Q&A with Annalisa Castaldo on Fictional Shakespeares

Q. What is the main argument presented in your book?

In Fictional Shakespeares I argue that often when someone creates a fictional version of Shakespeare, often that portrait is exploring, wholly or in part, what it means to be a genius. Defining genius, especially artistic genius, is a notoriously difficult and subjective task. One way to manage that task is to look at the life of a universally acknowledged genius—Shakespeare—and work backwards to a definition or at least a list of characteristics or traits. This isn’t the only reason people create fictional version of Shakespeare the person, but it is part of the portraits more often then not.

Q. Can you summarize what your book is about? What are its findings?

I looked at dozens of fictional versions of Shakespeare from shortly after his death to 2018, and found that they can be grouped into three categories. The first is Shakespeare as humanist. Shakespeare is a genius because he engages so completely and so openly with all kinds of humanity, and because he notices so much and values it all. The second version is the exact opposite—genius results in being cut off from humanity. Shakespeare is so invested in his creations that he is isolated, unloving, or even, in a few cases, insane. And finally is the idea that genius cannot be explained because it’s a gift from the gods, or at least a supernatural force.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

I was lucky enough to be asked to be the fiction editor for Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Popular Culture and Mass Media (published in 2007). While I collected adaptations of the plays, I kept running across works that brought Shakespeare himself “on stage” so to speak. Sometimes he showed up for just a few pages but often he was a major character. I became fascinated by the widespread desire to imagine what Shakespeare was like as a person, and how varied those conceptions were. I started to collect more and more examples and that’s how the book got started.

Q. What was the most surprising or exciting thing that you discovered during your research?

I never expected to take such a deep dive into the authorship controversy! It makes sense that if you think someone else wrote the plays, you’d want to tell the story of how that happened, and you’d want to include a version of Shakespeare that could never have been the genius behind works like Hamlet and The Tempest. I realized that the authorship controversy is the genius question writ large—if what we know about Shakespeare’s life is unsatisfying or contradicts what we think a genius is like, one solution is to reject the very idea that Shakespeare is the author.

Q. Do you have a favorite version of Shakespeare?

I enjoyed all the Shakespeares I met while writing this book. But if I have to pick just one, I’d have to go with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Aside from being an incredible work in it’s own right, The Sandman uses Shakespeare to explore the larger themes of identity, change, and regret in a beautiful and thoughtful way.

Q. What impact do you hope that this book will have?

I hope this work encourages people to think more deeply about how we portray authors, and why. And I hope that reading this work inspires at least one person to create their own version of Shakespeare

Q. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing a book on how magic on the early modern stage destabilizes gender. Questions of gender are a constant in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but there has not been much work done in how magical creatures, like the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and witches and wizards like Doctor Faustus play a part in this destabilization. 

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