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

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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 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.


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.


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.

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