Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Shakespeare, William

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(1564-1616) English poet and dramatist. Shakespearian venues, scenes, Motifs, Icons and formal quotations – not to mention innumerable tags and scraps and catchphrases from the plays – have penetrated deeply into the matrix (or Cauldron of Story) of Western literary and popular culture. In many of our acts of communication and storytelling WS underlies us, and we quote him often without knowing we do so. Many of his characters, too, are Underliers.

The universal influence of WS did not come about immediately. Although he remained well known throughout the 17th and into the 18th 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 WS from its beginnings, both in English-speaking countries and on the European continent. The 20th century has seen much critical activity concerning WS, and this has resulted in a proper and necessary contextualizing of the works and humanizing of the man.

Such activity has had relatively little effect on the Cauldron of Story, but textual analysis, and a proliferation of editions of WS's works, make WS's bibliography difficult; here we give estimated year of first performance and year of first book publication; when relevant, the first folio – Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (coll 1623) and the third folio (1664) – may be cited. No attempt is made to trace any further the history of the texts.

Only a few of the poems and plays are direct Taproot Texts. Two early narrative poems are of interest. Venus and Adonis (1593), taking its plot from Ovid, describes the love of Venus for Adonis, who spurns her in order to go hunting, where he is killed by a boar. In his Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) Ted Hughes argues that, through this late recension of the myth of the Goddess and her consort, WS created part of a personal "Tragic Equation" out of which he generated the dynamic that governs his greatest plays. WS (Hughes suggests) combined this myth with the Roman tragedy of Lucrece, recounted by WS in The Rape of Lucrece (1594).

The first play of fantasy interest is A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600), a Midsummer-Night tale that Crosshatches the world of ancient Greece with that of Faerie. Various pairs, in Love with one another, travel Into the Woods in an effort to escape the strictures of the mundane world; but Puck dazzles their eyes with a Magic juice, causing them to fall in love with the wrong (or right) partners. Meanwhile, Oberon has tricked Titania (see Fairy Queen) with the same Spell, causing her to fall in love with the bewildered amateur actor Bottom, who has suffered Metamorphosis at Puck's hands and now has the head of an Ass. The Revel continues sparklingly, the various protagonists undergo their Night Journey into a wiser morn (see Godgame), and all is sorted out. Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest (1974) reflects the world of the play in an explicit and interesting fashion, as do Clemence Dane's The Godson: A Fantasy (1964 chap), John Crowley's Little, Big (1981) and Neil Gaiman's – "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1990 Sandman); most deal (in different ways) with the questions of how humans would actually live in a world in which the lure of Faerie truly existed. The Fairy Queen (1692) by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Oberon (1826) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) are among the Operas based on the play. A fine movie version is A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).

Neither The History of Henry IV (performed circa 1596; 1598), nor its sequel, Henry IV Part II (performed circa 1598; 1600), have direct fantasy content, but Falstaff has become an Underlier in Heroic Fantasy for the bluff, seemingly cowardly, heavy-drinking amorous older Companion who is much-beloved; the best novel about him is probably Robert Nye's Falstaff (1976). The Inn in which Falstaff's life is mostly led, and which serves as a junction for others, is a central model for the inns so frequently found in Genre Fantasy at those points when plots need to be hurried along.

There is a Ghost in Hamlet (performed circa 1600; 1603; exp 1604) and there are Witches and Prophecies in Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623), but neither play has had a huge effect on subsequent fantasy outside the realms of Parody – as in Terry Pratchett's work, variously, and in the first episode of the UK tv series The Black Adder (1983). The first three of WS's late RomancesPericles (performed circa 1608; 1609), The Winter's Tale (performed circa 1610; 1623) and Cymbeline (performed circa 1611; 1623) – incorporate at various points elements of fantasy, and many of the figures in these plays act with the profound ungovernable mysterious simplicity of figures in a Fairytale. But they are of greatest interest as dramatic experiments. Each constitutes a manipulation of Time, for each takes place over wide intervals. In each, the Story, which may be elaborate and full of coincidences, is so conspicuously foregrounded that each drama's fairytale protagonists seem precisely to be acting out a "Winter's Tale" – seem in other words to be re-enacting a profound yarn whose underlying, prior truth is undeniable, despite its implausibilities. Each play has been constructed to climax in the moments of Recognition for which each is famous, moments through which remarkably complex labyrinths of story are successfully brought to book, and the true nature of the world and its coils is revealed ("O she's warm", as Leontes utters, awestruck, on recognizing that his long-dead wife is alive, and that his foul jealousy has been enfolded in a larger story). In each a Healing occurs, reconciling Land and family and marriage.

