Four hundred years a f ter his death, we’re calling it: William Shakespeare was t he g reatest fantasy writer of his era. Or perhaps a ny era… Jem Roberts puts quill to parchment
The greatest writer ever is also one of sci- fi and fantasy’s figureheads – true.
William Shakespeare was rarely
an artist for “first” s. If anything, the seamless blending of fantasy and reality in theatre and literature was the norm for all his forebears, from the unknown author of Beowulf to Chaucer, and particularly Marlowe’s Doctor
Faustus, imaginably the Force Awakens of its day – a huge effects- driven fantasy from the Admiral’s Men company, so impressive it was said to feature actual demons. “Genre” as we know it hadn’t been invented, and dramatists were happy to use the supernatural and outlandish techniques to get a point across, even if it’s in the middle of a historical epic.
As the principal writer for the rival Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare would receive commissions and collaborate with the company, but the level of control he seems to have had over which plays were staged makes him a kind of “showrunner” for the most popular entertainment outlet of his era. The first time the ascendant writer crossed the line from staging historical propaganda to full- blown fantasy was in the climax to Richard
III, when the tyrant’s numerous victims all pop up on the eve of Bosworth to bid him “Despair and die”. Between this pilot for a series of ghostly guilt trips ( Caesar, Banquo, Hamlet’s shit- stirring dad) and Shakespeare’s final fantasy masterpiece The Tempest, the playwright’s published works would always be split into three genres – History, Comedy and Tragedy – but there would be a fair few gigantic strides in other future genres made within those Complete Works.
A MOST RARE VISION
A few years later, with his incredible lyrical skill in a romantic vein proven by Romeo &
Juliet, Shakespeare debuted a new play which couldn’t be further from the bloodied English battlefields for which he was best known – a knockabout fairytale that must have seemed to
be a complete anomaly in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, like Jimmy McGovern adding a musical about unicorns to his CV. Constructed from a jumble of poetic sources, A Midsummer Night’s
Dream seems less of a bolt from the blue when compared to the tradition of British pageants, masques and mystery plays in which all kinds of devils, pixies and bogeys were the norm – dazzling audiences with the latest stage effects and stunts. Dream was a romantic comedy with a bit of everything, but the clash between boastful weaver Nick Bottom and the absurd retinue of Queen Titania’s court has always been the centrepiece of the play. Again, this being Shakespeare, there’s nothing novel about the idea of a mortal lured into the faerie world, but by bringing the old folk cliché to three- dimensional life, the play has been opening minds and inspiring fantasy creators for four centuries. Final Fantasy, for example, is dripping with the play’s influence, featuring a hero called Puck, as well as warring lovers and fairy royalty amidst a host of deliberate Shakespearean references.
The Chamberlain’s Men soon returned to history as their theme, but when the company evolved into the King’s Men in the new century, they staged a great return to presenting a world where the usual rules of existence are dropped, a far darker entertainment than anything that had gone before. Macbeth, tailored to the avid superstition of the new King James, was as blood- steeped as any play in the English language – if not in body count, certainly in theme and spirit. There was no room for subtlety of audience reading in Jacobean theatre. Macbeth’s world is one where magic is real, and horrifically dangerous. The Three Weird Sisters really can summon up visions that foretell the future, and Banquo’s torn body rises from the ditch where he was dispatched, to ruin the antihero’s party. One scene almost unerringly cut from every adaptation of the play was a kind of dark side Dream, with the demon Hecate revealing herself to be the meddling trio’s boss, just as keen to toy with mortals as Titania, but with far bloodier results.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Presenting spectacle which raised the punters out of their dung- filled lives and showed them something totally out of this world was probably on Shakespeare’s mind as a new era of theatre came along, with the opening of the indoor Blackfriars theatre. Moving plays inside seemed revolutionary at the time, offering a whole new palette for playwrights to work with – now there could be lighting effects, stage intimacy and no weather to worry about. At the same time, the middle- aged Bard was allegedly considering retirement, and reports of a shipwreck on the island of Bermuda gave him an incredible idea for the play that would provide his swansong, at least as a solo playwright. He created an island located right here on Earth, which nonetheless was “full of wonder”, with the only resident human beings the castaway Duke of Milan Prospero and his daughter Miranda.
