This week some in the world are celebrating the birth/death of the Bard of Avon also known as William Shakespeare. Shakespeare as you might have heard was a well-known English playwright and poet. Curiously enough his birthday matches exactly with the date of his death April 23. Born in 1564 to humble beginnings in the area known as Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare grew to immortal status writing fantasy. That’s right, I said it. William Shakespeare was a fantasy writer, though my college Shakespeare professor might suffer to disagree.
You see amongst some circles the term fantasy writer is considered an insult, even a cause to spit on the ground. Any work of fiction can be easily discounted by simply labeling it fantasy or science fiction. Some amongst the academia would like to selectively gather certain works into their canon, while distancing the writing from such mundane labels as fantasy and science fiction. The term “literature” rolls so much more eloquently from the tongue. As they look down their nose across the top of their spectacles, I’m sure they would assure me that Shakespeare did not write fantasy. To this I must protest.
The Bard lived at the height of the Renaissance period during the 16th Century. The world was expanding its awareness of the world. Science began to grow. Copernicus suggested that the world revolved around a stationary sun as did everything else in the solar system. Japanese pirates raided the coasts of China and made trouble in the seas. (What was the last Japanese pirate book you read? BTW) The Ottoman Empire stretched across the Middle East. Spain and Portugal dominated the seas. The Americas had just been discovered. Michelangelo completed his statue of David. Da Vinci slapped a few paints on canvas to create the Mona Lisa, and a guy named William Shakespeare penned a couple of plays that never seem to go away. Some could argue that the 16th Century was the single greatest period for artistic endeavors in the world’s history.
Some might dispute the authorship of some “Shakespearean” plays, but for the moment we will assume he wrote all of those accredited to him. Shakespeare found inspiration for his plays the way many authors do, through the need to put food on the table. Having decided theater was his calling in life, he found the need to continue to write play after play to satisfy the demands of the public. The speed at which he wrote the plays required him to find guidance from older plays and even history itself. Some of his greatest works such as Hamlet and King Lear are thought to have come from earlier plays that he simply adapted and made his own.
His plays fall into three general categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. What started as more mundane fare taken from earlier works, transformed with the coming of the plague. When his troupe left London to escape the Black Death, his plays began to grow in quality. Perhaps he was inspired by the hardship of the times or perhaps it was just his own development as a writer. Whatever the cause, Shakespeare began producing even more memorable plays. His greatest works were still ahead of him. Such immortal works as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth.
The hardships of the period were not something to dwell on. The people coming to the theater wanted to escape. They wanted to be taken away from their world of disease ridden cities into a world of fantasy and action. Let’s start our examination with one of his earliest plays Henry VI, Part 2. Wait, that’s a history, you say. I agree that on the surface it is history, since it depicted historical events that occurred as recently as the century before. I would think Saving Private Ryan is more of a history than was Henry VI. In Shakespeare’s play the Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester uses necromancy to summon a spirit to reveal the future. That seems more likely to happen in the camp of Stannis Baratheon than any historical encampment. Scenes filled with assassins and betrayal and armies and disputes over the throne seem taken directly from A Game of Thrones rather than a play by Shakespeare.
Henry VI is only the beginning of Shakespeare’s fantasy writing. Perhaps one of his most well-known fantasy works is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How else can you label the comedy, when two of the most prominent characters are the king and queen of fairies? Oberon and Titania deal with magical changelings, magical juice, and the mischievous Puck, while wreaking havoc amongst the mortals.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare again bases the story on the fantastic. The central character is driven by the instruction he receives from a ghost. Hamlet again and again encounters the ghost of his father that demands revenge on the uncle that murdered him. I’m trying to remember what novel I’ve recently read that used a ghost as the central motivation for the protagonist.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare begins the play with the three witches providing prophecy for the central character. When Macbeth later returns to the witches, they go beyond prophecy and summon strange monstrosities to answer his questions. The play even boasts one of the most famous lines ever spoken by a witch, “Double, double toil and trouble.” Poor Macbeth would have been better off with witches from Hogwarts than these three.
Shakespeare filled all of his works with the fantastic. Some more obvious than others. His plays are filled with all the trappings found in modern day fantasy: sword fighting, wars, disputes of rulership, revenge, adventure, magic, witches, necromancy, ghosts, and spirits. While some might argue that we are now living in the Golden Age of fantasy, I might suggest it occurred in the 16th century. If we cast about to look at other authors of the period, we will find more great works of fantasy. Works so well done that even the most sophisticated readers classify them as literature.
As Shakespeareans across the globe celebrate the life and times of William Shakespeare this week in April, I salute him as the greatest fantasy writer of all time. (I may have to wrestle him out of the grip of my college professor to include him in the fantasy canon.) While we may disagree on the true authorship of his collected works, none can dispute his widespread notoriety. Nor can we argue that the plays attributed to him have reached more ears and eyes than any other fantasy author. Happy birthday William Shakespeare and welcome to the fantasy genre. Perhaps now fantasy writers will start getting a bit more respect.