We are used, in this media-dominated age, to encountering fictional representations of the great figures of our culture. It is more the case with Shakespeare, than with any other individual, and is conveyed in every conceivable art form. He is a global icon, immediately recognisable, usually portrayed with that mask-like face and high forehead which has become less than human, and more and more a brand image, as ubiquitous as the Coca Cola logo.
Shakespeare’s appearances as a character are far from fixed or static: he has lived many fictional lives which have been portrayed through a vast variety of approaches. We know so little about his private life that to present him as a character allows any amount of solutions to the identities of, for instance, the Dark Lady or Mr.W.H.. We may be offered insights into his relationships with Sir Thomas Lucy or Christopher Marlowe. His marriage may be given a melodramatic soap-opera spin, where William appears as a serial adulterer, Anne as a faithful but unappreciated wife. Or the other way round. These can seem serious or be ridiculous: the great playwright walking his chihuahua, a depressive on Lithium, or an addict mainlining cannabis.
Though fictional Shakespeares take many liberties with the known facts – and there are precious few of those – unverifiable myths such as the Deer Poaching episode stand side by side with the scholarship that is continually careful to discredit them. There is a ‘kinship of interest’ as one critic comments, ’like theologians fascinated by sin,’ which holds the unlikeliest fictions featuring Shakespeare in affectionate regard. Besides that, the genre of fictional lives has a mass appeal, and whereas scholarship attracts a smaller elite, our television series, films, dramas and prose narratives appeal to large audiences. And for many, there is the yearning for direct contact; ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ wrote Stephen Greenblatt, of his biography of Shakespeare. How many of us, Shakespeare critics or not, have dreamed of what they would ask the Bard? I have quite a list of questions myself.
Literary fantasies, underlying the desire for direct communication, began to appear before 1800 and usually present the Bard as a ghost. But, actually, Shakespeare had long pre-empted these manifestations in his own lifetime, by appearing in person, as an actor in his own play. Or so says Nicholas Rowe in his biographical account of 1709. Cosy, gossipy, but unfortunately unable to verify the various orally-transmitted stories he had gathered together around Stratford, Rowe writes that he ‘could never meet with any further Account of him…than that the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet’
This traditional story from Rowe, marks the emergence of Shakespeare as ghost figure. Like the spectre of Old Hamlet, he is a figure of authority and moral integrity, coming not kindly, but to castigate posterity and set right corruption. So, in John Dryden’s 1679 adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, the ghost of Shakespeare arises to berate the current degenerate state of the theatre:
‘Now, Where are the Successours to my name?
What bring they to fill out a Poet’s fame?
Weak, short-liv’d issues of a feeble Age;
Scarce living to be Christen’d on the Stage’
Rather more mundanely, the ghost of Shakespeare was useful in theatrical disputes: in an adaptation of Measure for Measure in 1800, he appears to speak an epilogue which praises the production and castigates a rival company ‘on yonder stage.’ The audience would, of course, have known exactly who that was. But this sort of treatment had the effect of diluting the authority of the Shakespeare figure, which is some quarters, became an outright object of mockery. In Farquar’s The Constant Couple, the prologue ridicules the ghost for trying to ‘fright the ladies,’ warning that it was ‘the DEVIL did Raise that Ghost’ and remarking:
‘Let Shakespear then lye still, Ghosts do no good:
The Fair are Better Pleas’d with Flesh and Blood’
The ghost also turns his attention to political matters where he assumes a manner of grim seriousness, particularly where the French are concerned. In a poem by Mark Akenside, the spectre rouses the nation against the French, while an anonymous tirade of 1803 sees Shakespeare:
‘in the character of A TRUE ENGLISHMEN and A STURDY JOHN BULL,
Indignant that A FRENCH ARMY should WAGE WAR IN OUR ISLE’
Though, up to the present day, some Shakespearean ghosts are still regarded as figures of literary and moral authority, they are more usually raised for the purpose of ridicule. A satirical sequel to Hamlet was written in 1901, in which the new ruler, Horatio, builds a wing to his palace in order to escape the many ghostly casualties of the play. A new, arrogant ghost arrives, wanting to move in: Shakespeare himself. Horatio is obliged to call up his solicitor and have the spirit ejected.
A comic verse, not likely to amuse Bardolators – appeared in the 1920s:
I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s ghost
Sat for a Civil Service post:
The English paper for the year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
And in 2007, the Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance produced a play called I Am Shakespeare in which the magic of the Web raises the ghost of the Bard. He is forced to defend his authorship by a troupe of other ghosts, who claim to have written his works. Reviewers at the time noted how unusual it was for an actor to suggest that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. But Rylance is an ‘Anti-Stratfordian’ and really let rip in this production. After a thorough mauling from the ghosts – and even from a passing cop who applies Jack the Ripper identification techniques to the authorship question – Shakespeare is reduced to tears of self-pity in the final scene and is diminished both as a man and a dramatist.
The presence of an electronic device in Rylance’s play is indicative of how science fiction has offered an alternative way of gaining direct contact with Shakespeare. A time machine, or similar device, either transports a character to the 16th century to meet the playwright in his own age and setting, or else transports Shakespeare to the present era. Time travel fantasies are usually associated with popular culture and the TV series Doctor Who presented a memorable episode called The Shakespeare Code in 2007. This saw the doctor and his companion arrive at the Globe theatre in 1599 and become involved in a plot where evil aliens pose as three witches. The episode fuses the magic and witchcraft of Shakespeare’s writing with the Doctor’s pseudo technology, so offering perspectives on traditional views of Shakespeare’s age and plays, and the imaginary future world of scientific advances.
A paternal Shakespeare appears in Susan Cooper’s 1999 children’s novel, King of Shadows. Nat Fields, an orphaned young actor, is transported to Renaissance London where he plays Puck to Shakespeare’s Oberon: a father/son pairing. He defeats the traumas of adolescence and the grief of losing his parents through contact with the father-figure of Shakespeare, who represents support and love, as well as cultural authority. In many of these books for children, a solitary protagonist travels to London and becomes involved in theatre. Shakespeare is usually presented as an idealised mentor, offering parental-style support and encouragement and guiding the youngster into a successful adulthood.
Another strain of fiction focuses on Shakespeare’s life in the theatre: the problems surrounding stage productions, his style as actor-manager, or his relationships with colleagues and rival playwrights. In contrast to the children’s genre, Maurice Baring’s The Rehearsal is bitingly satirical with Richard Burbage, The Globe’s prime actor, ripping apart (not literally) the ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech in Macbeth. ‘It’s a third too short’ rages Burbage, ‘There’s not a single rhyme in it …. it’s an insult to the stage. “Struts and frets” indeed!’
It is impossible not to mention Neil Gaiman’s Shakespeare stories for the Sandman comic book series. Shakespeare appears discussing his work with Marlowe and tellingly refers to Dr Faustus: ‘I would give anything to have your gifts, or more than anything to give men dreams…that would live on long after I am dead.’ His wish is granted by Lord Morpheus, a supernatural being from the domain of dreams and myths.
Shakespeare has lived in many fictional lives: philanderer, faithful husband, gay, bisexual, straight, black, white, male, female, amongst others. Even a brief glimpse into these apparitions charts the preoccupations of a particular author, age or nation, and pinpoints the ideological, social, religious or political concerns which underlie them. In the present age of technological advances, the range of media is so extensive that Shakespeare as a fictional being can appear anywhere and in almost any form. He is the mirror of a period, an outlook on life and a ghost that refuses to lie down.
Bettina Harris, Library Assistant