The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

William Shakespeare was the J.J. Abrams of his day, reinvigorating Elizabethan England's worn-out action-adventure franchises. And Shakespeare's writing still has clues for today's story-smiths. Characters who switch from nice to nasty? Secret passions? Strange disguises? The Bard got there first.

There's a reason actors are so juiced up to do Shakespeare, besides the fancy speeches and the prestige: Shakespeare does tricky character arcs and memorable people. And whenever you watch something like Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Star Wars or Star Trek giving you a character who goes through a drastic transformation or a serious conflict, you're watching little chunks of unresolved Shakespeare. (Of course, a lot of these things go back to Sophocles, and probably the first cavewoman to stage playlets around the fire pit.)

I freely admit that some of these narrative tricks may require a writer of Shakespeare's caliber to pull them off. And Shakespeare gets away with a lot of stuff using the aforementioned amazing language. But even if you're not one of the greatest living poets (and masters of dialogue and scene-setting), you can still glean a few hints from these Shakespearean achievements. (Oh, and I know that Shakespearean scholars have spent billions of person-hours discussing these topics, and I'm barely going to scratch the surface. Please don't go all Greenblatt on me if I overstep here!)

Heroes who go to the dark side.

One whole branch of Shakespeare's plays is devoted to tragedies, which often tend to involve a noble person who goes all to hell because he (usually it's a he) has an Aristotelian flaw, or just a chain of rotten events. And this seems to be one of the things that science fiction tries to do most often, and does the most badly. TV shows, movies, and books often try to depict a nice person who goes bad — Heroes did it with almost every one of its characters at one point during season three — and it often feels like someone flipped a switch.

So how does Shakespeare do it? One thing he doesn't do is try to over-analyze people's passions — he lets us glimpse where they come from, just a bit, and gives us some lovely couplets describing them. But the passions are passions. Famously, in As You Like It, Oliver describes his hatred for his brother Orlando thusly: "For my soul, yet I know not why/hates nothing more than he." And that's all you get. "I know not why." Whether it's Othello's jealousy, Claudio's slut-horror in Much Ado About Nothing, or Richard III's ambition, Shakespeare examines passions and exposes them to as many shafts of light as he can — but he doesn't necessarily delve into etiology.

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

What would Shakespeare do with poor Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi knight who becomes Darth Vader? Maybe find a baser passion to drive him. Thinking about Shakespeare's great heroes who go bad, there's frequently a kind of sexual horror or undying hatred driving them. Shakespeare has a gift for the lurid description of sex panic: In Winter's Tale, Leontes talks about his wife being "sluic'd" when he describes her being unfaithful, and in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio describes the supposedly slutty maiden Hero as a "rotten orange." And hatred — Tybalt's hatred of the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet, Oliver's hatred in As You Like It, is a long-burning passion. Anger may cause you to make some grievous mistakes (like Lear in King Lear) but hatred and willfulness last longer and burn worse.

In terms of Star Wars, maybe anger doesn't lead to the Dark Side after all, because it's hard to show anger being sustained for a long time. Sure, fear turns to anger, but then anger turns to remorse, or maybe confusion.

If you really want to show a noble hero losing all his scruples and becoming a bastard, Shakespeare suggests, first show him enjoying the admiration and trust of all his fellows. (Which is something we never really got to see much of, with Anakin in the prequels.) And show him being generous and kind — then show insecurity (from jealousy or hatred) eating away at him slowly, over time. Maybe you need someone like Iago (in Othello) to be the voice of that insecurity — or maybe it can just be internalized. But we have to see both the nobility and its loss, in visceral terms.

The war criminal repents.

I always thought Gaius Baltar was doing some kind of Macbeth riff, until he turned into a robe-wearing cult leader in Battlestar Galactica's final season. You have Baltar responsible for crimes that make killing King Duncan seem like a misdemeanor, and the whole time the ghost of Caprica Six is whispering in his ear about how he's destined for greatness, like a virtual Lady Macbeth.

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

Here's Head Six talking to Baltar in a couple of different season two episodes:

Be a man. Whatever else you are, you are that. The time is coming when you'll have to act like one...
In some ways you never were [one of the humans]. You have a path, you will be spared their fate. For once, Gaius, you can stop manipulating the world and let destiny take its course. If there's one thing we know about human beings with certainty... they are masters of self destruction.

(And then after Baltar kills the lieutenant, she tells him he's a man after all.)

And here's Lady Macbeth talking to her husband about killing Duncan:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Baltar fell apart, for me, when he failed to bring the full Macbeth — he had the ambition, the horror and a hint of the descent into madness, but it never quite gelled. Maybe because Macbeth's story ends with his downfall and we never got that with Baltar? Or maybe because unlike Macbeth, I never really bought Baltar's remorse, except for that one moment on the Cylon basestar where he confesses everything to Roslin.

