Shakespeare, William

Tagged: Author

(1564-1616) English poet and dramatist whose writings helped to shape not only our Theatre but our language. Shakespearian venues, scenes, themes, Icons and formal quotations – not to mention innumerable tags and scraps and catchphrases from the plays – have penetrated deeply into the matrix of Western literary and popular culture. In many of our acts of communication and storytelling Shakespeare underlies us, and we quote him often without knowing we do so. Many of his characters, too, are Underliers [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

The universal influence of Shakespeare did not come about immediately. Although he remained well known throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, it was not until nearly 1800 that his works became unassailable lynchpins of literary tradition. The apotheosis of his work and life coincided roughly with the beginnings of Fantasy as a self-conscious genre. Fantasy has therefore been permeated by Shakespeare from its beginnings, both in English-speaking countries and on the European continent, and the influence has necessarily though less pervasively seeped through into sf. The twentieth century saw much related critical activity, resulting in a proper and necessary contextualizing of the works, treating his plays as inextricably bound to the business and intimate theatrical conditions of the time, and humanizing of the man. Such textual analysis, and a proliferation of editions of his works, make Shakespeare's bibliography difficult; here we generally give estimated year of first performance and year of first book publication; when relevant, the first folio – Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (coll 1623) – and the third folio (1664) are cited. No attempt is made to trace any further the history of the texts.

Shakespeare's most notable direct influence on sf is through his last solo play The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), which established several archetypes with its remote Island setting, its reclusive magician/philosopher Prospero who orchestrates the story's Godgame, his beautiful daughter Miranda, his supernatural servitor Ariel and the indigenous Monster Caliban (see Apes as Human; Mysterious Stranger). All these Proto SF tropes famously underwent a sea-change into sf forms in Forbidden Planet (1956): the remote planet, the Scientist Morbius, the lovely daughter, the Robot servant and the Id Monster. Secondary echoes, particularly scientists and Mad Scientists with daughters, are very numerous in the genre. An excruciatingly detailed sf retelling of The Tempest on a lonely Asteroid fills most of the narrative of Beyond the Void (1965) by R L Fanthorpe writing as John E Muller: the cast includes scientist Rosper, daughter Darmina, the robot Leira, the Mutant Canbail and others. Here even the play's briefly featured Chess game is expanded to eleven pages of move-by-move description. Tad Williams's non-sf Caliban's Hour (1994) revisits and reinterprets the back-story of The Tempest from the supposed monster's viewpoint. "The Sandman #75: The Tempest" (1996 Sandman) is a tale of relinquishment that closes Neil Gaiman's Comics sequence. Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (2016) puts into a contemporary Canadian a complex dissection of the play's interweaving of various kinds of Crime and Punishment. Poets of note who have responded to The Tempest by giving new soliloquies to its characters include Percy Bysshe Shelley with "To a Lady with a Guitar" (in The Poetical Works, coll 1840), whose opening stage direction is "Ariel to Miranda"; Robert Browning (1812-1889) with "Caliban upon Setebos" (in Dramatis Personae, coll 1864), examining primitive Religion; and, very extensively, W H Auden (whom see) with "The Sea and the Mirror" (in For the Time Being, coll 1944). The Isle is Full of Noises (performed 1982; 2002 chap), a poetic drama by Derek Walcott (1930-    ), is set in an unnamed Island in the Caribbean. Recent operas of interest (see Music) include Der Sturm ["The Tempest"] (performed 1955) by Frank Martin (1890-1974), The Knot Garden (performed 1970) by Michael Tippett (1905-1998), and The Tempest (performed 2004) by Thomas Adès (1971-    ).

Several stories describe unusual productions of Shakespeare's plays: Hamlet (performed circa 1600; 1603; exp 1604; rev 1623), whose ghost is no delusion, is rendered with a gingerly borderline-supernatural frisson in Fritz Leiber's "Four Ghosts in Hamlet" (January 1965 F&SF), while a ghost Hamlet inspires the composition (and performance) of the play in Carrie Vaughn's "Draw Thy Breath in Pain" (Winter 2005/20006 Paradox); Hamlet again, an unconventional view of a conventional performance with the attendant lords as lead characters, is central to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (first performed 1966; 1967 chap). Ian McEwan's Nutshell (2016) is a kind of prequel in a contemporary setting, as narrated from inside his mother's womb by a Hamlet-like figure. There is a performance of Romeo and Juliet (performed circa 1595-1596; 1597) with human players using Identity Transfer to perform in synthetic Alien bodies before a demanding alien audience in Anne McCaffrey's "Dramatic Mission" (June 1969 Analog); the murder scene from Othello (performed circa 1603; 1622) becomes a role-playing challenge for Shapeshifter actors in Alan G Yates's Coriolanus, the Chariot!; a version of Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623) is commissioned to justify rather than condemn the murderous usurper (and his wife) in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Wyrd Sisters (1988); A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) is central to Neil Gaiman's Comics episode "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1990 Sandman); King Lear (performed circa 1605-1606; 1608) becomes a digitally and Subliminally enhanced "compu-drama" in Isaac Asimov's "Gold" (September 1991 Analog); and The Tempest features in Paul Voermans's And Disregards the Rest (1992).

