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Shakespeare, William

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1564-1616) English poet and playwright 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 [for this term and for Taproot Texts and Twice-Told 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 linchpins of literary tradition. This 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, in terms of which his plays were treated as inextricably bound to the business and intimate theatrical conditions of the time; this grounding of his genius humanized our sense of the man, and exposed all the more clearly how daunting that genius was. Such textual analysis, and a proliferation of editions of his works, make Shakespeare's bibliography difficult; here we follow, as best we can, contemporary consensus on these matters, providing estimated year of first performance (sometimes problematical) 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.

In the sensitized early twenty-first century world, the ravaged apocalyptic worlds depicted in two of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies – King Lear (performed 1606; first version 1608) and Macbeth (performed 1606; 1623) – seem clearly to reflect the terrible return of plague in 1606 (see Pandemic), a threat of unescapable devastation that shadows both dramas. At the same time, the range of influence of his plays in general is usefully reflected in Iain Pears' uses of As You Like It (performed circa 1599; 1623) in his sf novel Arcadia (2015), the experiences of one of whose protagonists, Rosalind, multiply reflects the original. Jeannette Winterson's The Gap in Time: The Winter's Tale Retold (2015) resets The Winter's Tale (performed 1611; 1623) in contemporary America and London.

But 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 or island-like setting, similar in this – as argued by Northrop Frye (1912-1991) in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – to Twelfth Night; Or What You Will (performed 1602 or earlier; 1623), both plays being sea-girt, without any hint of a return to some (never here experienced) "normality", as occurs in "dramas of the green world" (Frye's iteration) like As You Like It (see above) or A Midsummer Night's Dream (see below). The cast of The Tempest in particular has provided several models for later centuries: its reclusive magician/philosopher Prospero, who resembles the magus-scientist John Dee and who orchestrates the story's Godgame; his beautiful Scientist's-daughter Miranda; his supernatural servitor Ariel; and the indigenous Monster Caliban (see Apes as Human; Mysterious Stranger). Relentlessly exploiting these typologies, Caliban by the Yellow Sands (first performed 24 May 1916 Lewisohn Stadium, New York: 1916) by Percy MacKaye (1875-1956) essentially treats Caliban as a rape-prone immigrant civilized, in the end, through the radiant irruption onstage of Shakespeare himself (see Uplift). 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. Much of Marvin Kaye's fantasy The Amorous Umbrella (1981) takes place in a composite Shakespeareland where all the plays overlap and dialogue is in blank verse full of knowing echoes. 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. A hologram version of Prospero, who may be an AI aliquot sample of something like the Computer that manifests Earth, interacts with other members of the play in Dan Simmons's Ilium (2003). Steve Sem-Sandberg's The Tempest (2016), set on a difficult-to-find Island, replays years later Nazi atrocities committed in World War Two. 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. As its title hints, Katharine Duckett's Miranda in Milan (2019) is a fantasy set after the events of the play; the Florence (here called Thalia) of Jo Walton's Or What You Will (2020) is derived as well from Twelfth Night; Or What You Will (performed 1602 or earlier; 1623). If Robert Ford, the Godgame artificer at the heart of the Television version of Westworld (2016-2022), can be thought of as a Prospero figure, the series as a whole can be envisioned as a Thought Experiment set on an Island full of noises. 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 (1930-2017), 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-    ). A comprehensive listing and analysis to 1987 of Cinema and Television versions of the plays can be found in Shakespeare Survey 39: Shakespeare on Film and Television (anth 1987) edited by Stanley Wells (1930-    ).

Several stories describe unusual productions of Shakespeare's plays: Hamlet (performed circa 1600; 1603; exp 1604; rev 1623) – the preferable and/or definitive text remains a matter of acidulous dispute, though it seems clear that although Shakespeare could not have intended the full four-hour version ever to be performed intact, he did all the same intend to write it – 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 2005/2006 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; in Ann Leckie's The Raven Tower (2019) a local deity narrates the story with some dispassion. 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 John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), to Neil Gaiman's Comics episode "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1990 Sandman) [for Into the Woods see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and to The Pitcher Shower (2005), a tale with strong fantasy elements by Donald Harington; King Lear (performed circa 1605-1606; 1608) becomes a digitally and Subliminally enhanced "compu-drama" in Isaac Asimov's "Gold" (September 1991 Analog), and its performance triggers much of the action of Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014); and The Tempest features in Paul Voermans's And Disregards the Rest (1992).

The Siege of Elsinore (1948), a children's fantasy by Alethea Hayter writing as J C Fennessy, is based on the conceit that several of Shakespeare's plays are set in a shared Europe, with Hamlet and Prospero's daughter and the children of King Lear all ruling simultaneously; 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 the feverishly intellectual Hamlet, a Daedalus of hendiadys dancing rings around his "understanders". The titular world of Clifford Simak's Shakespeare's Planet (1976) is named for a future space-traveller who in turn took his name from (and wrote copious diary notes in) a collected edition of the plays. 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 (who died in 1604), or various other candidates, has generated a vast and disheartening 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 (as Shapiro does not deal in fiction, none of the tales described in this entry are mentioned). Some "sceptics" – for whom a total lack of evidence in support of their "case" demonstrates the strength of the conspiracy – have persisted, including two or three otherwise reputable twenty-first century actors. 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), though the text may allow a spoof reading of his diatribe; 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 to make a little quick money 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. Ben Elton's Upstart Crow (2016-2020) is in the main a nonfantastic comedy mostly depicting Shakespeare's sixteenth century career, though "A Crow Christmas Carol" (2018) features a Mysterious Stranger who seems to be Charles Dickens.

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 any prolonged 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 readings from the 1608 "bad quarto" text of King Lear, which some scholars now value highly.

An Original Anthology, Shakespeare Stories (anth 1982) edited by Giles Gordon (1940-2003), contains stories by Paul Ableman, Kingsley Amis, Brigid Brophy, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Emma Tennant and others, some of them Twice-Tolds [again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The transparently storyable renderings assembled in Shakespeare Stories (coll 1985) and Shakespeare Stories II (coll 1994) by Leon Garfield (1921-1996) convey some sense of the high quality of the tales Shakespeare borrowed or made up whole, and of their extensive immersion in the supernatural. A relevant genre-themed anthology is Weird Tales from Shakespeare (anth 1994) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Katharine Kerr. Also of interest are Shakespearean Whodunnits (anth 1997) and Shakespearean Detectives (anth 1998; vt More Shakespearean Whodunnits 1998), both edited by Mike Ashley, each containing some fantastic material. 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; Nigel Dennis; Deus Ex Machina; Ian Doescher; Entropy; 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)

Bibliographical scrutiny of Shakespeare's texts has achieved little consensus as to how best to present his plays for readers in general; the establishment of competent reading texts for plays like Hamlet and King Lear has been in particular been hampered by conflicts amongst specialists as to precedence and authenticity of the available printed versions. As a result, no modern scholarly publication of Shakespeare's works adequately converses with any other; none are listed here. [For various versions of each drama, see "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" under links below]. One title is given here.

further reading

(Fiction collections; highly selected; for nonfiction studies see about the author below)

about the author

We do not attempt to provide a critical conspectus of the thousands of biographies and critical works about the author, focusing instead on some titles of particular or peculiar interest, with an emphasis on those from writers represented in this encyclopedia. Some authors of the fantastic have speculated implausibly about William Shakespeare's "true" identity, and in their fiction have indulged in easy condescensions about the nature of his genius. We cite two valuable studies about that question of identity, in the hope that James Shapiro's analysis in particular may help put paid to a century and a half of credulous "scepticism".


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