Shakespeare in Science Fiction

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 85

Shakespeare and his plays crop up in science fiction in a number of surprising places, from classic stories like Isaac Asimov’s “The Immortal Bard” to TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who. And it’s not just these more recent works: a production of Macbeth figures in Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic novel The Last Man, written in the 1820s.
Our guest on this episode is Sarah Annes Brown, a professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, and co-director of the university’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. She’s writing a book that looks at representations of how Shakespeare’s plays are performed in the future. Sarah Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 14, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, "I Shall Tell You a Pretty Tale," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Roger Chatterton at Kite Recording Studio in Cambridge, England.

Visit the Folger's Shakespeare & Beyond blog to explore a Klingon translation of Hamlet in the Folger collection.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Of all the truths in this broad universe there's one that we here at the Folger care about probably more than anything else.

[CLIP from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country]

KLINGON CHANCELLOR GORKON: You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.

KLINGON: “taH pagh taHbe!”

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That, of course, was from the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But as you're about to learn, it turns out that's not the only place that William Shakespeare has turned up in the world of science fiction. Despite science fiction's association with modernity in popular culture it is in many ways haunted by the literary canon, and since at least the 1820s, Shakespeare the man, Shakespeare the idea, Shakespeare's writing, and Shakespeare’s meaning have cropped up in the genre in ways that we think you'll find really surprising. Sarah Annes Brown has been writing about Shakespeare in science fiction for quite some time now. She's a professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England and co-director of the university's Center for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Right now she's writing a book that looks in particular at representations of how Shakespeare's plays are performed in the future. We call this podcast "I Shall Tell You A Pretty Tale."  Sarah Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Before we get to Shakespeare, what exactly are we talking about when we say “science fiction?” I know that there's a lot of wrangling that goes on around that term. How do you define it and are we going back as far as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, say, or Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?

SARAH ANNES BROWN: Well, I think I take quite a broad view of science fiction. I know some people like to define it quite narrowly and say it only goes back to for example, the 1920s or Jules Verne, but I'm certainly going back as far as Mary Shelley. I always like the well-known, playful definition of science fiction, which is, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” But I think most of the texts that I'm engaging with as science fiction would be recognized by most people as centrally science fiction. So authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, for example. Also some less well known figures and a couple of them, yes, they perhaps are just teetering on the edge of fantasy, but I'm trying to stay clear of fantasy on the whole because that's just such a huge genre in its own right with its own relationship with Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: So, this encompasses parallel worlds or alternative history sci-fi too, like, I'm thinking Philip K. Dick's very famous Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers won World War II and they rule over the US.

BROWN: Yes, certainly. Alternate history is definitely part of my project and in fact it's a very interesting area for seeing what happens to Shakespeare. Several writers use Shakespeare almost as a quick shorthand of indicating what their world is like. So, is it is a world where Shakespeare never existed, or never became a great playwright, or wrote completely different texts. So for example in a novel by Robert Silverberg, called The Gate of the Worlds, we find ourselves in an England which was conquered by the Turks many centuries ago. And so Shakespeare actually wrote his plays in Turkish and although he wrote some of the ones we know, like Hamlet, he didn't of course write the English history plays, he wrote plays in praise of Suleiman the Magnificent. So that is something that immediately strikes the reader because everyone knows something about Shakespeare, so when we hear about Shakespeare writing in Turkish it has an impact on the reader.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and I'm wondering how big Shakespeare is in science fiction scenarios, in general, you know? I'm not a Trekkie but I can think of that famous line, “You don't know Shakespeare until you've read him in the original Klingon.”

BROWN: Yes, yes.

BOGAEV: So does Shakespeare show up consistently across the board just books, stories, TV, films?

