My love story with the Bard (abridged)

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

So yes, I’m going to be a snot all day and post/reblog oodles of Shakespeare and Marlowe stuff. If there’s one day of the year when your obsession looks normal, it’s today, right? Even the prating coxcombs on breakfast TV try to appear educated, so… no holds barred for the truly smitten.

My love story with Will began when I was ten. With… Troilus and Cressida. Unusual suspects, to be sure. But I’d been innoculated with opera for four years, so I was used to not understanding what the people on stage were on about. According to my parents, I “looked at the pictures” and I “understood everything”.

Since then, I’ve lost that level of scholarship.

Anyway, yes, Troilus was the first play I saw, with Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson. I remember him lounging on a pianola and, um, not much else actually. Oh yeah, a bunch of white-haired men discussing maps.

And yet I was hooked.

Or was it when I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream a few days later? That would be typically banal, wouldn’t it? But then we were in the first row, and I remember Hippolyta getting up from a sofa with an expression of disdain on her face when Theseus gave Hermia her punishment. I remember thinking, “How is it possible to act like that? How can someone convey something so lifelike when it’s all fake?”

As I see it written down, I realise that I was posing the exact same question as Hamlet when he heard the Hecuba speech.

So. A passion was born, and each summer after that, I was treated to the best of the best in both Stratford and London. I saw Sean Bean as Romeo (that bloody worked!), Antony Sher as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Richard II before I had acne. I realise this puts me in the privileged-beyond-belief box, BUT we lived on Mother’s Pride the rest of the time, so swings and roundabouts, okay?

When I was fifteen, my father deemed it time to take my education to the next level. That summer, we were going to watch As You Like It, Richard III and King Lear (both with McKellen in the title role – feel free to gnash your teeth), and my father put a couple of Cliffs Notes in my hands. Making me go, “Whoa! You mean there’s more to it than pictures?”

Yep, there was more to it. A lot more. Before I knew it, I had graduated to the actual texts in Arden editions, and my obsession with language history was a fact.

To this day, I wonder how the actors do it. How they can make something so fake – and in verse, too! – look and sound so natural. You think Iain Glen shines in Game of Thrones? He filled a completely empty stage as Henry V, making me believe he really was a king. Oh, and on the subject of GoT, Owen Teale, who plays Ser Alliser Thorne, was Hotspur in the best production of Henry IV that will ever be made – the one that made me realise the importance of directors (and costume designers, but that’s for another post with slightly more nsfw flavour).

So yeah, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. Not that I haven’t had my moments of doubt. Once, I tossed my Complete Works in a spring/depression cleaning gone haywire, but luckily I hadn’t inherited the Arden editions back then, and my stash is reupped by now. I understand how people can think it’s unbearably boring, and sometimes it is. I’m not a fan of the Olivier era, and so much acting is still over the top and yawnworthy. There are idiotic puns and long-winded speeches and pointless interpolations (I hope!), and if anyone can see the dramaturgic arc in the Henry VI’s, please let me know.

And yet I just can’t stay away. A few years back, my obsession metamorphosed (ha! see what I did there?) into an urge to write about him. Ever the enabler, my husband bought me the ultimate Christmas present: a trip to London for a week-long Shakespeare course. I took the opportunity to nip off to Stratford for a look at the Birthplace – which, weirdly enough, I’d never seen despite my many trips there. I spent hours in that house, interviewing the guides and taking notes and imbibing the atmosphere, so when I wrote the domestic scenes, I had a complete picture in my head of every single room.

Sadly, those scenes didn’t make it into the book, because in the end, it wasn’t Shakespeare’s story at all, but Marlowe’s. *sigh* Trouble-maker and quicksilver madcap, knavish sprite and prince of cats. He ruined and salvaged everything, and I’ve written about that whole mess here.

I guess writing about Shakespeare’s whole life was just too big a project. My version of his childhood and youth will always live on in my head, but the 200K megastory was just too unwieldy to publish. For the abnormally interested, I’ve posted some deleted scenes here.

All that remains (because I really should go help M plaster a wall now) is to raise a glass on this the 452nd birthday of the Bard, and in the words of Petruchio in The Shrew, “Be mad and merry or go hang yourselves!”

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