Tag Archives: shakespeare

Shakespeare, Marlowe and the pageboy guy

So the world is talking about Shakespeare’s collaborations, and this girl couldn’t be happier. We’ve long known that Will’s plays are full of interpolations from other writers, but to have Kit be specially credited warms my heart.

Because the whole point of Rival Poet is that Will needs help. His hand, his country manners, his lack of brashness, his dialect, his tendency to give up… he wouldn’t have got anywhere without his best friend Richard, his loyal company from whose voices he crafted his characters, and above all, without Kit.

And neither would I.

You see, Kit is the person I never can be, but sometimes wish I could. He’s my secret animus and the man of my dreams – literally. When I was eighteen, I started having this recurring dream about a tall guy with a pageboy cut – which was sometimes a bright green – who just sort of moved through the dream and was cool and mysterious and intelligent and wore a Sherlock style coat. Irresistible. I always woke up with a feeling of yearning. I wanted that man to be real. I wanted him in my life.

But not as a partner. I wanted to be him.

So for me the “pageboy guy” has become the symbol of a side I never reveal. He’s the part of me that speaks through my less-than-considerate characters. He’s Becca in Pax, and maybe Nathan. He’s Laila in All You Can Eat and Garangjas in Last Communion. But above all, he’s Kit Marlowe.

MAJOR RIVAL POET SPOILERS AHEAD. If you want to avoid them, scroll until you see the cover and then continue reading below it.


There was an earlier version of Rival Poet where Kit actually died for real. A non-romance version, obviously. But he continued haunting me. There was a niggling doubt at the back of my head. I didn’t want him dead. I also didn’t want to buy into some stupid conspiracy theory and ruin the part of the plot where losing Kit was the breeding ground for all of Will’s tragedies. To say I had cognitive dissonance is an understatement.

And then finally, I brought him back. I sometimes wonder if it was the right thing to do, but the answer is always the same: yes. Because he does live on. Just like Shakespeare, Marlowe is as alive today as he was four hundred years ago, and I needed that scene, that (slightly twisted) riding-into-the-sunset-and-living-forever scene that can be taken as face value, but which also has a more symbolic meaning that nudges the reader and says, “You know? Wink, wink.”

Rival Poet ARe


So yeah, seeing people today be all excited about how my two favourite boys collaborated on a bunch of plays is a joy for me, because I’m personally convinced they did. Will and Kit go together like the two halves of my soul: the middle-aged woman who guards her tongue, and the devil-may-care shadow with the artsy coat who laughs at everything.

I even wrote a song about it. Now, I’m not a flawless singer, and I’m definitely not a pianist, but I do consider myself an amateur composer. (Can’t write novels all the time, you know?) So here it is, in all its do-I-really-remember-the-chords glory: my tribute to Kit Marlowe.

Lyrics below.



He steps out of the shadows like
An impish sprite on the lookout
For a narrative to hijack
’Cause he didn’t have enough time
In his own lifetime
To fill the world with his words
And he will not be able to sleep soundly
In his grave until

He has conquered all the world
Like the pampered jade he is
He’s been made immortal by
Another Helen’s kiss
His cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

So here I am, in this song
I suppose it’s about me
But if you look, I’ll be gone
’Cause I’m strange and elusive
Now you see me, now you don’t
I’m the Magus, I’m the Puck
I am Mercury, I bring a message from the gods

I have conquered all the world
Like the pampered jade I am
I’ll be made immortal by
The kiss from another man
My cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

I am back from Hades
And I know you can’t resist
So come with me and we will get
Fictionally pissed

’Cause you can conquer all the world
Like the pampered jade you are
You’ll be made immortal by
The kiss from a shooting star
Your cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

An ode to Hal and the histories

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

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (abridged) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. The “histories football match” made me laugh until I almost threw up. I adore the histories, I wrote a nerdy sixth form college essay on Hal, and Henry V once gave me an inappropriate case of patriotism by proxy, but maybe that’s why the football match is so hilarious to me. They reduce eight plays to a three-minute tussle for the crown, and in many ways, that’s what the histories can seem to be, especially the Henry VI ones.

But they’re also intricate studies of character. Falstaff and Richard III may be the most famous ones, but there are so many other fantastic roles in there. For me, the young prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, remains the most compelling character of the histories.

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Lookit! There’s my college nerd paper, complete with my fan girl drawing of Michael Maloney and Julian Glover on the cover page.

The reason I wrote that essay was that I’d read so many critics who painted him as a scheming turn-coat. I seem to have a thing for morally questionable Shakespeare characters (Coriolanus being another), so I set about to defend him against such slander.

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For this was in the days of dot matrix printing…

For me, he’s the teenage Everyman who has to leave his carefree youth behind and shoulder his adult responsibilities. I don’t really have any sympathy for the Falstaff-huggers, since in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he’s actually kind of an asshole. He may have been a surrogate father to Hal, because the king is a bit low on the touchy-feely-o-meter, but he also has no scruples about deriding him in public or lying about killing Hotspur, who was Hal’s grand prize in the war. Sure, the old man is witty and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Of course Hal has to leave him behind.

