Shakespeare and science fiction

The relationship between Shakespeare and science fiction highlights many concerns of central importance, not just to literature but to the humanities more generally: the nature of creativity, religion and mythmaking, the relationship between the human and the posthuman, and the threats to the earth caused by war and environmental degradation.

My previous work on Shakespeare explored his debts to classical writers, in particular Ovid. But recently I’ve embarked on a new project investigating the relationship between Shakespeare and science fiction. This may at first seem an incongruous pairing. But science fiction writers have turned to Shakespeare since the genre’s earliest days.

In the plague-stricken twenty-first-century London of Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826) the narrator watches a production of Macbeth. Its horrors echo and amplify the anguish of the audience. The actor playing Ross describes how men ‘Expire before the flowers in their caps, Dying or ere they sicken.’ At this poignant reminder of the audience’s own likely fate ‘a shudder like the swift passing of an electric shock ran through the house.’

Nearly 200 years later, in yet another tale of plague and apocalypse, the survivors turn to Shakespeare once again. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, opens with a performance of King Lear in Toronto, just days before a killer virus strikes humanity. The action then jumps twenty years into the future, to a travelling company of Shakespearean actors who perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tiny scattered communities in North America.

Why do science fiction writers seem so drawn to Shakespeare and his works? One reason may be science fiction’s preoccupation with what it means to be human. Both as a chronicler of human nature and as a supreme example of human achievement, Shakespeare speaks to some of science fiction’s key concerns. His works are often used as a touchstone to gauge humanity’s progress or decline.

Station Eleven is a hopeful book because there is still a need for Shakespeare within its post-apocalyptic world. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, by contrast, the decline of humanity is signalled by the fact that his plays are now incomprehensible. In some science fiction texts this kind of Shakespeare ‘test’ is made still more explicit. The works of Shakespeare, their successful performance, are presented as having the power to convince alien races that our species is worth saving.

In the realm of science fiction, the words of the conspirator Cassius acquire a renewed prophetic charge.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
(Julius Caesar 3.1.112-4)

Cassius’ moment of speculation, his awareness that countries and languages are always changing although some things (such as the play he is part of) stay the same, is driven by the same impulses which have made so many want to write, read or watch science fiction.