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When it comes to Shakespeare, people have Opinions. This has been true since the Elizabethan era, with fans and critics arguing bitterly over questions of authorship and authenticity, what sort of performance styles are best—a question that caused a riot in 1849 New York—and whether the Bard was really all that remarkable a writer (hot tip: don’t ask Tolstoy). But one of the biggest questions about Shakespeare is whether, in the end, he’s emblematic of high culture or low (to wit: all those dirty jokes). If the answer “well, both” is frustrating, it may be worth using a perhaps unlikely device to unpack Shakespearean drama: fanfiction.

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Modern fandom is a means of exchange between celebrities and their followers, “a collaborative form of identity,” writes politics and literature scholar David Haven Blake, in which fans assume an active role. Fanfiction—when readers and viewers write new, often elaborate, stories and situations involving their favorite characters from a creative work—is one way of making this exchange manifest. And it’s wildly popular today, with repositories like and AO3 boasting tens of millions of users.

English professor Maria Lindgren Leavenworth sees fanfiction as a way to connect source texts with a broader participatory experience of popular culture.

“Fanfiction authors comment on and transform the canon,” she writes, entering texts through “switched narrative perspectives, altered romantic combinations of characters, expansions of minor characters or scenes, or a play with the temporal boundaries in prequels and sequels.”

Definitions such as Leavenworth’s lean on today’s highly online environment that has come to characterize fandom in the modern era, but this doesn’t mean that fan frenzy is a creation of the digital age. The pattern of behavior that characterizes cooperative exchange between a creator and their audience predates not only digital media, but the concept of celebrity itself.

According to music historian Daniel Cavicci, parasocial relationships between everyday people and their favorite fads pop up throughout history.

“Do the religious-minded ‘music lovers’ of 1850s urban concert culture or the unruly ‘kranks’ of post–Civil War baseball count as fans?” he asks. “Probably. But what about the weeping readers of Charlotte Temple in the 1830s? Do the nineteenth-century Americans who hung on every word of political oratory count? What about those involved in the ‘tulipomania’ that swept Holland in the 1630s?”

Fandom may be centuries old, but that hasn’t stopped critics from deriding its exercise as culturally odd or inferior. Amelia Bitely quotes influential fan scholar and advocate Henry Jenkins when she questions the common idea that fans are little more than unhinged obsessives—after all, they read, scrutinize, and discuss materials carefully. Would these behaviors “be read as extreme if they were applied to Shakespeare instead of Star Trek?”

Certainly there’s a historical basis for parasocial relationships leading to awkward or inappropriate situations. The act of artistic creation is inherently emotional, and the more fire or intimacy a creator puts into their work (for purposes artistic, spiritual, political, or other), the more a reader may receive it as personal. Not to mention that when audiences receive content without tastemakers or critics as mediators, fandom becomes communal, celebratory, and even quasi-religious.

This can run up against concerns of privacy or propriety. David Haven Blake describes the situation of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who “inspired thousands of men and women who thought of him with such enthusiasm that they believed his fame granted them a kind of personal accessibility.” Not only did Longfellow receive more than six thousand fan letters in his lifetime, he had to turn away a woman who arrived at his home “with all her baggage,” announcing that she was the poet’s wife “and had come to stay.” Blake also writes that Walt Whitman received a particularly saucy fan letter from a woman who wished to bear his son—a (misguided) response, perhaps, to Whitman’s intimate, often erotic, tone with his readers?

But back to the Bard: Shakespeare and fandom go hand in hand, both historically and in the contemporary sphere. For starters, there’s a strong argument that Shakespeare himself was basically writing fanfic. Many of his major works draw their narrative core from classical or popular source material, ranging from Ovid to the Bible to the Decameron. When writing about fanfiction, scholars Kavita Mudan Finn and Jessica McCall chuckle, noting that though

it is difficult to reconcile any category that comfortably includes both Shakespeare’s plays and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey—89 per cent of which had already appeared on the Internet as a piece of Twilight fanfiction entitled “Master of the Universe”—some have argued that this juxtaposition is the very point of fandom.

As Blake notes, just as “many nineteenth-century Americans viewed literature as part of popular culture rather than the refuge of the elite” and therefore felt just fine fanning themselves over Longfellow or Whitman, Shakespeare was very much part of his era’s popular entertainment.

Heath Ledger And Julia Stiles In '10 Things I Hate About You'
Heath Ledger And Julia Stiles In 10 Things I Hate About You. Getty

Modern fanfiction relies on a collaborative, multifaceted universe of writing, sharing, and cross-promotion, and Finn and McCall point out that, similarly, “working within medieval and early modern patronage systems, writers were almost always writing for both specific persons and general audiences, negotiating the requests and desires of both.”

Like fanfiction, Shakespeare’s adaptation of familiar source materials “takes us away from the notion of texts as static, isolated objects,” writes communications and media scholar Bronwen Thomas, “and instead reminds us that storyworlds are generated and experienced within specific social and cultural environments that are subject to constant change.”

Continuing engagement with and adaptation of source material can be a more effective way to teach and understand it, dismantling the myth of the “author-god” and allowing marginalized perspectives to emerge. Despite enduring pockets of fandom and scholarship that treat Shakespeare as precious and mythic, in the main his fans have rarely met an adaptive concept they didn’t like. In the past century of popular entertainment, creators have paid ample tribute: works such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead have played with thoughts and stories ancillary to Shakespeare’s world. Movies from Kurosawa’s Ran to 10 Things I Hate About You retell plays for modern audiences. Taylor Swift has been giving Romeo and Juliet a happy ending at every stop of the Eras Tour. Fat Ham won the Pulitzer in 2022. Heck, go watch The Lion King.

Within fan communities, Shakespeare fanfiction and “alternate universe” (AU) stories remain common, paying tribute to the source material in the act of remixing it. Some authors argue that this approach is as true to Shakespeare as it can be. As Finn and McCall write,

a version of Othello where Emilia discovers Iago’s plot in Act IV and saves Desdemona’s life or a Romeo and Juliet where Friar Laurence’s letter doesn’t go astray before it reaches Romeo would both qualify as AU stories in this sense—and, indeed, one could argue that Shakespeare himself wrote that version of Othello, doubled the clowns, added a bear, and called it The Winter’s Tale.

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