It is central to the fantastical Alternate History of Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest (1974) that Shakespeare was the "Great Historian" whose writings are absolute historical truth; thus the story's noble characters, though not the proletariat, do indeed speak in blank verse. But the man himself, despite his Icon status, is not always respectfully treated. In Isaac Asimov's academic Satire "The Immortal Bard" (May 1954 Universe) he is brought to the present day by Time Travel and humiliated by failing a course on his own work; a similarly time-shifted Shakespeare in Clifford D Simak's The Goblin Reservation (1968) delivers a public speech titled "How It Happened I Did Not Write The Plays". In Anthony Burgess's "The Muse" (Spring 1968 The Hudson Review) he plagiarizes his material from texts brought back by time-travelling pilgrims, setting up a Time Paradox (who did write the plays?) and suggesting why as a simple copyist he famously "scarce blotted a line" – though as only one page of manuscript in Shakespeare's hand survives, no confirmation exists of this exceedingly unlikely presumption. The developing Superman of Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (1969) pauses to check the Baconian theory by applying his enhanced mental powers to the texts, and loftily dismisses both Francis Bacon and Shakespeare as second-rate minds, more of a comment on Wilson than on the creator of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The titular world of Clifford Simak's Shakespeare's Planet (1976) is named for a future space-traveller who is not the playwright. Burgess's "The Muse" is echoed in Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair (2001), where a Time Police official investigating the authorship issue discovers that the plays are unknown in 1610 and "repairs" history by providing the 1592 Shakespeare with the Complete Works, "to distribute on a given timetable." Eric Flint's 1632 (2001) features a contemporary eye-witness who "confirms" that the major plays were by the Earl of Oxford.

The notion that Shakespeare's works were actually written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford or various other candidates, has generated a vast and increasingly disreputable literature of its own – fortunately beyond the scope of this encyclopedia, though James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010) can be recommended as a dispassionate but devastating rebuttal of such speculations; surviving True Believers, including some otherwise reputable actors, have however remained immune to argument. John Crowley's The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (Fall 2002 Conjunctions #39; 2005 chap) contains a sympathetic but unbelieving description of the first book to advocate Bacon, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857) by Delia Bacon (1811-1859) (no relation). Ignatius Donnelly was a prime mover on the anti-Shakespeare front with The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888), and Mark Twain also gave countenance to the Baconian case in Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909); tales of rebuttal featuring Shakespeare himself include William Howells's The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-on-Avon: A Fantasy (1914) and Hugh Kingsmill's The Return of William Shakespeare (1929). Gerald Kersh's "The Hack" (September 1954 Courier Magazine) amusingly turns the tables with Shakespeare's confession that he ghosted the essays of Francis Bacon.

Some further tales in which the Bard appears in a fantastic context are Clemence Dane's The Godson: A Fantasy (1964 chap), John Mella's Transformations (fixup 1975), Susan Cooper's Timeslip tale King of Shadows (1999) – where it is suggested that the temporary exchange of boy actors from 1599 and 1999 London has been arranged by Secret Masters or Time Police to save Shakespeare from Black Death infection – and Erica Jong's Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (1987; vt Shylock's Daughter: A Novel of Love in Venice 2003). In Simon Hawke's nonfantastic Shakespeare & Smythe historical mysteries, beginning with A Mystery of Errors (2000), Shakespeare is half of a detective team. Diana Wynne Jones's modern-times Science Fantasy Archer's Goon (1984) features a teasingly Shakespeare-like character living in the Elizabethan past and named Hathaway. William Sanders's Alternate History "The Undiscovered" (March 1997 Asimov's) displaces Shakespeare to Virginia, where he writes Hamlet.

More remotely, the curse engraved on Shakespeare's tomb – "Blese be the man that spares thes stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones." – has inspired such stories as M Y Halidom's The Poet's Curse (1911) and Arthur C Clarke's "Nightfall" (1947 King's College Review; vt "The Curse" September 1953 Cosmos). The notion that a group of monkeys randomly prodding at typewriters might eventually generate the works of Shakespeare by sheer chance is a famous probabilistic Thought Experiment (which see for further discussion). Though the use of Shakespearean quotations for story titles is too common for enumeration, one amusingly eccentric example is Anthony Boucher's trio of short fantasies about dealings with eponymous demons: "Snulbug" (December 1941 Unknown), "Sriberdegibit" (June 1943 Unknown) and "Nellthu" (August 1955 F&SF) – all three names being corrupt readings from the 1608 "bad quarto" text of King Lear.

A relevant theme anthology is Weird Tales from Shakespeare (anth 1994) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Katharine Kerr. Also of interest, though containing little fantastic material, is Shakespearean Detectives (anth 1998; vt More Shakespearean Whodunnits 1998) edited by Mike Ashley. Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World (anth 2016) edited by David Thomas More comprises Shared World stories set in an imagined 1601 where various Shakespeare characters co-exist. [DRL/JC]

see also: Chris Adrian; Arts; Samuel Butler; Club Story; John Dee; Nigel Dennis; Deus Ex Machina; Ian Doescher; Entropy; Alethea Hayter; Rachel Ingalls; Ben Jonson; Sir Humphry Lunatic; Harold Mackaye; Reincarnation; J C Squire.

William Shakespeare

born Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: [baptized] 26 April 1564

died Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: 23 April 1616

works (not individually listed)

about the author

We do not here attempt to provide a critical conspectus of the thousands of biographies and critical works about William Shakespeare, focusing instead on some titles of particular or peculiar interest from authors represented in this encyclopedia. We also cite two valuable studies about his "true" identity, in the hope that they may effectively put paid to a century and a half of turgid "scepticism"; speculations of this sort have unfortunately seemed attractive to some authors of the fantastic.

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