Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Referring to the Ides of March as ‘one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines’ is a bit like talking about ‘one of Lionel Messi‘s most amazing goals’ or ‘one of Paul McCartney‘s most catchy tunes’. The phrase ‘spoilt for choice’ springs to mind . . .
Nevertheless, ‘Beware the Ides of March’ is indeed one of English literature’s most famous lines – and an important one for SF and fantasy readers as it epitomises William Shakespeare‘s place as one of the earliest, and greatest, genre writers. Am I mad? Quite possibly, but not because of this. If the argument for William Shakespeare being a genre author might be a little thin, the argument for him being an author of genre works is irrefutable.
The fate of Julius Caesar, despite the apparent prophecy above, can be easily explained by logical means. The streets of ancient Rome were littered with soothsayers, madmen and cultists and for one of them to finally get it right can be considered almost a statistical inevitability. Likewise the appearance of the comet; humans have evolved to recognise patterns – or to impose patterns if none can be found – and if people are looking for portents or signs, they’re easily found (especially in hindsight). No, the fate of Caesar is the product of politics not prophecy.
Similarly, the ghost in Hamlet can be explained as a manifestation of the prince’s grief and suspicions about his uncle. Or, perhaps, as a symptom of his insanity – or pretended insanity (‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’ Kurt Vonnegut). Although we can (very reasonably) interpret Hamlet has carrying supernatural elements, a critic determined to show it as mimetic fiction could do so with very little effort. Mundane readings of The Tempest, are also possible without stretching credulity too far (though not, perhaps, of its more famous sequel, Forbidden Planet).
But then there’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reclassify that one, Margaret! No talking squids in outer space, but fairies and magic aplenty. 100% solid fantasy. And, of course, Macbeth.
Ah, Macbeth! This is the one that, to my mind, really nails the Bard’s credentials as a writer of top-notch fantastic fiction. For while we can easily dismiss phantom blades and invisible bloodstains as the product of fevered minds and guilty consciences, there’s no getting away from the prophecy. Macbeth may be a ruthless opportunist and Lady Macbeth an ambitious kingmaker, and both may seize their chances with relish, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the entire process is put in train by the witches’ prophecy:
First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
To be followed shortly by:
MACBETH: Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.
And that, right there, is the scene without which this story cannot unfold. You can argue about daggers of the mind all you like, but without this prophecy, delivered by three witches, who are identified as such – and promptly vanish into thin air – Macbeth would not have been tempted to take the throne.
I’m sure there are many whose knowledge of Shakespeare is vastly superior to mine, who would disagree, but I’m nailing my colours to the mast: William Shakespeare. Fantasy writer. Fact.