There is probably no English author quite as well known by reputation as Shakespeare. The only others who could come close would probably be Chaucer, Dickens, and more recently, Agatha Christie. But for a playwright with such a firm position in the annals of English literature and a reputation as “serious literature for serious people,” Shakespeare wrote quite a lot of horrific, comedic, and downright dirty stuff. It was, in a word, vulgar. Along with his more questionable content, there is also an abundance of the more light entertainment variety: fantasy. The type of stuff that English professors today condescendingly call popular, in the way Shakespeare’s detractors might have called him vulgar: which is all that vulgar really meant at the time, anyway.
Before Tolkien turned fantasy “high” with extensive mythologies and universal philosophical themes, fantasy was of questionable literary value. I say this as someone who had The Faerie Queene sitting on her shelf for about two years before finally getting rid of the massive tome unread, so my estimation of fantasy’s perceived literary merit pre-Tolkien may invite some debate. But Shakespeare, though a contemporary of Edmund Spenser, was not Spenserian in his treatment of fairy tales and myths. Not for Shakespeare the grand allegories to biblical lessons, the obvious sucking up to Queen Elizabeth I by casting her as the Faerie Queene, or the human knight’s spiritual journey to fairer realms on high through being tempted by and conquering all the deadly sins. (And if that’s not an accurate representation of The Faerie Queene, I can only reiterate that I never read it and am speaking from hearsay and half-remembered university class summaries.) No, none of that for William. Instead, we get a love triangle and a fourth wheel, an extra-marital affair with an enchanted donkey, and fairies that are so conceited that they insult humanity even while bungling simple tasks in a way that causes all of said humanity’s problems. I mean, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Really? You’re gonna take that line, Puck?
Anyway, such was the whimsy of Shakespeare’s most popular fantasy play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And he did it by using already mythologized characters, adding some of his own unique creations and throwing them into new contexts. Shakespeare, like any self-respecting popular playwright, drew upon myths, epics, and other works that came before him. And he did it so well, so originally, with such flourish and style, that he himself has become the inspiration for a plethora of new stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to a lesser extent The Tempest, forms the main pillar of inspiration for the two series, Théâtre Illuminata by Lisa Mantchev and Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston.
Wondrous Strange is urban fantasy, set in modern New York with magical elements thrown in. Kelley is an aspiring actress whose big break has come in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But her private rehearsal sessions in the leafy confines of Central Park take on a whole new level of danger as she begins to see the thin line between the faerie and human worlds. Worse yet, the night when the bridge between worlds opens is approaching and she’s falling for one of its otherworldly guards, Sonny. Whether it’s a fellow actor turning out to be an ageless fae who knows more about her than she does or a kelpie destroying any chance of getting back the damage deposit on her nigh inaffordable central apartment, Kelley has a lot to juggle as she strives to take on her role as the immortal and powerful faerie queen Titania. And did I mention the Wild Hunt is coming to destroy Manhattan?
Théâtre Illuminata is a fantastical playhouse where the actors are their characters, and anything that is written in the script comes to pass. Beatrice, called Bertie, works at the theatre and crosses paths with pirates and mythological creatures from all sorts of productions, including a captive sprite, getting her into a dangerous clash with malevolent sea-witch, Sedna. To be honest, that’s about all I can tell you about how this trilogy starts because I have yet to read the first book in the series. [Edit: I just read the first book, Eyes Like Stars, and that loose summary is pretty accurate.] I picked up the second one, Perchance to Dream, and jumped in without context. At the beginning of the second book, the troupe hits the road in a magical caravan in an attempt to rescue Nate, Bertie’s boo, from Sedna, who dragged him to the depths as she was fought off at the end of the first book [edit: it was in the middle of the first book, as Sedna did not form the main conflict]. To succeed, Bertie finds she must face the mystery of her past in order to discover any kind of certainty for her future.
In Wondrous Strange, (which is also the title of the first book in the series, coming from a line of Hamlet) concepts Shakespeare toyed with in his plays are the gateway for a deep and original dive into the fairy tales and lore that would have served as his inspiration. Set in modern Manhattan, it adds an Irish angle, as Sonny is a human changeling, leprechauns make appearances, and Kelly ends up the reluctant caretaker of a kelpie, a nod to Scots Celtic mythology. Auberon and Titania are real, again at odds as in the Shakespeare play, and with Puck gone over some unpleasantness with a changeling, it’s going to take more than a few shenanigans with a love potion to stop the cataclysmic showdown between a couple of faerie monarchs.