BROWN: Well, I think clearly I'm now seeing more Shakespeare that I'm looking for him, but I suppose the reason I began to think about writing the book was because there did seem to be so very much Shakespeare in science fiction. For example, in the British science fiction series Doctor Who, you get more than one encounter with Shakespeare. And it's interesting if you compare a 1960s encounter with Shakespeare, he actually comes over as having a completely different personality, from the recent one where he's presented as really confident and so, quite sexual and very sharp, and in the 1960s one he seems much more muted. But going back to the question of whether he's everywhere in serious literary science fiction, in comics, and films—and the famous example is Forbidden Planet, the 1950s film which is based on The Tempest. And you were asking about Star Trek, and Star Trek's absolutely full of Shakespeare used often as a way of perhaps promoting the value of humanity so sometimes Shakespeare can become a sort of bargaining tool between the different Star Trek crews that you meet in the different series and alien races.

BOGAEV: Right, and there's one episode where they trade Shakespeare plays for... or do they trade actual Shakespeare? I mean, this is my question, because Shakespeare sometimes shows up as a character, and sometimes his plays show up or he's referenced as a symbol or essence and not an actual person. Right, so and this instance, I don't know whether they, I think they trade the plays for technology.

BROWN: Yes, it's just the plays. So Shakespeare becomes something that's really valuable, a really valuable commodity. And I think that goes back to what you were asking about in relation to the Klingons, saying, “You haven't understood Shakespeare until you've heard him in the original Klingon,” because I think one of the problems in science fiction with alien encounters is when the aliens become too keen on Shakespeare they might co-opt him for themselves. So that line that you mentioned, the Klingons claiming Shakespeare as their own, is from one of the films, and what happened then is someone had this idea of actually producing a whole translation of Hamlet in Klingon, well, in the “original Klingon.” And what the translators claim in their quite playful introduction is that of course Shakespeare was Klingon, and it's only the forces of anti-Klingon bigotry in the Federation that have hidden this important fact.

BOGAEV: Well, so it seems, Shakespeare appears as a person, as himself, as an idea, and also as this, it sounds as if he has this tremendous power, almost as if a god, or, as you said, a kind of proxy for humankind. You write that science fiction frequently entwines Shakespeare's fate with that of humanity, and that that goes both ways. Unpack that for us and give us some examples of that please.

BROWN: Yes, well, this is a big complicated topic, so just to begin with one of those ideas you mentioned, Shakespeare becoming a god, sometimes Shakespeare is presented as having the creative power of a god, so that for example in a very interesting novel by Dan Simmons called Ilium, the power, the literary power of The Tempest is so extraordinary that the characters from The Tempest have actually come to life in the future because there's so much energy in that text. And sometimes you get a sense that Shakespeare is acting as a kind of litmus test, so if we see what's happening to Shakespeare then we know what the fate of humanity is in this future world we're being presented. So, for example, a future where we just can't appreciate Shakespeare anymore. Another kind of poignant scenario is one where, in one sense, things have gone really badly for humanity, nearly everyone's been wiped out by a plague, which is what happens in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, it's a really good recent example.

BOGAEV: That's a beautiful book.

BROWN: And then... Yes! No, it's great. And so nearly everyone is dead and there's just these scattered remnants of humanity, and one really important strand in the book is you've got a troupe of traveling players who go around acting Shakespeare because that's what people want to see. And so that shows that even in their darkest hour humanity does still appreciate Shakespeare and so in a sense that's much more hopeful than something like [Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World.

BOGAEV: Another example of this, isn't it, is of this apocalyptic science fiction where Shakespeare shows up, a novel by Mary Shelley, called The Last Man. Right. She wrote it back in the 1820s but it's set in the late 21st century and it's about a virulent worldwide plague.

BROWN: Yes, so they seem to feature quite frequently in my book but this is one of the bleakest post-apocalyptic works of science fiction as well as one of the very earliest. Here, Shakespeare doesn't have a huge presence, but there's one moment in particular, humanity inexorably dying out, this wave of cholera-like illness that's killing off everyone, but there's still a few things going on in London and one of them is a production of Macbeth. And the hero, Lionel Verney, goes to see the play and what happens in the middle of the performance is that the actor playing Ross, he has this speech about the men dying before even the flowers in their caps have withered, and you have this sense that everyone in the audience is being affected by the horror, because they know that this is their own fate. This is actually an example of something you get quite a lot in post-apocalyptic science fiction involving Shakespeare, which is Shakespeare being turned into a kind of prophet. So, you get a little snippet from a play and it's almost as though it's prophesying what's going to happen to humanity. That goes back to what you were saying earlier about him being almost godlike in his power.