Actually, the single most Shakespearean character in science fiction right now, for my money, is Dollhouse's Topher Brink. And not just because he often seems to be speaking in a kind of bastardized Iambic pentameter, but also because he's an unholy fusion of Malvolio, Lear's fool... and Macbeth. (The "Macbeth" part, I'm mostly thinking about Topher's cringing excursion into madness in "Epitaph One," the unaired season one finale which you can see on the DVD box set or itunes — it's a lovely mixture of Malvolio falling apart in his lunatic cell, and Macbeth grieving for the king he murdered.)

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

Topher has the weird witticisms, the facility for commenting on everything around him in a way that shows how funny it all is from one angle, and yet how grotesque it all is from another. And yet he's completely unconscious of his own arrogance, and hence of his own limitations, and is easily led astray. Watch the unaired pilot and the unaired season finale back to back, and tell me you don't see a Malvolio/Macbeth thing going on there. Really. Seeing further stops on Topher's journey from a fool's heaven to a monster's hell, in Dollhouse season two, is one of the prospects that gives me hope for the future of television.

The young jackass who becomes a great hero

This was the major weak spot of the latest Star Trek movie for me, and it's something that Shakespeare positively invented with the story of Harry Monmouth aka Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V, in Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V.

(And OMG the cliffhanger between Henry IV part one and Henry IV part two, when their spaceship is about to crash into the artificially intelligent supernova, and they're grappling over whether to wake Henry VI from hypersleep early and risk a systems cascade? It is so epic. Sorry, couldn't resist.)

But actually, kidding aside, the story of Harry is pretty epic — he starts out as the wastrel prince, who just wants to get drunk and get into mischief with the hilariously crude Sir John Falstaff. Meanwhile, his dad, Henry IV, is basically just a walking ulcer, as he grapples with a nasty bunch of rebels (there are always rebels.) These particular malcontents have their own Harry — Harry Percy, aka Hotspur, who's every bit the swashbuckling fighter that Prince Harry isn't. Finally, at the end of part one, Prince Harry steps up and fights the rebels, killing Hotspur in battle and starting the business of proving himself. (But he lets Falstaff claim credit for the kill, because he still doesn't really care that much.)

So how does the unworthy Prince Harry become the conquering King Henry? Shakespeake kind of cheats, in a good way. Harry disappears for a big chunk of Henry IV Part 2 — from Act II, scene 2, to Act IV, scene 5. Before that absence, he's briefly seen to be troubled by the fact that if anyone saw him weeping for his father's illness, they would think him a hypocrite because he's been such a lewd scoundrel, running around town with Falstaff and the gang:

PRINCE HENRY: But I tell
thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so
sick: and keeping such vile company as thou art
hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.
POINS The reason?
PRINCE HENRY What wouldst thou think of me, if I should weep?
POINS I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
PRINCE HENRY It would be every man's thought; and thou art a
blessed fellow to think as every man thinks: never
a man's thought in the world keeps the road-way
better than thine: every man would think me an
hypocrite indeed. And what accites your most
worshipful thought to think so?
POINS Why, because you have been so lewd and so much
engraffed to Falstaff.
PRINCE HENRY And to thee.

And then Henry vanishes for the better part of three acts, and suddenly he's talking about the "noble change" he purposes. (And he has a wacky misunderstanding with his dying father, where he takes the crown off his dad's head before he's actually died, but it brings them closer together in the end.)

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

The point is, we sort of know that Henry's been working through a lot of stuff during those three acts — we just didn't have to see it. We see the beginning, and we see the end. And the scene with Henry almost taking his father's crown shows us just how ambivalently he feels about the throne, which Henry senior won by unseating Richard II and which Henry junior is going to have to spill tons of blood to hang on.

In a sense, J.J. Abrams attempts a similar thing (or rather, screenwriters Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof do) in Star Trek, when we jump forward through three years of James Kirk at the academy. But we don't really get a sense of that time passing — it's just a cue card — and Kirk appears to be exactly the same Harry-ish rake at the end of that time as he was at the beginning. Over the course of Trek, we see Kirk graduate from cadet to captain, but he doesn't ever have that kind of moment where he thinks "People would think I was a hypocrite if I showed that I care about stuff."

It takes a lot of courage to make a major character vanish for an hour (I'm guessing it's about an hour, I've never actually seen part 2 staged) and this may be partly an act of desperation on Shakespeare's part. But it actually works because we believe he's done some thinking. Imagine, instead, if Shakespeare had given us a half dozen more scenes where Harry processed the same feelings over again.

What would Shakespeare have done with John Connor, the prophesized future leader of the resistance against Skynet? There have been plenty of incarnations of Connor over the years, but they've all shared a certain ambivalence in the face of their future leadership role. The TV show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles did a masterful job of showing this, with scenes where Derek Reese tells John Connor that everyone in the future dies for him, and lots of conversations with Summer Glau's Terminator about "Future John" and what "Future John" would do. The most recent two films, likewise, have shown John Connor's struggle to become THE John Connor — with varying levels of effectiveness. (Shouting your name doesn't prove that you're living up to it.)

