My set-up for writing is a desktop computer, with papers strewn in front of the monitor. Music on my left, coffee on my right, the essential reference books on a shelf just above. And, on the wall over the monitor, a print of the famous portrait of William Shakespeare, in case I need his advice.
What has Shakespeare to do with writing fantasy? For a start, he wasn’t averse to writing the odd fantasy play himself, notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Beyond this, several other plays contain plot features we’d consider fantasy, such as the Ghost in Hamlet and the witches in Macbeth. Shakespeare lived, after all, in an age when elements like ghosts, magic and prophecies were considered, if not matters of everyday life, then at least events that could well happen. Like being hit by an asteroid, perhaps, although less terminal.
Today, we’re accustomed to thinking of science, magic and divine miracles as belonging in separate boxes, which we label respectively “fact”, “fantasy” and “matter of opinion”. In the Renaissance, it was all science of one kind or another. The alchemists who sought for the Philosopher’s Stone were the same people whose experiments led to the development of modern chemistry, while the heroes of rationalist physics and astronomy, as late as Newton, accepted that the stars they studied guided the fates of mortals. Giordano Bruno, executed for heresy in 1600, embraced the Copernican system as much because it made sense of his vision of a living, divine universe as because the maths worked.
In modern terms, a play like Macbeth could be regarded as magic realism, where witches, ghosts and prophecies coexist comfortably with political drama in the same way that the characters in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude speak to their dead ancestors and witness a girl levitating while going about their business in an ordinary South American town.
Beyond the obvious parallels, of course, Shakespeare can be mined as one of the world’s great sources of archetypal plots and plot elements, along with the Bible and the great mythologies. Tolkien certainly didn’t resist the influence. There’s surely more than an echo of Macduff being “not of woman born” in the Witch King’s belated realisation that “no living man” doesn’t include a woman (or a hobbit). Referring to the same play, the forest of the Ents closing in on Isengard and the enemy at Helms Deep seems reminiscent of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
It’s not only the fantasy elements, though. A large proportion of fantasy (though by no means all) is set in societies somewhat like one or another of Shakespeare’s plays, and singularly unlike our own. You want to include high-level political plotting in your story? Watch or read Julius Caesar for some tips. Powerful rivals tearing an empire apart? Antony and Cleopatra. A king leading a (mostly) pre-gunpowder army on campaign? Henry V.
And so on, from the complexities of royal succession in Hamlet to marriage expectations in Romeo and Juliet. Of course, all this can be found by historical research, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Shakespeare should be the beginning and end of a writer’s background reading. What historical research rarely gives, though, is a sense of the way people and events interweave, and the feeling of actually being there.
Shakespeare lived in the midst of all this. Take the political plots, for instance: he was at least glancingly caught up in two of them. In 1601, his play Richard II was said to have been used by the Earl of Essex to influence public mood ahead of his rebellion, since it portrayed a monarch being “legitimately” overthrown, although Shakespeare doesn’t appear to have been held accountable for this.
More famously, in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot attempted to assassinate the King and his entire government and to seize control of the kingdom. Shakespeare was related to several of the key plotters (though not Guido Fawkes) through his mother’s family. It isn’t known whether he came under suspicion, but it’s not entirely impossible that his decision to leave London and return to Stratford, a few years later, may have been influenced by feeling insecure.
Although it should be taken as read, incidentally, perhaps I’d better make it clear that I have no truck with any of the crackpot theories about “who wrote Shakespeare?” Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare: it was widely acknowledged at the time by both friends and enemies. Far from the semi- literate peasant that the theorists portray, he was well educated (although he’d missed out on university) and middle class. None of the other claims make any sense. Besides the fact that the plays were clearly written by an actor, there’s the matter of the poems. Certainly, if Bacon or Oxford had written plays, they’d have kept the matter quiet (though plenty of plays were produced anonymously, so there’d be no need for an elaborate deception) but there wasn’t a gentleman at court who wouldn’t have sold his soul to claim the sonnets as his own.
Most of all, though, Shakespeare’s characters are second to none in terms of realism and complexity, and realism of character is just as important in fantasy as in any other fiction. Perhaps more so. He’s not only given us some of the archetypal characters, from the squabbling lovers to the angst-ridden young man, but he’s also shown us how to use them to best effect.
There are risks, of course, in getting so drawn into his versions that the characters become stereotypes instead of archetypes. Think of those endless couples in every type of modern fiction who quarrel all the time until they realise they’re actually in love, without the charm of Beatrice and Benedick to carry us over the cliché. The point, of course, is to follow Shakespeare’s approach, rather than his results, and aim for the same freshness and believability he achieved.
Shakespeare’s leads are wonderful, but he also excels at portraying supporting characters – like Mercutio, who’s arguably the best character in Romeo and Juliet. Though this was probably mainly due to Shakespeare’s own instinct against marginalising people, it also had a good deal to do with the set-up of the company he wrote for, which was a cooperative owned by the main actors. In contrast to most other companies at the time, all the sharers expected a good role, and Shakespeare gladly obliged.
Nevertheless, he seemed to have had a deep feeling for people and their concerns, at all levels of society. In a very early play, Henry VI Part 3, he’s portraying a country torn apart by the Wars of the Roses. Most of the action shows us the warring dukes and princes, but in one scene, the King is faced with two unnamed characters – a father who’s killed his son, and a son who’s killed his father – who not only portray the kingdom’s suffering, but are also shown with every bit as much realism and sympathy as the leads, even though neither is on stage more than a couple of minutes.
I was introduced to Shakespeare very young at home and, by the time I got to “doing” him at school, I felt none of the boredom and sense of irrelevance of many kids in that situation, because I knew how powerful he could be. I saw a lot of plays, as well as reading them. I recall being taken to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night at Regents Park when very young and, even more memorably, Maggie Smith and Robert Stevens in Much Ado About Nothing.
Shakespeare’s part of who I am as a writer, and I’m sure far more of my writing owes a debt to him than I’m aware myself. I can think offhand of two scenes with distinct Shakespearean influence. In At An Uncertain Hour, I have the Traveller wandering around the camp during the night before the crucial battle, very much as Henry V did before Agincourt, although with a rather different outcome. And the novel I’m currently working on has a scene that fulfils a very similar role to the Henry VI scene mentioned above.
It’s not just specifics, though. In my current novel, I was faced with trying to depict a complicated battle, both inside and outside a city, which involved several of my leading characters. The approach I took was the one I’d learnt from numerous Shakespeare plays – Julius Caesar, Richard III, Macbeth and many others – of using a barrage of short, sharp scenes, showing key events in different parts of the battle involving different characters, that built into an overall impression of what was happening.
All writers steal from other writers, and the better the writer, the more he or she is stolen from. Everyone steals from Shakespeare, whether or not they’re conscious of it. And Shakespeare, who was the biggest literary kleptomaniac of the lot, would have been delighted.
Editor's note: Nyki Blatchley's story A Deed Without A Name is the featured story in February's Shakespeare-themed issue of Penumbra. For more information on Nyki and his writing, please visit http://www.nykiblatchley.co.uk/ and read his blog on http://nyki-blatchley.blogspot.com/.