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How Shakespeare Influenced the Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy

 

The signature of William Shakespeare/Photo © Shutterstock

By any reasonable measure, Williams Shakespeare can be called the most influential writer in all of literature. The threads of his immense catalog can be found woven through the literary tapestry of virtually any genre and scores of writers cite the skilled pen of the Bard among their chief inspirations. There is a reason that plays and poetry written by a man in the sixteenth century have endured for more than 400 years and remain a fixture of literary education, formal or otherwise. His concentration on a number of universal themes represent the key to both Shakespeare’s enduring success and his extraordinarily far-reaching influence; themes like the strength of love, young romance, the corrupting influence of power, and complex familial relationships. Shakespeare’s elegant, oft-hilarious, and heart-rending treatments of these fundamental motifs continue to resonate in the same way dropping a stone in a pond sends ripples far beyond its epicenter. These ripples are best known – and discussed – where they touch against drama, romance, comedy. But the influence on the realms of science fiction and fantasy are equally prevalent, though murkier.

It is not a particularly well-kept secret that J.R.R Tolkien, whose influence left a ubiquitous stamp on the DNA of fantasy literature, was not a fan of the works of Shakespeare, at least as a tool for teaching language and literature. Based on various letters, Tolkien took issue with Shakespeare’s characterization of elves, disappointment at the coming of the “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill” in MacBeth, and generally felt the works of Shakespeare were best left to the stage. However, it is apparent in reading Tolkien’s work – particularly his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings – that, despite his nominal distaste for the works of Shakespeare in the academic setting, he could not escape the playwright’s influence and perhaps did not attempt to.

In terms of broad themes, Tolkien shared many of the same fascinations that appeared to drive Shakespeare – the corrupting influence of power, magical intervention, inspiration drawn from myth and legend. The difference lies in Tolkien’s possibly intentional inversion of classic Shakespearian tropes. For instance, Shakespeare often presents faerie-folk as diminutive tricksters like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his use of faeries drew from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Tolkien took his inspiration from the Norse, Celtic, and Germanic traditions creating an elven society that was at times harsh and regal. The writers also share a fascination with the lineage of royal power and the way that power can lead to madness and downfall. Most notably for Tolkien is the tragedy of Denethor and his son Boromir. Clear comparisons can be made to MacBeth, King Lear, or Richard III (i.e., a ruler falling to paranoia and madness). In Boromir, there are shades of Hamlet as a son attempts to restore his family’s legacy, unaware of his own descent into madness. Even in his more fantastical elements, such as the march of the Ents on Saruman’s tower, Tolkien found inspiration in his discontent with Shakespeare’s use of the Great Birnam wood. Certain ideas are universal, and although Tolkien may have questioned the impact and station of Shakespeare in the literary world, he was still subject to Shakespeare’s influence.

Beyond the themes that reverberated throughout his works, William Shakespeare’s grasp of the intricacies of language, particularly the power of the metaphor, may be his greatest gift to the literary world. Science fiction and fantasy are, of course, no more immune to the power of Shakespeare’s lyrical wit than any other genre. This is best exemplified in a pillar of twentieth-century sci-fi – and perhaps its most influential voice – Ray Bradbury. Unlike Tolkien, Bradbury often talked of Shakespeare as an inspiration not only on his works, but on his use of language and metaphor specifically. The key to Ray Bradbury’s extraordinary success could be found in his visionary and often poetic prose. From Fahrenheit 451 to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury – much like Shakespeare – did not so much write as use language to create dense, haunting images. Bradbury’s starkly eloquent passages on death and time owe a clear debt to words Shakespeare penned for Hamlet and Julius Caesar. In much the same way, his evocative descriptions of otherworldly carnivals and dystopian futures not far removed from our own have roots that can be traced to the remote and desperate isle of The Tempest or eerie forest setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even with 400 years of distance, it is difficult to escape the inevitable ripples of William Shakespeare.