I think maybe if you kidnapped Shakespeare from the 16th century and plunked him down at Warner Bros. and put a gun to his head to get him to write Terminator 5, he would probably make John Connor closer to the Edward Furlong incarnation — a bit of a snotnosed kid, with an attitude. Someone whose first response to having a pet Terminator is to make it stand on its leg and bully a bunch of punks, instead of freaking out the way any sensible person would. The fun part would be seeing John Connor pull crazy heists or loopy scams — all in the name of stopping Skynet, of course — and experimenting with drugs and booze, before finally starting to act like a leader instead of a maniac. (I guess Connor did get into some pretty heavy drugs in T3, but I've blotted it out of my memory.)

The old leader, who's been forgotten or cast aside.

This is sort of a side note, actually — but I really wish we'd gotten to see Jean-Luc Picard as King Lear. We got a whole movie of Picard as Ahab, in Star Trek: First Contact, and it was sort of fun, if a bit obvious. (And Picard was only ever going to be Star Trek's second best Ahab, for obvious reasons.)

But Patrick Stewart could have totally owned the "Captain Lear" thing, and it would have been the perfect motif to insert, in one of his last movies in the role.

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

We did get a smidgen of Picard as an old man whom nobody listens to any more, due to his dementia, in the final Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "All Good Things." But we didn't get full-on "more sinned against than sinning" Picard, and it often makes me sad.

The shadowy manipulator

I feel like science fiction (and fantasy, maybe even more so) is full of Prospero-type figures — older people who secretly manipulate events and treat other characters like chess pieces. This makes sense, since Prospero, along with his more trickstery fairie counterpart Oberon, is one of the few overtly fantasy-ish characters in Shakespeare. (They're major characters in, respectively, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream.) Here's Sir John Gielgud doing a loopy Prospero in Peter Greenaway's 1991 movie Prospero's Books (skip to about 5:00 for some Prospero goodness):

It's actually weird to think of Prospero and Oberon being similar, since they're such opposites — Prospero is a bitter old man, seeking revenge for abuses in his youth, Oberon is young and vital and just wants to teach Queen Titania a lesson — but in a weird way, they are. They're both tricksters who use magic to get their own way, and who sweep people up in their magical intrigues. And in the end, they both relent — with Prospero even abjuring his rough magic and breaking his staff. (An example of a Shakespearean manipulator who doesn't use magic is the Duke in Measure For Measure, who feels, honestly, a bit creepy and random in the devious wheel-spinning he goes through to expose the fact that Angelo is not a nice person. Measure For Measure is basically just a play about entrapment, though.)

Like I said, science fiction and fantasy are full of these trickster/manipulator figures, who can see several moves ahead of everyone else. Like many fans, I often feel like the Doctor, the time-traveling hero of the BBC's Doctor Who, is at his absolute best when he's channeling Prospero, rather than Hamlet. (Although even Hamlet is a bit of a manipulator, with his whole "putting on a play to freak out my uncle and prove his guilt" schtick.)

The Shakespearean Heroes Science Fiction Should Steal From

David Tennant, the current (until December) star of Doctor Who, took some time off to star in Hamlet — but his Doctor has often been a bit of a Prospero, cooking up schemes that only he can see working, until they suddenly come to fruition. Like in "The Last Of The Time Lords," where the Doctor sends off Martha on a seemingly ridiculous quest to wander the Earth and find bits of a magic gun — but then it turns out she's actually spreading a message, to enough people to allow the Doctor to turn the Master's own mind-control satellite against him. It sort of makes sense for a time traveler to be three jumps ahead of everyone else — even other time-travelers, but it's especially fun when Tennant sells it.

The pinnacle of the Doctor-as-Prospero, of course, was the late 1980s reign of Sylvester McCoy, who evolved into a dark, muttering warlock who plays super-complex chess games (literally, in the case of "Curse Of Fenric") with unimaginable evils. You never quite knew what McCoy's Doctor was up to, as he bobbed in and out of scenes and scowled at the peeling sets — until he pulled a miraculous victory out of nowhere.

Consider this a plea for more Prosperos, more shadow stage-managers, in science fiction — especially troubled ones, who repent and break their staffs at the end.

Okay, so I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of Shakespeare's brilliant characterization in this post, but at least I've managed to touch on some of the more interesting character arcs in recent media SF, and how they could learn from the Bard. (And sadly, I couldn't think of anything Shakespeare's women could teach, maybe because female heroes who go through great Shakespearean arcs have been all too rare in media SF lately.) Anyway, what Shakespearean archetypes or moments of revelatory writing would you add to the list?

Oh, and this post would not have been possible without the awesomeness of Shakespeare Online.