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All the Disc's a Stage - Terry Pratchett and Shakespeare

Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are filled with references to Shakespeare, and are a wonderful opportunity to introduce the Bard's words and works to children of all ages in a more palatable and less intimidating way.

Madeleine Cox
Discworld Novels Larger Size
Just a small selection of the 40 Discworld novels

Following the sad news of Sir Terry Pratchett's death on Thursday, it seemed a good time to write a blog I'd been thinking of for a while on the subject of Terry's Discworld novels and Shakespeare. The Discworld novels - featuring the adventures of wizards, witches, werewolves, vampires and golems in a world carried on the backs of four giant elephant atop the star turtle Great A'Tuin - might appear an odd thing to connect with our nation's (or even the world's) greatest poet and playwright, but bear with me!

For a start, whilst many dismiss the idea of 'fantasy' novels as literature, they are undeniably popular. Terry wrote over seventy books, that have been translated into thirty seven languages and have sold over 70 million copies. They've inspired artwork and merchandise from cookbooks to Unseen University scarves.

Discworld Collections Larger Size

The most obvious links are those novels whose plots and themes are directly taken from Shakespeare plays. Wyrd Sisters is unmistakably drawn from Macbeth in it's use of the three witches...

Opening of Wyrd Sisters

Though Magrat Garlick is perhaps more akin to the Wyrd Sisters of Shakespeare's source, Holinshed, Granny Weatherwax, is (at first appearances at least) more like one of Shakespeare's.

Holinshed 1577
Holinshed, 1577 edition

This novel also includes elements of Hamlet, with the play-within-a-play to reveal the truth - that Duke Felmet murdered King Verence I of Lancre and the ghost of the dead King. It also draws on King Lear, with the role of the Fool and Felmet's mental anguish. Best of all, there is a dwarf playwright called Hwel (pronounced 'Will') and he and Olwyn Vitoller's acting company build "The Dysk" theatre, giving readers a surprising insight into travelling playing companies, theatre building and play-writing, with much humour and mention of the 'Taming of the Vole'!

Lords and Ladies, with the imminent marriage of Verence and Magrat, is full of references, language and scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you don't know Shakespeare, the reference to moonlight will be lost on you! I particularly like the Lancre Morris Men as the rude mechanicals.

Jason Ogg
Jason Ogg and the Lancre Morris Men rehearse their entertainment!

The Discworld of the novels is like real-world history condensed, and whilst the advent of the railway in later novels shows more modern times, aspects of the setting are very redolent of Elizabethan England with all the references to folklore, superstition, guilds, heraldry, and so on.

Terry's works are far more than mere spoofs, though he does cover all kinds of different works (Eric-Faust, Maskerade - The Phantom of the Opera, Moving Pictures - King Kong...). His use of intertextuality is far more subtle than the above examples would suggest and has been more fully explored in the marvel that is the L-Space Web. Here the avid Pratchett fan can find annotations explaining words and references, just as you might when reading an edition of a Shakespeare play. A quick look through revealed references to Marlowe, folk songs, the Lancashire witches, Norse mythology, Frank Sinatra, Chekhov, The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeTomb Raider, Allingham (Irish poet), Wilde, and Beckett! This mix of classical and popular culture references is just what Shakespeare does. And as with Shakespeare, there are different levels of enjoyment - you don't need to 'get' all of the references to enjoy the play/text, but it brings an extra level of understanding and appreciation. This is something that anyone doing the FutureLearn Much Ado MOOC have been exploring with The Hundred Merry Tales (a popular and rather rude jestbook referenced by Beatrice).

The Discworld is a strange and unfamiliar place, much as some of the locations for Shakespeare's plays (an enchanted island, Italy, Navarre, Athens, Illyria, Bohemia) must have appeared exotic to his audiences. And yet what draws us in is the creation of a world that is not ours, and yet is SO familiar in terms of holding up a mirror to life, to human nature and to our emotions. 'Popular' literature makes us laugh or cry because we can identify with the situations and individuals portrayed and this is surely what makes it universally appealing. We enjoy the escapism and novelty of another world and all that comes with it, but people are people (even if they are vampires or werewolves!).

In the course of the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett explores ideas such as the importance of words and how memories/stories dictate what is remembered rather than historical facts. This is explicitly stated by the Fool in Wyrd Sisters. This rings true with, for example, Shakespeare's history plays - how many people know more about Richard III from Shakespeare than from history?

Terry also considers life and death (Death is in fact an anthropomorphic personification with a horse called BINKY and a love of cats). Death has a great library full of books that are constantly writing themselves (then become static as a biography of each individual once death has come to pass), and lifetimers (like eggtimers, but different), whose sand is constantly pouring. Pratchett's books have already started to be analysed in a more scholarly fashion with a new book called Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, published in November 2014.

Just as Shakespeare's plays were considered everyday entertainment rather than high culture in his day (unlike his poetry or the works of Jonson for example), perhaps it is the best-selling creative works of today, rather than the 'highbrow' award-winners that will stand the test of time to become the classics of the future. I like to imagine readers in 400+ years time puzzling over Terry's references to C.20 films, TV, and current affairs.

Bizarrely I encountered some of Shakespeare's work and got my first idea of early modern theatre from Discworld novels as I read these long before I came to work at the SBT. It's great to think that people of all ages might become familiar with and gain affection for Shakespeare through popular fantasy fiction and then go on to appreciate the real thing. It's much like the work being done for Shakespeare Week and through sessions held by our Heritage Education team, where primary school children learn the stories and get to know the characters in Shakespeare's plays before seeing them as something 'difficult'.

Of course the Discworld series have always been beloved by anyone working in a library environment with the frequent references to libraries, L-Space, and the Librarian (an orang-utan). Just save me from the kickstool crabs and the wild thesaurus!

Discworld Collections
Libraries - an extract from the Discworld Companion

With great thanks to Terry Pratchett for creating the wonderful Discworld - may he, like Shakespeare live on in his work and its continued popularity.