BOGAEV: I want to pick up on something you said before about the roaming troupes of Shakespearean performers that's featured in the novel Station Eleven. And you give a number of examples of these Shakespearean performing companies. And one of the examples you also gave was this story, The Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons. In that case humanity had been enslaved by sinister aliens and this theater company is traveling from planet to planet entertaining the poor humans. So is it really obvious that that's a Shakespearean troupe in the novel?

BROWN: Yes, and they are even, all the actors in the troupe are actually named after Shakespearean players in Shakespeare's own company. So it's very, very much Shakespearean, and they seem as far as I remember, they really only act Shakespeare. And this is I think part of a wider trope in science fiction where Shakespeare appears because there's this pattern you get in a few stories where humans have to act Shakespeare in order to pass a kind of test and prove their worth to aliens, and so in this story the human actors have to keep on performing greater and greater Shakespeare plays in order to pass the test, the highest aliens of all. It's very, it's a very strange story.

BOGAEV: It's kind of wonderful, it's either a nightmare or a dream of every actor to have to perform greater and greater Shakespeare plays.

BROWN: Yes. [LAUGH] You were talking about troupes and it's definitely the case that there are far more Shakespeare troupes than you'd expect and sometimes this is for kind of realistic reasons so you can see why in a post-apocalyptic landscape without technology, you might go back to traveling players, and there are a couple examples, but you also get these more space-opera-type novels where it is more futuristic, it's not post-apocalyptic at all but for some reason you've still got troupes of traveling players going around different planets. It seems to be part of creating this rather retro atmosphere where in some ways we've gone forward but we've also gone back.

BOGAEV: Yes, it seems like a very convenient use of Shakespeare, you know, because everyone has that touch point. You couldn't, if you had a traveling troupe of, I don't know, Moliere, it wouldn't make the same impact on the reader.

BROWN: Yes. I was thinking recently that Shakespeare's almost like that kind of artifact you get in some science fiction film, so that he takes on the guise of whoever is looking at it, and it reflects back something of yourself, because you get so many different kinds of Shakespeare. He's so much an icon and a myth that he can be reinvented for each new writer.

BOGAEV: And are there stories of Shakespeare being so exceptional that he's not human, he's an alien? An extraterrestrial?

BROWN: Yes, well, there's one very interesting little story, which is by a writer that I hadn't come across before called Adrienne Martine-Barnes and this little story is called “The Elements So Mixed.” It builds up what I was saying earlier about how it's great, I suppose, in science fiction, when aliens appreciate Shakespeare and perhaps not so great when they co-opt Shakespeare, and this is kind of an extension of that idea because in this Story you have an Earth ambassador, Amelia, and she goes to an alien planet and her colleagues, her alien colleagues, on the planet start to talk to her about this being called the Wordcrafter. They say, oh, surely you have a Wordcrafter on your planet, it's this amazing writer who gets incarnated in every single alien species in the galaxy, and always writes these wonderful works, but writes them rather differently for each species. And in the end, after thinking, oh, maybe this is in fact Christ or Buddha, she realizes that it's Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: I love that it's a woman, in the current incarnation.

BROWN: And it's—yes, yes. It is, it is a woman on the planet that she's landed on, so on some planets it's a woman and some a man. So in a sense it is optimistic, if you like the idea of Shakespeare being really exceptional, but on the other hand it's not so optimistic because Shakespeare, although exceptional, is no longer specifically uniquely human because in so much science fiction Shakespeare is used as an absolute icon of humanity and in fact Doctor Who describes Shakespeare as the most human human that's ever lived.

BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about another common science fiction motif, time travel, and one of the most well-known examples of Shakespeare in time travel is Isaac Asimov's story “The Immortal Bard.” That's from 1954, and for people who haven't read it, tell us about it.

