Sonnet 18, famously known as Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day — The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates, and Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate:/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date).

The Bible, particularly the poetic King James’ version, also provides a fount of inspiration for writers.

Ernest Hemingway used Ecclesiastes for The Sun Also Rises (Ecclesiastes 1:5: The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.)

Ecclesiastes also features in one of the great works of science fiction, Earth Abides by George R Stewart, which takes its title from Ecclesiastes 1:4: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Another SF classic, Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, uses Exodus 2:22: And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Through A Glass Darkly is a popular title, including works from Donna Leon, Jostein Gardner, Karleen Koen, and Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. It’s an enigmatic and much discussed passage from Corinthians 2:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

My favorite biblical title is The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things by J T LeRoy (Jeremiah 17:9: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?)

The title is particularly appropriate as J T LeRoy was an invention of Laura Albert who also dreamt up a hard-scrabble backstory for LeRoy.

John Grisham is another author to draw on Ecclesiastes, with his legal thriller, A Time To Kill, from Ecclesiastes 3:3, A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.

The whole section from Ecclesiastes was also used famously by Pete Seeger for his song, To Everything There is a Season, which later became a big hit retitled, Turn! Turn! Turn!, by The Byrds, which has the distinction of being the US No 1 with the oldest lyrics.

Elizabeth Smart adapted the title of her novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, from Psalms 137:1: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

If you want to get some classic inspiration from Shakespeare, your best plan is to go straight to the source. Pick up a play and flick through some pages at random.

For example, as it’s the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year, I’ve been browsing through the play of King John and quickly found: Blood For Blood, Deny The Devil, The Roaring Tides, The City’s Eyes, Clouds Of Heaven, The Sky Above Our Heads, Thunder From The South — and that’s just in the first couple of acts of a lesser-known play, so there’s plenty of opportunity to find titles if you spend some time scanning Shakespeare’s works — don’t forget The Sonnets.

There’s also a treasury of other Elizabethan playwrights to pick through, including Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster, all of them with great lines waiting to be adapted into novel titles.

For Biblical inspiration, you really need the King James’ Version. The whole work is packed with possibilities but the Old Testament has some particularly lyrical sections, including Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Psalms.