Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.


Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method

12 responses to “Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

  1. Elizabeth

    I have loved reading people’s tributes to Bradbury and all the quotes and snippets of his work. This might be my favorite. Thank you —

  2. Marsha McGregor

    Mine, too. Thank you.

  3. I first heard Bradbury at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2007. He spoke about how loving one thing in childhood led to loving the next and the next, so that, at the end, he saw his whole life, and all his writings, as a series of love letters.

    Wonderful post. Thanks, Richard.

  4. Very informative – I did not know he wrote the screen script for Moby Dick. As usual extremely interesting and informative.

  5. Thanks, everyone! I have not read much of his work, but intend to rectify that soon by reading, first, his 1999 autobiographical coming-of-age novel Dandelion Wine—I remember my son reading it when he was about twelve and being captivated. Wish I’d read it then; I dipped into it on Amazon the other day and was impressed deeply by its concise lyricism and timeless feel and the way he caught the magic of childhood. I wonder if his publisher would have pressed to publish Dandelion Wine as a memoir today. He revisited his fictionalized Illinois hometown and his boyhood in 2006 with a sequel, Farewell Summer.

  6. Richard Moore

    Hate to sound like an illiterate, but this was a real eye-opener for me. “Farenheit 451,” sure, but I have to admit to experiencing it only as a movie. Bradbury’s depth and literary quality come as a welcome surprise. Thanks for being such a fine educator: opening eyes is what the best educators–uniquely–do.

    • I hear you, Richard. Before I dipped into that book in the wake of his death, I thought his ideas were great but snobbishly surmised his prose was wooden. No, far from it. Concise and spare, yes, but so lyrical and evocative, deep with meaning beyond the great surface ideas, even.

  7. First, I’m so glad you’re back and on your game!
    I enjoyed this post thoroughly. Bradbury comes across as a wonderful person. The dinosaur tale is pure pleasure, from the childhood love to the Venice pier to the short story that resulted. What an example of creative process! And how the Bible and Shakespeare influenced his prose, especially its metaphoric and poetic qualities, is so valuable to note. Reading his words above, and the interview excerpt, makes ME want to write. Something inspiring about it all. Thanks, Richard (and welcome home) Paulette

  8. When I compile an imaginary guest list of the people I would most like to cook for and share a meal with, Ray Bradbury is in the top five.

  9. Todd

    Very nice post, Richard. Bradbury writes about the importance of poetry for all writers in his Zen and the Art of Writing. He suggests writers read at least one poem a day for the sense of rhythm and metaphor and fresh language. It’s a suggestion taken up by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover.

    Bradbury, too, will always be key to giving SF cred to the literati, though he already had cred in the SF world. A lot of SF is neglected, though some of the best writers I’ve read lately write SF.