Fans debate at length about the first “true” instance of science fiction. I personally award this honor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it really depends on the traits you believe define science fiction—which, of course, is another argument entirely.
Scribes like Shelley, Jonathan Swift, and H.G. Wells are just a few of the contenders for the “Founder of Science Fiction” title. While said authors most certainly never thought of themselves as sci-fi writers at the time, their work helped lay the groundwork for the genre as we now know it.
And of the most iconic examples of the genre, many owe a clear debt to a dude born when most people still thought the Earth was the center of the Universe: William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s work has been re-mixed and re-told in innumerable science fiction stories. His plays have informed more than 30 episodes of Star Trek; works by renowned authors like Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov; and countless cyberpunk adaptations, including one project helmed by iconic comic creator Stan Lee.
The Bard also inspired a race of malevolent aliens in Doctor Who, provided the basis for umpteen alternate history novels, and appeared as a time traveler in way too many sci-fi shows. Some of his plays have even been published in “the original Klingon.” Nerd dedication knows no bounds.
It’s not surprising that Shakespeare surfaces so often in science fiction media—it’s hard to find a genre that isn’t influenced by his work. But The Bard’s influence runs far deeper than an amusing guest spot on a show about time travel.
The Tempest, thought by many to have been Shakespeare’s last play, made an undeniable impact on sci-fi. Shakespeare scholar A.D. Nuttall in his book Shakespeare the Thinker credited The Tempest as “inventing science fiction.” While Nuttall’s claim might be a stretch, the play inspired numerous sci-fi classics.
Perhaps most famously, The Tempest was the basis for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, in which the crew of Starship C-57D visits planet Altair IV in search of an expedition that crash-landed years ago. There, they encounter the Prospero-like Commander Edward Morbius, and his daughter Altaira, the sole survivors of the doomed initial expedition.
Forbidden Planet replaced Prospero’s magic with Morbius’ scientific knowledge, but it’s still recognizable as Shakespeare’s story. For instance, the character Robby the Robot—one of the first movie robots with a distinct personality—is an analog for The Tempest’s Ariel. The Robby the Robot character was later featured in other sci-fi movies and shows, permanently altering what audiences expected from on-screen robots.
Forbidden Planet has its own version of The Tempest’s Caliban, too. Many people connect The Monster of the Id, created when Morbius’ subconscious is made manifest, to the half-man, half-monster from Shakespeare’s play.
The Tempest also influenced Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel Brave New World, which takes its title from Miranda’s exclamation upon first seeing the men marooned on the island by the eponymous tempest: “Oh wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, that has such people in it. “ (Prospero is less impressed: “’Tis new to thee.”)
The play was also the basis for a Season 3 episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, “Requiem for Methuselah,” in which the Enterprise crew lands on a remote planet in search of a cure for Rigellian fever. More recently, science fiction writer Dan Simmons turned to The Tempest for his books Ilium and Olympos, which transport the play’s characters to a distant future.
Clearly, The Tempest provides sci-fi writers with plenty of inspirational raw material. The play’s exploration of identity, shot through the lens of not-quite-human characters like Ariel and Caliban, prefigured the ways in which androids and aliens are depicted in many science fiction narratives. What’s more, Prospero and Miranda arrive on the island after fleeing threats against their lives in Milan. Upon their arrival, the pair develop a fraught relationship with the native inhabitants of their new home. Science fiction often follows a similar narrative, in which humans flee a threatened or threatening Earth only to face ethical and personal dilemmas while colonizing a new land.
The Bard was born 21 years after Copernicus published his landmark text On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and there may be references in Shakespeare’s work to the cosmological sea change that occurred during his lifetime. Dan Falk, author of Science of Shakespeare, told The Smithsonian that during the Elizabethan era, science was shaking people’s perception of big-picture things like the heavens, or the concept of infinity.
In his book, Falk cites the work of Peter Usher, an astronomer who views Shakespeare’s canon through a scientific lens, and who interprets Hamlet as an allegory for the “cosmological worldviews” of Shakespeare’s time.
For instance, Usher argues that Hamlet’s Act 2 reference to himself as a “a king of infinite space” is an allusion to the infinite universe model proposed by Thomas Digges, and that Shakespeare set Hamlet in the real-life island castle of Elsinore in order to reference the nearby island castle on which astronomer Tycho Brahe conducted his research. Incredible as Usher’s interpretation of Hamlet might seem, Tycho Brahe’s actual coat of arms does reference his relatives “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren.” So, at the very least, Hamlet’s expendable buddies Rosencratz and Guildenstern might have been a nod to Tycho Brahe.
The figure of a misunderstood man, isolated on an island with only his intellect and a few select companions for company, is also, of course, reminiscent of The Tempest’s Prospero. And although Prospero is a sorcerer in the play, Forbidden Planet’s depiction of him as a scientist might not have been far off, given how scientists like Brahe were viewed in the Elizabethan era. As Falk told Scientific American, “Science, wizards, magicians, they were all kind of lumped together. This great thinker with special abilities on an island with people he’s commanding … that sounds like a description of either Tyco Brahe or Prospero in The Tempest.”
Whether or not Shakespeare was intentionally alluding to the influential scientists of his day is impossible to know. Faulk says that “as with the Bible, one can find anything in Shakespeare if one looks hard enough,” but that malleability doesn’t make the scientific Easter eggs in Shakespeare’s work any less interesting or compelling for modern day writers.
What we do know is that The Bard’s language and the themes he explored in his writing have left a lasting impression on science fiction, and will probably continue to influence sci-fi writers and creators so long as men can breathe, and eyes can see. Or, in Klingon, qaStaHvIS poH nI’ law’ laH, qatlh tlhuH loD joq laH vIleghmeH neH mInDu’.