‘Our humble author will continue the story’: Shakespearean prequels and sequels

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Claudius (Craig Wallace, center), Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon, right), and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown). Gertrude (Kimberly Schraf) pictured in background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Folger Theatre, 2015. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Maybe ’twas ever thus, but the current crop of cultural programming in the theatre and on film and television is awash with prequels and sequels to existing stories and characters, providing audiences with comforting continuations of familiar narratives and critics with opportunities to decry the dearth of original ideas. So it seems only right to place the credit (and possibly the blame) for this trend right where it belongs — on William Shakespeare.

Almost half of Shakespeare’s first seven or eight plays (the exact order and chronology of which we can only guess at) were prequels or sequels. His saga of Henry VI — the play so nice he wrote it thrice — begins in the middle with Part 2 and is followed by Shakespeare’s first sequel (Part 3). But rather than immediately writing a second sequel in Richard III (which he would write a play or two later), Shakespeare decided instead to first write a prequel and create Part 1 to what became an epic three-part saga focusing on the Wars of the Roses.

There may have been artistic storytelling reasons for this — did Shakespeare know there would be three plays when he began? Did he know he was starting in the middle or did he figure it out as he went? — but, then as now, there was almost undoubtedly a commercial imperative. Henry VI was successful enough to justify continuing the saga, and the subsequent sequel and prequel helped establish the young playwright’s reputation. Combined with Richard III, the three parts of Henry VI form a tetralogy, a structure Shakespeare repeated with Richard II and its three sequels: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. Together (and sometimes separately) these two four-part cycles constitute the Henriad, and one can easily imagine them causing the same sort of box office excitement as the record-breaking Marvel superhero movies do now.

Shakespeare wasn’t the only playwright of his time writing sequels. Ben Jonson followed up his Every Man In His Humor with a far less popular sequel Every Man Out Of His Humor. John Fletcher wrote The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, a sequel to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio, now a widower after Kate has died, is ‘tamed’ by his second wife Maria. Shakespeare himself even wrote a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost called Love’s Labor’s Won — which is now lost.

But after discovering he had created what we would now call a ‘breakout character,’ Shakespeare wrote the Merry Wives of Windsor for Sir John Falstaff, a sequel to both parts of Henry IV that placed the popular rogue in a comical rather than historical setting. He even promised he’d do it: the Epilogue of the second part of Henry IV states, “Our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it,” but rather than continuing the tale of 15th-century political events, he plunks the character down in what feels like a contemporary 17th-century domestic setting. A great example of both showmanship and extending the narrative, Shakespeare set the template for franchising intellectual property and the “to be continued” promise in modern serialized storytelling.

Hamlet's Big Adventure - a prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet
Yorick (Chad Yarish), Hamlet (Reed Martin), and the King (Austin Tichenor) from the Reduced Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet’s Big Adventure! (a prequel).

Reinterpreting and adding to Shakespearean narratives certainly continues today. Novels like I, Iago by Nicole Galland and Fool by Christopher Moore; films like Ophelia (based on Lisa Klein’s novel); and Taylor Mac’s Broadway extravaganza Gary, a Sequel to Titus Andronicus all explore Shakespearean narratives and characters from new perspectives.  My own Hamlet’s Big Adventure! (a prequel), co-written with my Reduced Shakespeare Company partner Reed Martin, tries to answer the most important and fundamental questions raised in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, like:

  • How did Hamlet get his extensive knowledge of theatre?
  • Why is Ophelia’s mother not even mentioned in Shakespeare’s play?
  • Is ‘Polonius’ that character’s first name or last name?

Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, we wanted to write the comedy of the prince of Denmark, and we started by asking ourselves “What would it be like if Tom Stoppard wrote Muppet Babies?” The characters would be young, full of promise, intellectually curious, existentially fraught, and deeply, unapologetically, silly. (The show’s marketing tagline is, “Nothing is rotten. Yet.”) The story also became, somewhat surprisingly, genuinely moving as we see Hamlet interact with his father and Yorick the jester, both gloriously alive. Hamlet’s attraction to two father figures has a Hal-like tension while Ophelia’s love for her mother (and — spoiler alert — her ghost) resembles Hamlet’s story in Shakespeare’s original.

This is unabashed fan fiction, exploring beloved characters in new scenarios and pairing them up with other characters in fascinating and revealing juxtapositions. (Shakespeare may have yielded to a similar impulse when he imagined pairing the characters from Henry VI with Joan of Arc.) Novelist Michael Chabon, who writes new episodes of Star Trek, calls these impulses “the classic fan-fiction gesture: to find a hole in the quilt of canon, and patch it.” Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Porpoise, a retelling of Pericles for the Hogarth series of Shakespeare adaptations (themselves exquisite and literal examples of fan fiction), said in his Shakespeare Unlimited podcast interview that when readers ask him, “What happens next?” he replies, “That’s for you to write.”

Shakespeare created fascinating (and, 400 years later, thankfully public domain) material that invites further exploration and interaction. Those of us inspired by Tom Stoppard’s simple but mind-expanding observation “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else” (in the modern exemplar of reimagining Shakespeare Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) know that sequels and prequels are both tribute and homage to content creator and inventor of the tentpole media franchise William Shakespeare.