Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Shakespeare as Fan Fiction

Travis D. Williams

Much Ado About Nothing

“Shipping” (from “relationship”) is a phenomenon within the wider culture of fan fiction that places characters (or the actors who play them) from a particular cultural world into a romantic relationship. Fan fiction derivative of brand “Shakespeare” supplements and rewrites his works to satisfy curiosity about what happened before, or after, or instead of the plays and poems we have. From Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, to Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, to Atwood’s Hag-Seed, to Sassy Gay Friend vignettes finding alternate lives for Lady Macbeth and Desdemona, a substantial sector of the Shakespeare industry has been what we might call fan fiction, be it high or low, admirable or absurd, enduring or ephemeral. But might Shakespeare’s works themselves be a site for fan fiction derivative on another sector entirely of the cultural landscape? I think so, and find Much Ado About Nothing to be fertile ground for such speculations.

Much Ado lends itself particularly to a kind of fan fiction that depends as well on what we might call “celebrity casting.” To be sure, casting an actor who has achieved fame from some work other than Shakespeare performance, or who returns to Shakespeare after finding even greater fame and fortune in some other area of mass and popular culture, is nothing new. Such casting attracts a larger audience than usual, and may tap into an audience that may not traditionally be frequent theatregoers. Much Ado encourages a specific kind of celebrity casting: two actors who have already been in some romantic or close relationship, or at least in the same cultural orbit, and who will now be thrown into the same dramatic petri dish, now as Beatrice and Benedick.

Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation is an archetype of shipping. He and Emma Thompson, playing Benedick and Beatrice, had been married since 1989 and had been celebrated in the British press as a power couple, having appeared together in several admired stage, television, and film productions, including Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, where they end up married as the King and Princess Catherine. The happy ending of Much Ado would not be prophetic for them, as they divorced in 1995. Alternately, Branagh and Thompson’s subsequent troubles could be read as a prediction of a rocky marriage for Beatrice and Benedick (since fan fiction can work in both directions: consider, for example, the continuations of Pride and Prejudice that predict a rocky marriage for Darcy and Elizabeth).

Even more apposite was director Josie Rourke’s spectacular production of Much Ado at Wyndham’s Theatre, London in 2011, starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. Tennant and Tate had starred as the Doctor and his companion Donna Noble from 2006 to 2010 in cult favorite Doctor Who. Though the Doctor and his companions have occasionally displayed romantic attractions for one another, Tennant’s Doctor and Tate’s Noble were a platonic pair, so all the more ripe for shipping. This was not even the first Shakespeare-inspired fan fiction for Tennant and Tate: in 2007, Tennant appeared as a teacher of Tate’s Lauren, an infamously stroppy teen from The Catherine Tate Show. Lauren goads the teacher as really the Doctor in disguise, frustrates a Shakespeare lesson, suddenly recites Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) extempore, and is finally shrunk to minuscule proportions by the teacher, who turns out to be the Doctor after all. Cult universes like Doctor Who (and Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.) are especially ripe for fan fiction because the enthusiasm they generate cannot generally be satisfied by staying within the confines of canonical texts. Writer, director, and producer Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and other cult shows, extended his “Whedonverse” with a 2012 film of Much Ado About Nothing that drew heavily for its casting from actors also featured in these shows. Beatrice, played by Amy Acker, and Benedick, played by Alexis Denisof, had already portrayed characters with a complicated romantic relationship in Angel (1999-2004). Much Ado could provide the Angel characters (through their actor alter egos) with the “happy” ending they could not enjoy in the television series.

These examples demonstrate how important an actor’s identity is to the conception of a character that might catch the imagination of an audience and lead to the creation of fan fiction and shipping. Imaginative slippage between “reality” and “make believe” are necessary for such fictions to operate, and should recall us to the perennial Shakespearean theme of how to understand the difference between what we see and what we think we see, what we want and what we need, and what is true and false, and what use any of these categories might be. Much Ado About Nothing is replete with such moments and provides us with ample opportunity to consider the ethical consequences of how we respond. Shakespeare even prompts us to create some fan fiction, should we need direction. If presented with “a husband that hath no beard,” Beatrice opines, “what should I do with him – dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman?” (2.1.25-27). Someone needs to write that script. That’s a show I want to see.

About The Author

Travis D. Williams

Travis D. Williams, Associate Professor of English and Department Chair at the University of Rhode Island, has written an updated introduction to the Cambridge University Press edi...

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