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Shakespeare and Sci-Fi Conference Report

By Powder Thompson, PhD candidate, Anglia Ruskin University

Anglia Ruskin University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy held a conference on Shakespeare and Science Fiction on 28 April 2018 in Cambridge. Papers on all aspects of the intersection between Shakespeare and science fiction were invited, and presenters ranged from creative writers to noted critics to researchers at all stages of their careers. The event was organised by Sarah Annes Brown, Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin, and was sponsored by the British Shakespeare Association.

Sarah Brown opened the conference with an informal paper, ‘Shakespeare and Time Travel’. Multiple versions of Shakespeare in popular culture, from television to books, were examined, most notably the Bard’s appearances on the internationally-popular Doctor Who. Brown ended on a thought that would form a common thread throughout the day: each generation or age creates its own idea or version of Shakespeare.

With that idea, however, comes the question, will Shakespeare remain relevant as the inexorable march of time places his works at a further and further remove? Many science fiction writers have pondered this, but their conclusions are mixed. On the one hand, Shakespeare is often included in works portraying the near and far future. However, the understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare does not always survive along with his words. Examples of this occurred in papers given by Berit Åström (Umeå University) and Margaret Maurer (University of North Carolina), specifically looking at Shakespeare’s presence in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, as well as Professor Peter Byrne’s (Kent State University) paper examining interpretations of Macbeth by the characters in the video game Fallout 4. The general consensus seemed to be that Shakespeare, when removed from cultural context (either by time or by an apocalyptic event), becomes absurd, rather than sacred.

That idea of the sacredness of Shakespeare, an idea that is strongly relevant in our current cultural context, feeds into another topic that recurred throughout the day: how Shakespeare is often used in the works that incorporate him or his plays to signal value, either of the new work or of certain characters in the story. In Station Eleven, for example, characters who enjoy or understand Shakespeare inevitably turn out to be good, and those who dislike or cannot appreciate Shakespeare are inevitably revealed as flawed in some way. Similarly, in many works of science fiction, Shakespeare is portrayed as the greatest of humanity, or the most human of humans. This is often the case in Doctor Who, as Brown noted. Philip Aijian (University of California, Irvine) extended the idea further in his examination of Shakespeare in the movie Star Trek VI, where Shakespeare can almost be read as standing in for a higher level of universal being-hood, a humanity that transcends species. ‘You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.’

Also engaging with ideas of sacredness and humanity was keynote speaker Roger Christofides (University of Liverpool) in his paper ‘In the face of the fabulous new: Hamlet in the uncanny valley’. Christofides suggested the nonhuman parts of Hamlet were ‘revisiting spectres’, once-human things that, with their humanity stripped away, nonetheless still allow us to see our humanity therein. Using the analogy of Yorick’s skull as a classical memento mori, and the fleshless Terminator endoskeleton as an artificial equivalent, Christofides also argued that if Yorick’s skull signifies the Christian Judgement, the Terminator’s skull signifies the coming technological apocalypse. ‘In the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it.’

The keynote paper marked the midpoint of the conference day. After a break for lunch, the event resumed with a panel of two papers that both touched on another common theme of the day: repurposing or rereading Shakespeare. Further, that idea of repurposing or rereading was itself a part of a larger current of interest in the various ways Shakespeare is used in science fiction.

Sarah Waters (Oxford Brookes) examined C. S. Lewis’ use of Shakespeare, noting the author’s repeated engagement with and rereadings of The Tempest. Lauren Rohrs (Notre Dame University), joined the conference via Skype, and laid out the clear and convincing parallels between Lavinia of Titus Andronicus and Emilio Sandoz of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Each of these papers engaged with a different mode of repurposing Shakespeare. The first was more concerned with an essentially literary, or scholarly, engagement with Shakespeare, the second with purposeful borrowing to make a point regarding modern treatment of rape survivors.

More direct usages of Shakespearean material were explored by Powder Thompson (Anglia Ruskin University) who examined those characters in Disney’s Gargoyles which were taken directly from Shakespeare (Titania, Macbeth, and Oberon all make regular appearances). By contrast, independent scholar Steven Sautter noted in ‘The Tempest and the Time Lord’ that a number of science fictional works come by their Shakespearean influences secondhand. Forbidden Planet and Brave New World are both directly indebted to Shakespeare, but a much larger number of works are indebted to them, and the Shakespearean influence passed on indirectly.

Copies of copies tend to lose definition, and this analogy extends to Shakespeare as well. Both Kinga Földváry (Pázmány Péter Catholic University) and Ronan Hatfull (University of Warwick) looked closely at what Hatfull referred to as ‘fragments of Shakespearean dust’ in modern cinematic works. Földváry explored the scattered pieces of Shakespearean dialogue appearing throughout Westworld and concluded the repurposing here was a usage without any kind of deep textual awareness. Lines were stripped of their original dramatic context and a new meaning was applied, but the act was one of appropriation or textual poaching, rather than one of additive meaning.

Hatfull’s examination of the presence of the Shakespearean in the Marvel Cinematic Universe extended to production detail, exploring the choice of actors and directors known for their work with Shakespeare and what their experience of the Bard brought to different movies. Thor was a notable example, with its heightened dialogue and the cinematic direction of Kenneth Branagh.

Closing remarks were given by John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Clute made a point of Shakespeare’s unique emplacedness, and highlighted the different modes of writing Shakespeare employed throughout his career. Clute criticised the trend towards more superficial uses of Shakespeare in works of modern science fiction and called for deeper readings and critical engagement.

A wine and canape reception followed the closing remarks. Conference delegates continued discussion and engagement with the ideas presented throughout the day. All in all, it seems that all’s well that ends well. Many thanks to the BSA for their help with funding this event!


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