"O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"
How's that for a statement?
Those of you Gold Star Shmoopers probably already know that it's none other than Hamlet who shouts these words to the heavens in Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's play. But the melancholy prince's lament could just as easily have been shouted out by the protagonist of Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince.
The Black Prince tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a hapless middle-aged dude who wants nothing more than to go away and write a magnificent novel—but who finds himself held back again and again by the demands of his melodramatically needy friends and family members.
When Bradley finds himself head-over-heels in love, he thinks he's experiencing the most life-changing event of his life. Little does he know that he'll soon be facing others, like—spoiler alert—the death of his sister, the death of his best friend, his conviction for his best friend's murder, his imprisonment, and his life-changing relationship with a suspiciously heavenly friend.
Sound intriguing? That's not the half of it.
The novel is also a conscious response to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and at times the novel parallels Shakespeare's play so closely that it feels like a contemporary retelling of the classic story. Murdoch is like a jazz musician with a genius for improvisation. Throughout the novel, she riffs on Hamlet skillfully, picking up the lines and notes of Shakespeare's ideas and pushing them further with her own, and creates a strikingly original work of art as the end result.
The Black Prince was first published in 1973, and it was soon shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Although it didn't win the Booker, it did snag the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. (And Murdoch won the Booker for a different novel a few years later, so don't feel too bad for her.)
Eventually, Murdoch also adapted The Black Prince into a dramatic script, bringing Bradley Pearson and his many troubles to life in an all-new way, and bringing the novel's ties to Hamlet full circle by turning the play-turned-novel back into a play.
But this is where it all started…unless it started with Hamlet…which also sort of started with something called Hamnet…which—um, yeah. Have some fun with this one, folks, because fun is exactly what Iris Murdoch had when she wrote this crazy baby.
Okay, come on, admit it. You've totally encountered fan fiction before, and may you've even written some yourself. Sometimes a book, a movie, or a television series captivates us so completely that we just have to respond in kind—whether by penning stories in which we insert ourselves into the imaginary universes we love, or by spinning yarns in which we pay homage to the writers we admire by flattering them with imitation.
Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince does the latter. The book's jacket-blurb announces the novel as "a love song to Shakespeare," and it's not hard to see why—just as Disney's The Lion King would do about twenty years later, the novel reimagines Shakespeare's Hamlet and, in doing so, still manages somehow to create a stunningly original work of art.
Cribbing from Shakespeare is definitely part of the circle of life, arewerite?
Now, you may be thinking to yourself—I don't give a hoot about Shakespeare, so why should I care about The Black Prince?
Think of it this way. Imagine an ambitious young person who's aspiring to master any discipline that interests you, whether that be sports, music, acting, sculpting, chess playing, filmmaking, mathematics, deep-sea diving—you name it.
Now, think of the major players who'd be most likely to inspire said young person as they work to become the best they can be. Michael Jordan. Serena Williams. Jimi Hendrix. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sir Patrick Stewart. Shah Rukh Khan. Michelangelo. Bobby Fischer. Steven Spielberg. Ava DuVernay. Stephen Hawking. Jacques Cousteau.
Everyone has idols, and every discipline has its heroes. Whether or not you give a hoot about Shakespeare, we know you'll be able to appreciate the daring feat that Murdoch does her best to pull off in The Black Prince. Just think of the novel as the literary equivalent of trying to fly like Jordan, shred like Jimi, serve like Serena, or rhyme like Lin-Manuel.
The Black Prince shows us a writer who's doing her utmost to reach the same heights as one of literature's most acclaimed masters. So, whatever your interest in Shakespeare himself, we're sure that you'll be wowed by Murdoch's ambition and drive—and maybe do a little creative riffing of your own.
Read up about the author of The Black Prince—the real author, that is—to get a quick and accessible overview of her life.
You Want Another Bio? Fine
If you'd like a slightly longer reading on Iris Murdoch's life and literary works, check this one out.
William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Want quick access to the text of Hamlet so that you can cross-reference characters and scenes with The Black Prince? The Folger Shakespeare Library's got you covered.
Iris is a biopic about Iris Murdoch herself, not an adaptation of The Black Prince, but it's a good way to take a break from your literary studies without straying too far from the novel.
The Black Prince Reviewed in the New York Times
Not only does Lawrence Graver's review of The Black Prince give a useful summary of the novel itself, but it also discusses it in the context of Iris Murdoch's larger body of work.
The Black Prince Gets a Retrospective Review in the Toronto Review of Books
Wanna know what one reviewer thinks about the relationship between puking and falling in love? You know you do.
Iris Murdoch Interviewed in the Paris Review
Straight from the horse's mouth, check out this interview to learn more about Iris Murdoch's family, work experience, approach to writing, and more.
"The Moral Brilliance of Iris Murdoch"
Iris Murdoch wrote "a love letter to Shakespeare" when she wrote The Black Prince, and now you can read a critical love letter about Murdoch herself.
"Who Really Knew Iris?"
Check out this review of a biography of Iris Murdoch to learn some very interesting things about her life and loves.
Iris Murdoch on Literature and Philosophy
The Black Prince's Bradley Pearson is a philosophical writer, and so was Iris Murdoch. Listen to Murdoch discuss the correspondences and differences between literature and philosophy by checking out this clip from an, ahem, intellectually-charged television interview.
Iris Murdoch in Conversation with Frank Kermode
Tune in for an in-depth discussion of Iris Murdoch's novels and writing style, and in particular for a discussion of the role that love plays in her books. Insight alert.
The author herself, wearing a blazer like nobody's business.
The Chatto and Windus Edition of The Black Prince
So gorgeous. So purple.
The Penguin Classics Edition of The Black Prince
It looks like there's some society snobbery going on here.