“Painter’s art”: Biofictional perspectives on Shakespeare

Austin Tichenor as William Shakespeare
Austin Tichenor as William Shakespeare in William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), Folger Theatre, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Depictions of William Shakespeare in fictional works are animated by the same impulse behind fanfiction — to fill in the blanks of the story — and such imaginative speculation can help us understand Shakespeare’s life in a richer, possibly more responsible way than standard biography.

Biofiction places a real person into a fictional narrative, and when that real person is William Shakespeare, the narratives can take surprising forms. The most well-known example is probably Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning film that imagines the young playwright in London, estranged from his wife in Stratford and finding his muse in the form of a cross-dressing woman named Viola who inspires both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. But he also appears in the 2015 British comedy film Bill as a struggling wannabe actor who gets kicked out of his Elizabethan boy-band (named Mortal Coil) for rocking out on too many extended lute solos.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, on the other hand, depicts the playwright without ever mentioning his name, only identifying him by his relationships to his family members. O’Farrell imagines Shakespeare’s wife (here named Agnes, as Anne Hathaway was identified in her father’s will) as very much his equal, both in how distant she feels from her parents and in her own inexplicable creative and interpretive powers. Subtitled A Novel of the Plague, the novel also creates a wonderfully palpable sense of the 16th-century world surrounding Shakespeare and how it impacted the young playwright.

In a more comic vein, my contribution to the biofiction genre was to turn Shakespeare into the deus ex machina of his own maiden effort as a playwright in William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) (co-written by Reed Martin). We imagined Will to be seventeen when he wrote his first play, bursting with genius but still a neophyte in terms of craft, who in his youth and inexperience crammed every character who would later populate his entire canon into a single, unproduceable, 100-hour epic. As he explains, “I wrote myself into a corner, so / I wrote myself into the play to get / Myself out of it.” Once he realizes this, we watch the young-but-rapidly-maturing playwright discover in real-time the impracticality and danger of what he’s created.

As much as we reference Shakespeare’s genius in Long Lost Shakes, I hope that in our jokey way we’re really celebrating the great dramatic poet’s craft: the craft of a writer who was also an actor and businessman writing for a specific company of players, and who famously borrowed plots and characters from Holinshed, Plutarch, and others, taking what he needed and changing whatever he wanted.

But as Shakespeare is our Holinshed and Plutarch, we emulate him by taking what’s useful from both his work and his life and leaving the rest. For Long Lost Shakes, we embraced the greatness of fanfiction by matching up Shakespeare’s characters with different characters in the canon to exploit the comic possibilities of these new combinations. But by also making Shakespeare a character in his own first play, we ventured into the specific subset of biofiction, dramatizing the reality that authors are always present in their work, and, by showing the choices Shakespeare didn’t make, hopefully shining light on the ones he did.

Nobody’s under any illusion that these four examples tell us what actually happened in Shakespeare’s life, but they offer ways of understanding his life as a writer (and actor and husband and father and lover) in ways that standard criticism can’t — and maybe shouldn’t.

Though biofiction may be relatively new as a field of study, when it comes to Shakespeare it’s been practiced by scholars almost as much as by novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters. Earlier this month the topic was discussed at the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA)’s annual conference during the “Shakespearean Biofiction on the Stage and Screen” seminar — convened and moderated by Ronan Hatfull, University of Warwick, and Edel Semple from University College Cork. In her SAA paper, “Father Shakespeare: Grieving for Hamnet on Stage and Screen,” Katherine Scheil examined the death of Shakespeare’s son in 1596 “as a seminal moment in Shakespeare’s life story” in biography as well as biofiction. She cites Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World as just one example of the “highly speculative fantasy” of what Shakespeare “must have” done or “presumably” and “undoubtedly” did while attending Hamnet’s funeral, despite there being zero evidence he did any such thing. It’s undoubtedly (!) true that Greenblatt’s novelistic flourishes are partly responsible for the deserved popularity of Will in the World, but they’re easier to forgive in clearly fictional works.

Reed Martin and I called satirical attention to this kind of academic speculation in our faux-scholarly book Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (abridged) (2005), when we wrote:

“Not knowing much about Shakespeare’s life hasn’t stopped everyone from cashing in, filling in the blanks with scholarly supposition when they can, and simply making it up when they can’t. It’s a shocking record, and we’re proud to be part of it.”

As Jessica McCall and Kavita Mudan Finn argue in the academic journal Critical Survey, fanfiction “offers an alternative form of both close reading and contextual criticism when applied to pre-modern writers” (emphasis theirs) and the same applies to biofiction. When it comes to understanding historical figures like William Shakespeare, it might be better if authors of biofiction rush in where mere biographers should rightly fear to tread.


Adapted from “My Will: Patching the Quilt of Shakespeare’s Life in William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged),” presented at the Shakespeare Association of America seminar “Shakespearean Biofiction on the Stage and Screen,” April 3, 2021.