BROWN: Yes, so it's a very light hearted story but it's another interesting take on Shakespeare. It begins—it's set in a university—it begins with a conversation between a physicist and an English professor and the physicist just drops into the conversation that he's worked out how to make time travel a reality and has been experimenting with bringing back different people. And he says they often just couldn't cope but he thought maybe Shakespeare could cope, with being brought into the present with all the changes. And eventually of course, the English professor's really excited but eventually he's rather startled to learn that Shakespeare was enrolled on one of the courses that he was taking. And in fact he was taking a course on Shakespeare's works. And it emerges that Shakespeare was completely nonplussed by the way Shakespeare was being taught.

BOGAEV: Oh, that's perfect. Because of why, what does he take exception with?

BROWN: [OVERLAP]  Well, it was written in the 1950s, so it wouldn't have been, you know, the very theoretical readings that we might have today, but I think he found even then the different interpretations baffling and wonders how on earth they can find these meanings in his words. And the punchline of the story is that poor Shakespeare was so demoralized by the experience he had to return to his own time because at the very end of the course, he actually flunked it. He failed the course on his own play. So that's a little sideswipe perhaps at academics and people who try to read perhaps overly complicated or anachronistic readings into Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Well, there's stories where Shakespeare travels through time and then there's stories about people who go back in time to see Shakespeare. And one example that you bring up is Frank Ramirez's “The Merchant of Stratford.”

BROWN: Yes, this is another amusing story, but it's taking a very different line on Shakespeare, it's giving us a very different idea of his character, because here the main character is I think from the 21st century and again the premise is that time travel has been discovered, and he's very excited because he's going to be the first person to go back in time and of course what he wants to do is see Shakespeare. And he's quite nervous, he thinks that Shakespeare is going to be alarmed to see a visitor from the future and he thinks carefully about how to set him at ease. But all this turns out to be quite unnecessary because although he is the earliest person to go back in time, from Shakespeare's point of view he's not the first because Shakespeare's really used to time travelers from the further future and has set up a whole business to exploit this fact. And Shakespeare has become a great fan of science fiction himself and has even written a science fiction novel.

BOGAEV: That is so funny to think of Shakespeare being plagued by people from the future. [LAUGH]  Which is very logical, but that he would make it into a business, oh, that's just brilliant. I think Shakespeare in that story is also, you said he's into science fiction, he particularly likes Robert Heinlein.


BOGAEV: Well, another subset of science fiction is alternate history, which we talked about a little bit earlier in the conversation. Of course, that's where a historical event plays out differently and changes the entire world and Shakespeare shows up a fair bit in these. And one that I don't think you mentioned before and that I've never heard of that sounds really kind of cool is Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove, right, and in this alternate world, Elizabethan England is taken over by the Spanish.

BROWN: Yes, so this is a scenario that more than one writer has turned to but Turtledove is the one who really focuses on Shakespeare. Just to give you a little bit more information about the scenario it's the daughter of Philip II of Spain who is now on the throne, so she's Queen Isabella. Queen Elizabeth is in the Tower, and Shakespeare’s very much the main character in this novel. I think it's really impressive because it's quite difficult to sustain the characterization of such a renowned genius over a long novel, and take the reader with you. But I think Turtledove does that, and I think he's really done his research and, although of course very fanciful, is also somehow convincing. Shakespeare comes over as quite a reticent, cautious person, but someone who can, as with the impression you get from the plays, sympathize with different points of view. This is illustrated by one of the important plot strands, which is that Shakespeare gets asked to write two special plays, but for very different reasons. The first one he's asked by the Spanish authorities to do a play about Philip II. The second one is very subversive and secret: this is a request to do a play about Boadicea, or Boudicca.

BOGAEV: That's a rebel queen.

BROWN: Yeah, the rebel queen of the Iceni rebelling against the Roman invaders. So the rebels who are loyal to Elizabeth know that the audience in the theater will interpret this as a reference to Elizabeth in the tower and will be fired up to rise up against the Spanish. And what Shakespeare does is he takes on both commissions, and what I find really convincing and interesting is that he's presented as being totally committed to both of them, seeing a good side of Philip II, not just of Boadicea. Which shows that Shakespeare was continuing to keep both sides in his mind at once.

BOGAEV: That's a very nuanced way of approaching the fact that we don't really know how Shakespeare thought about his own religion or what his own religion was. It makes me wonder though, how does an author like that get around this whole challenge of creating dialogue and language for Shakespeare that doesn't just horribly disappoint readers?