I really enjoyed the plotting and imagination that went into this series of books. It is very much a YA targeted story, and reads similarly to other popular urban fantasy books like the Mortal Instruments, but even so the moments of trope-y-ness don’t detract from the dark whimsy of it and its characters. Kelley and Sonny are the classic pair of “naïve but with undiscovered powers” female and “experienced but oppressed” male, which works with how they have both been kept ignorant and manipulated in different ways. Together they have to come to terms with their respective identities, grow up enough to challenge the powers that be, and break away from their parental figures. This becomes the main goal orientation of the second book, Darklight, in which Sonny and Kelley journey in the faerie worlds, risking an even greater bondage than the one they are trying to escape. And if you wonder why I don’t give a quick synopsis of the next book, Tempestuous, it’s because, like my incomplete reading of the Théâtre Illuminata [edit: which is now complete], I have yet to read the third book of the Wondrous Strange trilogy. [Edit: I have read it and posted a separate review here.]
Théâtre Illuminata contains tidbits of Shakespeare, including a gaggle of silly fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as mercurial air spirit, Ariel, from The Tempest—who also happens to be in love with Bertie, making him one point of a love triangle. There is even a Hamlet connection (besides the title of the second book) in the character of Ophelia. But Théâtre Illuminata has much more to offer by way of original ideas and setting. In fact, the worldbuilding is one of the most entertaining parts of these books. As I mentioned, the Théâtre is magical, and it’s not just a magical oasis in the middle of that real, “modern” world, but rather in a kind of alternate reality, partly fantasy world. The best way I can describe what’s going on with the world of these books is that it’s a place where time is not linear, and magic is integrated into the fabric of its reality: train travel is as advanced as the society is, but at the same time the trains travel at impossible rates and to impossible places. It’s like—magical realism in an alternate history world.
[Edit: In Eyes Like Stars, most of the action is framed around Bertie trying to hold her place at the theatre by putting on a production of Hamlet in a different setting. In the process, she has to save the theatre from utter destruction when someone steals the playbook that contains the magic holding all the characters there. As she struggles to right the wrongs in time for opening night, she finds a revealing production of her own mysterious past involving cast members from Hamlet.] In Perchance to Dream, Bertie writes much of her story into being as they travel along, encountering strange thieves, carnies, and mythical bird-hybrids. There are aspects to the writing style that are experimental, trying to convey what it would be like to live in a reality directly affected by someone’s writing, like in the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde. There is a little less of a solid unfolding plot to this story, besides the general goal of rescuing Nate, but there is enough subplot interest to keep things moving. In particular, Bertie is coming to terms with her new responsibilities as Mistress of Revels while trying to find her father. Along the way, she walks into a strange pocket of her past and is forced to participate in a deadly and magical circus show. In the third book, So Silver Bright, the group travels to a distant kingdom ruled by a time-manipulating queen, rescues a fire dancer, and returns to the Théâtre for a final showdown with Sedna where the answers to the conflict turn out to not be what they seem. Despite its obvious ties to Shakespeare on the surface, the way the story is written, with the incidents that happen, the people they meet, and the places they go, strikes me with its strangeness like the Alice books by Lewis Carroll or the Oz books by L. Frank Baum.
I do think it’s odd that both series of books I’ve read inspired by Shakespeare focus on his fairy-fantastical works, and they’re both YA. In fact, one of the only other Shakespeare inspired books I know of is also YA and adds a supernatural element, Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay. Really, neither of the series I talked about nor Juliet Immortal sound like they have any concrete representation of Shakespeare aside from some conceptual stuff and characters that they completely reimagine. Maybe these books are an attempt to get teens into Shakespeare by false advertising? Regardless, despite their surface connection to Shakespeare consisting of little more than catchy titles and some recycled fairies, I really enjoyed both of these series as independent, creative works in their own right which are at most referential to Shakespeare. Perhaps the way in which they resemble Shakespeare most is the way that, like him, they draw upon aspects of their inspiration, only to use them as touchstones for crafting a completely new and original story of their own.