Shakespearean Fan Fiction

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Shakespeare’s rising importance in the 18th century coincided with the growing popularity of the novel. Both Shakespeare and novels were valued for focusing on individual, seemingly naturalistic characters and their ways of thinking and changing in response to events. Shakespeare’s dramatic characters were often – sometimes improbably – described as so naturalistic as to seem real.

Shakespeare the character: With cultural fascination with the development of individuals and with Shakespeare as a master writer came interest in knowing more about Shakespeare’s life and imagining his characters’ lives more fully. At this time, editors and devoted readers started tracking down documents that shed light on Shakespeare’s biography. Yet the surviving biographical details these documents uncovered were often scanty and unremarkable – or even disappointing. For example, instead of revealing a writer who recognized his own timeless genius and pursued it to its limit, they failed to turn up evidence that Shakespeare ever took steps to publish his plays. In fact, they showed that Shakespeare retired relatively early from the theater. He returned to Stratford, his home town, spending his time acquiring property and suing his neighbors for small debts to build up his estate. Such behavior didn’t fit with a novelistic view of Shakespeare as a born poet. Nor did it fit with the assumption that a writer so gifted in depicting virtue and sin would be supremely virtuous and high-minded himself.

Improved biography: Desire for a more colorful Shakespearean biography that would befit the heights of English admiration for Shakespeare as an author meant that fictional stories soon filled in and ornamented the blanks in Shakespeare’s life. As early as the 17th century, provocative new stories of Shakespeare’s “wild” youth circulated – for example, that he had been caught and beaten for poaching deer. Another story depicted young Shakespeare as making tragic speeches before slaughtering calves for his father, a glovemaker. This story was far from likely: slaughtering animals was not part of a glovemaker’s work. But the story satisfied, because it depicted Shakespeare as born to the vocation of dramatist.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw more elaborate fictions, such as those you may link to in this section. They imagine Shakespeare’s rise as a playwright or his kindly (and not acquisitive) adulthood, mined his Sonnets for information about the (presumed) real-world “fair youth” who is the Sonnets’ love object, or vividly evoked the childhood of his female characters. The longing to know – and like – the “real” Shakespeare continues into the present, in movies like “Shakespeare in Love” and in fiction featuring Shakespeare.