The Tempest is Gene Roddenberry a few centuries early – a group of accidental adventurers, albeit global rather than interstellar, are washed up in a strange, alien environment, coming into contact with lifeforms they can barely begin to understand, and learning moral lessons from their experience. With the spectacle on offer for The
Tempest’s debut run – from Ariel, in harpy form, taunting the shipwrecked wanderers via hallucinatory pageant or freezing them in time, to the horror of the witch Sycorax’s mutant son, Caliban – Shakespeare, via the magician Prospero, outdid anything Marlowe’s Faustus conjured up. A fitting end to the greatest career in show business...
None of Shakespeare’s creations have unlocked the door for science fiction and fantasy writers more than his last. Aldous Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece took its name from the astonishment of Miranda when she first sees other humans on her island: “O brave new world, that has such people in it!” while a banned copy of the Complete Works is also the bible of savage icon John.
But even more celebrated sci- fi use of the play came with Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet in 1956 – one of the most influential movies in science fiction history, overwhelmingly based on Shakespeare’s otherworldly experiment. True, the tale of Dr
Morbius and his daughter Altaira stranded on the alien planet Altair IV and the investigation party sent to explore the area doesn’t translate
The Tempest entirely – the end is entirely new, and Ariel and Caliban were arguably combined in the form of Robby the Robot. But Forbidden
Planet proved long ago that “Shakespeare in space” is just one of endless permutations of the man’s works.
SCI-FIE UPON THEM!
Certainly, other movie genres, particularly Westerns and crime thrillers, have been more accommodating to Shakespeare’s ideas, but in a writer’s medium, it’s natural that the greatest writer of them all has been a regular presence in science fiction one way or another. Isaac Asimov wrote an entire book on Shakespeare, as well as short story “The Immortal Bard”, in which the writer is transported into the present and flunks an exam on his own work. On a similar theme, Shakespearean authorship conspiracy theories ( which are after all a form of fantasy fiction in the first place) have also cropped up consistently in sci- fi contexts, with Anthony Burgess having the playwright crib his entire work from copies of his own Complete Works carried by time- travelling pilgrims.
Comics have embraced the Shakespearean canon regularly, besides the obvious allusions in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman ( the playwright turns up in person in three entries in the series, with two specifically themed around Dream and The Tempest) and Stan Lee’s futuristic
Romeo And Juliet: The War – a concept also explored in unconnected anime series Romeo V Juliet and even earlier cartoon Romie- 0 And
Julie- 8. Then there’s the concentrated Shakespearean intrigue of Kill Shakespeare, IDW’s compact mash- up of characters from as many plays as Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery could manage, all vying for victory in a shady world which only exists because of the power of the great man’s own quill.
Ultimately, be it videogame or comic, movie or radio, the influence of a guy regularly hailed the Greatest Writer in the History of the English Language is too constant and hard- wired into geekdom to provide any exhaustive list. The references in Star Trek alone are endless, even before an iambic pentameter fiend like Patrick Stewart started soliloquising from the Captain’s chair. A whole episode of the original Star Trek, “The Conscience Of The King”, dripped with verse as a suspect Shakespearean thespian stands trial on the Enterprise – and The Twilight Zone also devoted one episode, “The Bard”, to a cloned William who fails dismally to make it in modern- day show business. That fate seems an unfair presumption, given the extent to which Shakespeare has been inadvertently writing for every possible entertainment format for four long centuries – a Muse of fire, ascending the brightest heaven of invention.
"One of the most influential movie in science finction history in based on a Shakespeare play"
Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot was essentially two Tempest characters.
Rula Lenska shares some animal magic in a 1978 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Captain Kirk gets a mouthful of Shakespearean verse. Richard Burton as Caliban in a 1954 play of The Tempest. The Three Witches in a 1954 TV adap of Macbeth.