There’s a weird moment near the end of Shakespeare’s most realist and domestic comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, when the plot to expose Falstaff’s failed sexual exploits gets all “Midsummer Nights” dreamy. Suddenly, there’s an enchanted oak tree which is haunted by fairies and a monstrous figure of Herne the Hunter. It’s all a kind of prank at Falstaff’s expense, of course, but it hinges on the fat knight thinking it’s real, and for a few minutes the play feels like its moved into an entirely different genre. The reality of Windsor’s small town doings gives way to the stuff of Puck, Oberon and Titania. It’s as if Shakespeare has gotten frustrated by the mundane, prosaic world of the play and needs to find a little whimsy, even if he will finally pull the rug out from under the fairies and show that it’s all just boys with tapers and costumes.
Until that final act, Merry Wives had been the closest Shakespeare came to writing the kind of drama penned by his friend and colleague Ben Jonson, whose most successful plays were expressly urban, satirical and contemporary. The point at which Merry Wives wanders off into the woods says a lot about the difference between the two writers and how they were esteemed by their culture at the time. Jonson was brilliantly bitter in his humor, particularly in how he exposed social pretension and religious hypocrisy. He was also a classicist, a man deeply committed to the models of art established by the ancients, and he wore his learning on his sleeve.
Indeed, in his dedicatory poem penned for the 1623 folio (the first [almost] complete works of Shakespeare published seven years after the author’s death), Jonson can’t resist backhandedly praising Shakespeare for his genius despite his having “small Latin and less Greek.” The implication—one picked up by other critics for the next couple of centuries—was that Shakespeare was a naturally talented but unstudied writer whose magical forays was a sign of his limited rural roots. For those around him who viewed art in terms of learning and adherence to rules of form and propriety, this was a problem, and when his near-contemporaries were critical of Shakespeare they frequently targeted his fanciful imagination and natural wildness as literary flaws. In 1630, Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare “was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped” (my emphasis). Jonson saw Shakespeare’s gift as something which needed controlling, reining in.
Other scholars less persnickety than Jonson praised Shakespeare but felt they had to explain his speculative inclinations and lack of learning. John Dryden observed that Shakespeare “needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look’d inwards, and found her there,” and Milton spoke of Shakespeare as “Fancy’s child” who would “warble his native wood-notes wild.” That fanciful wildness led Voltaire, in typically neoclassical French mode, to complain that Shakespeare “had a genius full of strength and fertility, natural and without any spark of good taste and any knowledge of the rules. …there are such beautiful scenes, such great and at the same time so terrible pieces widespread in his monstrous farces which go by the name of tragedies.” In other words, Shakespeare was too geeky and yet also insufficiently nerdy.
By “geeky” I mean that Shakespeare was an enthusiastic fantasist who didn’t so much run with what his imagination generated but positively geeked out on the wild, the supernatural and the strange. But he wasn’t a proper “nerd.” Jonson, by contrast, was a nerd to the bone, prone to a kind of seventeenth century man-splaining by way of his extensive classical learning. Theatrically, of course, that could be disastrous, and Jonson came to loathe the tyranny of public opinion which shot down some of the plays of which he was most proud. Still, it’s worth remembering that Shakespeare’s homespun fantasy was not always appreciated in his own time. The diarist Samuel Pepys, for instance, felt comfortable dismissing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1662 as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.” Much of the subsequent critical response treated Shakespeare’s fantastical elements as best ignored compared to Shakespeare’s “more serious” matters of character, philosophy and social commentary. But one of the great critics of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, who was not above criticizing Shakespeare’s work for what he found shocking in it, still recognized that the wildness and imaginative scale of that work outstripped the more restrained and rational drama of his own period, comparing the two in an appropriately nature-inspired metaphor:
“The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity.”
The literary establishment’s skepticism about the fantastic is a recurring theme through history, of course, as is evidenced by Tolkien’s frustration over academia’s refusal to talk about the monsters in Beowulf as monsters, so one can be forgiven for forgetting just how central the fantastic and outlandish is to Shakespeare. Consider some of the elements that don’t sit well in the kind of “serious” realist fiction which dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and stand amazed at how frequent and central they are to Shakespeare’s plays. To begin with the obvious ones, there’s the spirits and wizardry of The Tempest, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the prophetic witches of Macbeth, and providential interferences in the late romances Pericles and Cymbeline (the latter of which includes Jupiter descending from the heavens on an eagle). There’s Mercutio’s lengthy digression on the dream fairy, Queen Mab—clearly more a product of Shakespeare’s own rural Warwickshire than the urban Verona which is Romeo and Juliet’s setting. Otherwise realist plays hinge on ghosts, not just Macbeth, but also Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Richard III. Shakespeare also blurs the edges of reality with events that feel supernatural even when there’s a conventional explanation, such as in Merry Wives. The most extreme instance is the statue of the sixteen-year dead Hermione, which comes to life at the end of The Winter’s Tale. The play offers just enough explanation to suggest that it’s possible that she never really died and has been in hiding in the interim, but the moment feels magical, possibly because that aforementioned providential interference has stamped the whole story. This is, after all, the play which features Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: a character exits “pursued by a bear.” That sense of strangeness—things just about possible but odd and unsettling—is a hallmark of Shakespeare in ways that separate him from his contemporaries.
It is this Shakespeare that lives on in spec fic and visual media. As one of the fonts of Western fantasy, he is the one who insists upon that which is most crucial to the form: that tweaking reality, pushing it so that story floats free of the limitations of realism in no way lessens the writer’s reach in matters of character, theme, political, religious or other “serious” resonance. Fantasy easily coexists with the richest of sentence-level writing, the most penetrating character analysis, and the most provocative thinking. Or at least it can. Shakespeare, I think, serves as a model, something for fantasy writers to aspire to, and his undeniable achievement should make it a little easier for the rest of us to embrace our inner geek in the pursuit of artistic excellence and stand up for fancy.
This post was originally published in June 2016 as part of Tor.com’s series of essays on Shakespeare.
A.J. Hartley is the bestselling author of a dozen novels including Sekret Machines: Chasing Shadows (co-authored with Tom DeLonge) and the YA fantasy adventure Steeplejack, available from Tor Teen. As Andrew James Hartley he is also UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare, specializing in performance theory and practice, and is the author of various scholarly books and articles from the world’s best academic publishers including Palgrave and Cambridge University Press. He is an honorary fellow of the University of Central Lancashire, UK.