We have organized the works under eight different character types, which appear across centuries and genres.
Breaking Bard: Shakespeare in fiction is rarely anything less than genial—in both senses of the word. The fictional Shakespeare may be a bit of a rake, and his relationships with his wife and with fellow playwrights have certainly inspired scenes of discord and rivalry. In other works, he may appear as a phony or a country bumpkin. But a truly malicious Shakespeare is hard to find. These few examples number among the very infrequent representations of the bard gone bad
Gentle Shakespeare: Ben Jonson first called his friend and sometime rival “Gentle Shakespeare” in his poem for the engraving in the First Folio, but other contemporaries used that adjective quite often as well. The men who first collected his plays, John Heminges and Henry Condell, refer to their “most gentle” Shakespeare, and in a work published posthumously, Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was “indeed, honest and of an open and free nature, with an excellent phantasy, brave notions and gentle expressions.” A play that appeared in his lifetime, (Return from Parnassus), teases him as “Sweet Mr Shakespeare.” Perhaps he was just a nice guy, and certainly fictional depictions often give us Sweet Will or Gentle Shakespeare.
Greatness Thrust Upon Him: No one seems to have doubted that William Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays and poetry until about 1845, when Delia Bacon, an American playwright, began to lecture on the possibility that his plays were the work of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon. Though often booed off the stage, she also found followers, who took up a variety of anti-Stratfordian theories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some of which persist today. Among those who have questioned Shakespeare’s authorship are Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Derek Jacobi. Particularly common in the fiction of Shakespeare-deniers are portraits of the playwright as a buffoon, a plagiarist, an oaf, or a devious scoundrel.
Not of an Age: Most early fictional Shakespeares are ghosts, but the desire to have him walk among us again has also led authors to introduce time travel into their stories. Though he cut the scene from the published story, H.G. Wells himself included a seventeenth-century scene in the original manuscript of The Time Machine. Since then, this avenue for encountering the Bard in his own times or in ours has inspired many a literary imagination.
Rare Talent: Artists and authors have attempted to portray the remarkable genius that was Shakespeare in various ways. The dedicatory poems of the First Folio acknowledged his prodigious talent, but as his reputation grew, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his genius was fictionalized as an almost supernatural power. A quick wit is often added to humanize his overpowering intellect.
Shakespeare in Love: Its course may not run smooth, but love plays a part in numerous fictional accounts of Shakespeare. Anne Hathaway is fodder for the taming of a shrew in some, and a devoted partner and source of inspiration in others. But there are other affections—a girl posing as a boy actor, the mysterious Dark Lady, the “lovely boy” and “master-mistress of his passion” from the sonnets, fellow playwrights, and even Queen Elizabeth herself.
Shakespeare’s Spirit: Shakespeare created some memorable ghosts (think Hamlet’s father or the ghost of Banquo), so it is no surprise to find his apparition in later fiction. Indeed, in literature before 1800, the fictional Shakespeare appears almost exclusively as a spirit. Most commonly, he takes the stage to offer a ghostly endorsement for productions of his own works. His spirit also has a critical side, lamenting newfangled plays and deflating the pretentions of bad actors.
Upon the Boards: Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright and influential member of the acting troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later, the King’s Men. It may be that he also served as a director or producer of plays at the Globe Theatre. The works in this section place him in all these roles within the historical backdrop of London’s theatrical world, as he struts and frets upon the fictional stage.