Though it does not have the same elongated narrative structure, The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) reflects these underlying strategies, compressing the long labyrinthine Night Journeys of the earlier plays into brief summations of various characters' past lives. The entire play occurs on an Island governed by the Magus Prospero, Duke of Milan, exiled 12 years previously by usurpers. On his arrival, Prospero discovered Ariel, a spirit of the air, and Caliban, a Monster born out of the chthonic earth who is the rightful owner of the place; the Magus has made both of them his servants. As the play opens, Prospero has used his Magic staff to call up a tempest which shipwrecks upon this Polder various characters from his past. He then subjects them, and his daughter Miranda, to a complex Godgame, bewitching their senses (see Perception) as they stumble Into the Woods in their search for clues as to who and where they are, and testing their natures. In the end, he judges and forgives all and, in scenes reminiscent of the Licenza, permits his daughter (see also Virginity) to marry the young man she has fallen in Love with, releases Ariel and returns the island to the colonized Caliban. Prospero then relinquishes his magic (in a scene which many commentators have taken as also representing WS's own farewell statement), and the play ends tranquilly. Many fantasy novels echo The Tempest's structure, and many use characters closely modelled on Prospero and his two servants, significant examples including Rachel Ingalls's Mrs Caliban (1982 UK) and Tad Williams's Caliban (1994). Many Operas as well, most inconsequential, have been based on the play. The most notable direct fantasy use of The Tempest is almost certainly Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), though of course the sf movie Forbidden Planet (1956) remains more famous. Shakespeare Stories (anth 1982) ed Giles Gordon (1940-2003) contains several Tempest fantasies.

Considering WS's supreme importance and the fact that his biography contains major lacunae permitting doubts (however crackpot) to be recurrently raised concerning his authorship, it is surprising how infrequently he has himself been a subject for fantasies. The most influential fictional portrayal of WS is probably Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun (1964), which is not fantasy, though Burgess's later portrayals in "The Muse" (1968) and Enderby's Dark Lady, or No End to Enderby (1985) are. Works that portray WS as a radically transformative figure, like Transformations (fixup 1975) by John Mella, are rare. A benign, rather – wistful version of WS is brought forward in time for more or less tendentious purposes in William Dean Howells's The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-on-Avon (1914) and The Return of William Shakespeare (1929) by Hugh Kingsmill (1889-1949); Serinissima (1987) by Erica Jong (1942-    ) is a slipstream fantasy employing WS, unusually, as a focus of erotic interest. An amusing portrayal of the young WS (seen through the tint of a fictitious minor novelist) is presented in John Crowley's Aegypt (1987). The most serious and complex portrayal of WS in fantasy is probably "Aweary of the Sun" (1994) by Gregory Feeley (1954-    ).

WS as the uncanny genius who transcends all literary bounds is a figure rarely evoked in Genre Fantasy: the WS who appears (whether or not as an actual character) in most sf or fantasy represents either the emblem of canonical authority or else – as in Clifford D Simak's The Goblin Reservation (1968) – as a benign Fount of Narrative, a storyteller whose nature is essentially reassuring. In a 1963 Twilight Zone episode called "The Bard" WS is summoned to the present to help a tv writer with his scripts. Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest, in which WS is the "Great Historian" whose every word is historical truth, also contains this element of domestication. Leon Rooke's Shakespeare's Dog (1983), describes the squalor of WS's early life (which is implicitly likened to that of the dog who tells the tale) with a verbal energy which hints at something of the intensity of the man himself; perhaps significantly, Rooke's Fabulation is fantastic only in its use of narrator. [JC]

William Shakespeare


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.