BROWN: I know, I think that is a challenge and I think it's quite impressive that he does kind of manage it. And certainly, I've read it two or three times now and I continue to feel drawn into it. He does it partly through playfully including lots of allusions to his own plays so sometimes Shakespeare will drop little phrases from Shakespeare’s own plays into his conversation with other characters, which makes you wonder whether Shakespeare’s just trying out things he's going to put in his plays later, or not. So there is a lot of Shakespearean language in it and indeed language from other writers. I think at one point Marlowe comes out with a line from Alexander Pope, which is completely anachronistic, but I think is part of a nice allusive playfulness.

BOGAEV: You know stepping back I can imagine so many reasons why writers would use Shakespeare in science fiction and a lot of them are just really practical, you know, I think I mentioned before, obviously most people have read Shakespeare in school so it's a shared cultural legacy around the world. But you've been thinking about this for a long time so why does Shakespeare lend himself to science fiction so well, do you think?

BROWN: I think it is very much partly for the reasons you say that he is this touchstone that everyone can understand to some degree, that his name means something to everyone. So if you invoke Hamlet, even people who have never read or seen the play, they have a sense of what Hamlet looks like and what he's famous for.

BOGAEV: I think there's an element too of Shakespeare, everyone knows so much about the plays and there's so much work and scholarship on Shakespeare and we think we know a lot about Shakespeare, but in the end we know very little. And that mythic, mysterious element of Shakespeare, I think that gives a lot of room for writers to work, it's very inspiring.

BROWN: Yes, so I think one of the things that it does is allow people, as I suggested, to create a Shakespeare character that appeals to them. And because there's so little, or comparatively little documentary evidence about his life that all sorts of opportunities to put in new episodes, to create new explanations for what happened. So for example, Neil Gaiman in his graphic novel series The Sandman creates this story whereby Shakespeare made a bargain with the god Morpheus. He will be the greatest playwright, as long as he writes two plays that are particularly for the fairies, and the gods, and these are The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, those two most supernatural ones.

BOGAEV: Well, reading all of this work, has it changed your mind in any way about Shakespeare? Or any of the plays? Has it given you a different, completely different perspective on a play where you said, oh, wait a second, I’d never thought of it that way?

BROWN: I think one interesting point of connection which has perhaps given me a different lens through which to see one of the plays is a connection which has occurred to me through doing a bit of work on representations of AI, or artificial intelligence. And this made me think about why it is that Hamlet seems to lend itself particularly well to this aspect of science fiction. I think one reason might be that when you watch Hamlet or read Hamlet you get this sense that Hamlet is almost real, he almost seems to be stepping outside the play, or to be aware that he's a character in a play, and you almost feel that he is becoming a person. And I think it's that sort of poignant effect that of course we know isn't a real effect, which is quite similar to what we get when we are contemplating artificial intelligence, whether in life or literature, the sense that it, it could almost be real, it could acquire consciousness, it could suddenly develop an independent life. So that was one aspect of the project that made me perhaps look again at some of the possibilities in that play.

I think one other thing it's made me reflect on in Shakespeare is the way Shakespeare so often seems to be addressing future audiences or invoking the future. In Julius Caesar there's a reference to this story being acted many times in the future, in different countries and different languages, and that reflective touch lends itself well to being played around with by science fiction by science fiction writers. And then in the sonnets too, you get reflection on how people in the future will read his lines and find them clumsy or archaic, and I think that too has almost a science fictional quality about it. I'm really stretching perhaps the term “science fictional” but there are these intriguing little glimpses into the future that Shakespeare seems to want to give us in his plays.

BOGAEV: Oh that's lovely. And it's been lovely talking with you. Thank you so much.

BROWN: Thank you.


WITMORE: Sarah Annes Brown is a professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England and co-director of the university's Center for Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

"I Shall Tell You A Pretty Tale" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Pastor and Esther Ferington. We had help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Tracks West in Studio City, California, and Roger Chatterton at Kite Recording Studio in Cambridge, England.

If you've been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you'll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven't heard it, people who might enjoy it. We'd really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.