Playing the expectations game is dangerous. You rewrite Romeo & Juliet, you’d best bring something new to the table. You write about the fall of Jerusalem, there had better be something uplifting in that awful story. And if you write a novel about William Shakespeare, you’d best hope that you don’t get crushed by the weight of expectations. Especially your own.
That was the danger I was facing as I sat down to write Her Majesty’s Will, my farcical novel exploring Shakespeare’s “lost years.” Even though I knew it would be light-hearted and joyful, a romp of a spy/buddy/comedy, I was still casting William Shakespeare as my lead character. William Shakespeare! The man who invented one out of every ten words we use. The man who created more common phrases than we can count. The man whose only rival in terms of influence is the Bible. William Shakespeare!
That’s the problem, you see. I love Shakespeare – or rather, I love his plays. I’ve been performing them professionally for well over half my life now. Of the 37 accepted titles that bear his name, I’ve worked on productions of 27, so I’m about three-quarters of my way through the canon. I even met my wife doing Shakespeare.
From his plays, I think I’ve got a vague sense of the man: his values, his mistrusts, his instincts, his loves, his hates, his sense of humor, his sense of drama. But almost all of it is negative space. We don’t have anything even remotely resembling an autobiography, only lines here and there that we can speculate about – Hamlet’s instructions to the actors, Jacques’ cynical musings on life, Richard II’s thoughts on England itself. Any of those might be the playwright’s true voice. Or they might not. Then there are sonnets, many of which were written on commission.
That’s not a lot to go on. So when it came time to craft a tale with young Will Shakespeare at the center, I had a lot of negative space to fill. Fortunately, there are themes that emerge in his plays time and again, snippets and beats and moments that, taken together, present a picture.
So what do I see in Shakespeare’s plays?
• I see mistrust of power and those who crave it. From Henry IV to Richard III, from Lear to Macbeth, from Caesar to Antony to Octavian, Shakespeare shows that ambition is a snake swallowing its own tail. To him, desire for power leads men to evil. How power itself is unfulfilling, yet absolute power corrupts absolutely:
BRUTUS: But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the utmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
That formula is as true for the Church and for Government as it is for Mankind. Power is dangerous, as is ambition. Yet he resolutely holds out hope that man can transcend this evil. Perhaps my favorite line from Macbeth belongs to Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Conclusion: Shakespeare mistrusts authority – does that mean he’s seen the evil of authority up close?
• I see a longing for justice. It’s in the comeuppance he gives all his evil-doers. From Richard’s dream to Edmund’s recantation to Iago’s silence to Macbeth’s sleep-deprived madness, the evils men do return to them. It’s almost a sense of karma, though if that were the case, then there would not be the harm to the innocents that also appears – Macduff’s children deserved no karmic suffering, and poor Cinna the Poet did nothing wrong. No, Shakespeare makes it clear that there is evil in the world, but also that God or Fate or the nature of evil itself brings evil back to evil. Blood will have blood, as they say.
This is as true for the Comedies as for the Tragedies. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio gets a cosmic comeuppance as he’s made the fool of by those he sought to overmaster. Yet his tormentors go too far, and he swears he will have his revenge. At that moment, I agree with him that they deserve it. His crime did not warrant such treatment. Shakespeare is no fan of vigilantism, yet he understands it. And he detests arbitrary justice, as seen in Justice Shallow in Merry Wives.
Conclusion: Shakespeare longs for justice – because he has been wronged?
• I see his need to side with the misunderstood. So many of Shakespeare’s best characters are outsiders. Othello, Iago, Shylock, Aaron, Edmund, the Bastard Arthur, Richard (thanks to his deformity) – these men are, every one of them, outsiders. Yes, the majority are villains, because that’s what the audience expected, and because villains are the ones who make a story move. But to a one, Shakespeare gives us some of the most amazing, heartfelt defenses for who they are:
SHYLOCK: If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
EDMUND: Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
RICHARD: I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.
That is to say nothing of the women, outsiders in their own right. The life he gives to Rosalind, Viola, Kate, and Merchant’s Portia is truly astonishing. They are, in fact, the true leads of their plays, challenging gender roles either by being shrewish and assertive, or else by donning man’s attire and becoming men themselves, always proving better and wiser men than the actual men around them.
Conclusion: Shakespeare embraces the outsider – because he is one?
• I see him challenging his audience’s perceptions. There are obvious examples, such as writing a Comedy and then killing everyone off (Romeo & Juliet) or rewriting a popular play like The Taming Of A Shrew to make the female the one who “wins” at the end (and in his version, she’s not whipped and beaten). But the one that’s been most on my mind lately is the startling nature of his play Julius Caesar. Until 1599, Brutus was firmly denounced as one of the great betrayers, being eternally chewed by Lucifer in Hell, second only to Judas in terms of his crime. Shakespeare does the unimaginable and recasts Brutus as the hero, the man who does a terrible thing for an excellent reason, raising all sorts of moral questions, while at the same time redefining Brutus for all time. It may not seem like much to us, but it was a revolutionary act.
Conclusion: Shakespeare sees the world differently from other men.
• I see the law of unintended consequences. Nothing in Shakespeare goes according to plan. From the death of Caesar failing to restore the Roman Republic to the secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet failing to solve the feud (well, it does, but not in the way the Friar intended). Tricking Benedick to fall in love with Beatrice leads to Benedick challenging one of the tricksters to a duel. Shylock demanding his pound of flesh ends with him impoverished and a forced convert to Christianity. Nothing – nothing – goes according to the plan of men.
Conclusion: Shakespeare knew that life was unpredictable, and one must think quickly to survive.
• Above all, I see Shakespeare’s love for the common man – the peons, the rabble, the rank and file. Oh, as a group he disdains them – he rails at mobs at the top of Caesar, and during Mark Antony’s speech proves how short their memories are, how quickly they can be swayed. But individually he loves them. He certainly caters to them, pandering to their tastes with low humor and bawdy jokes. But he also finds more good in their raw honesty than in all the upright nobility. It is the rough, the rude, the boisterous that he admires. They have faults, but he loves their faults along with their virtues. Drunkenness, lewdness, cowardice, cheating, lying – these are all accepted purely as clever means to survive in the world. He gives his greatest wit to clowns and fools, and makes drunkards the most joyful of his creations.
Conclusion: Shakespeare accepts and loves low men – because he came from their ranks.
So as I thought about my Shakespeare – not the real one, but the one being created by my pen – this is the man I saw. A fellow of common birth and uncommon thoughts. A man who understood the vagaries of life and yet longed for justice and order. A man who has played the villain for the best of reasons. A man quick on his feet. A man mistrustful of authority. A man who craves the approval of his peers, even when his nature renders him peerless. A man who has always felt on the outside, misunderstood, different, alone.
Even before I cracked Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful Will In The World, which gave me incredible historical details for Shakespeare’s origins and contemporaries, the man himself was shaping from the negative space created by his plays into a positive and (thankfully) very human character.
I’ve always maintained that Her Majesty’s Will isn’t serious, and it’s not. Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe running around as spies for Walsingham, working for the Queen? Ridiculous! I certainly wasn’t aiming to write a biography or some serious piece of literature. This is farce. I am the first to acknowledge that.
But just as Shakespeare gave his best bits of wisdom to his fools and clowns, I hope that, through my own clowning, I’ve been able to imbue my Shakespeare with something close to Truth. If this is not who the real Shakespeare was, this is perhaps who he should have been. A man not dragged down by the weight of my expectations, but rather raised up by his own.