So much for the philosophy. Now on to the clothes. Adrian Noble’s fantastic 1991 production of the two parts of Henry IV didn’t just star Julian Glover and Michael Maloney, it also starred a costume designer named Deirdre Clancy (branded on my memory forever). Before seeing those clothes, I had no real appreciation for the texture of suede hose, the length of boots or the cut of shirts.

There are so many valid reasons to love Shakespeare, don’t you agree?

But back to the more cerebral stuff. The funny thing is that the histories aren’t very historical. For example, Henry IV says he wishes his infant son had been replaced with Hotspur:

O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

But at the time Hal was a baby, Hotspur was already grown up! And the histories are filled with inaccuracies like that – either because Shakespeare didn’t know any better, or because he didn’t care. I’m leaning towards the latter.

In the same vein, I’ve had the characters in Rival Poet speak in a modern way, because I didn’t want the action and the vibrance of the tale clouded by arcane language. Of course, this may be jarring to some readers, but I chose to do it because I wanted the story to feel as if it took place right now, out there in the street or at your local corner pub.

And now I’m comparing myself to old Willie himself to rationalise it…

I’ll end this rambling post with a film tip: The Hollow Crown. Especially Richard II with Ben Wishaw in the title role is absolutely magnificent. That play isn’t even among my favourites, but he does the king with such… I don’t even know. He brings him to life. Makes him understandable, even though he’s kind of weird.

In fact, I think I’ll try to persuade the husband to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tonight by watching it in our cinema!

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!”

Did Shakespeare love his wife?

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

Of course, we can never know. We don’t know much about the man at all, except that he was born, he married, his wife had three children, he moved to London and acted in plays, dodged a few tax collectors, and died.

So why am I posing the question? Because Anne – or Agnes, as she was christened – tends to be shoved aside when we gather to adore her husband. Many interpret their marriage as solely motivated by her being pregnant (the ‘bed trick’), and Shakespeare’s subsequent move to London as proof that he wanted to get away from her.

Basic misogyny.

I have another take on it, but don’t read on if you don’t want your Rival Poet ruined by the complexity that is real life (or if you haven’t read it yet and don’t want ***spoilers***!).

So you’re reading on? Okay. Well, in my view, Shakespeare was bi, and possibly poly. Rival Poet, being a m/m romance, focuses on the biggest love of his life, Marlowe, but there’s a whole scrapped background from an unpublished bio novel that complicates the picture. My Shakespeare’s most prominent trait, apart from his phenomenal memory for words, is his ability to see things from several points of view. That was the first thing I decided when I started plotting his story: he should be both intellectual and materialistic, undecided when it came to religion, bisexual, equally at home in Stratford and London, and torn between wanting to be a poet and wanting to be an actor.

So yes, in my book (no pun intended… okay, yes, pun intended), Shakespeare did love his wife. In fact, he was besotted, but had a hard time convincing her that marrying a stripling like him was in any way sensible. She was pregnant with someone else’s child (I warned you about the spoilers!), and he jumped at the chance to save her from life as a social pariah. In the unpublished story about their marriage, he has to work really hard to get close to her, and the reward, in the end, came in the form of a pair of twins with Will’s DNA.

Rival Poet AReThat doesn’t negate his all-consuming love affair with Kit. That’s the most important thing in his life, after all. It’s what kickstarts his career after Agnes has persuaded him to go to London to try his luck among the publishing houses, and it’s also what spawns the great tragedies. Kit is his biggest passion, no doubt about it, because theirs is a ‘marriage of true minds’. Their love of words and their almost telepathic communication makes the attraction instantaneous and irrestistible.

But a life is a life, and not a romance. Will had a life before Kit, and parallel with Kit.

What are the odds?

You know why I write? Because life is effing strange, that’s why. And I want to document, explore and exploit that strangeness.

I’m sitting here in the living room with my husband, listening to Saxon’s Crusader, and I’m looking at the album cover. Suddenly my eyes snag on the coat of arms worn by one of the soldiers, and I sit up straight and burst out, “It’s the Henry IV coat of arms! But he didn’t go on a crusade, did he? The play starts with him complaining that he’s too ill to go. Not that Shakespeare got his reputation for being historically accurate, but…”

And so on and so forth. Geeky, yes. But the geekiness isn’t the point. It’s the utter randomness of it all.

Let’s look at the chain of events. Once upon a time in a random country, a random king chose a perhaps not so random coat of arms. It contained the French fleur de lys and the English lion, since his ancestors (and his son) laid claim to France.

A couple of hundred years later, a random Warwickshire boy writes about him, and it’s a hit. The success of his plays are so enduring that, four hundred years later, they’re still produced all over the world. Including the one about the random king.

Enter an even more random player in this strange, eventful history: a Swedish fifteen year old girl who travels to England with her parents to cycle all through the summer and watch a few plays in Stratford. One of the plays is the Adrian Noble production of Henry IV part 1&2, and the girl falls so hard for it that she gets a concussion. Twenty-five years later, she’s still obsessive enough to write a blog post about it. Twenty-five years later, the coat of arms with the fleur de lys and the lion still mean something to her. Those symbols that have long since lost their original meaning for most people — for her, they’re the epitome of nostalgia.

I mean… you couldn’t think it up if you tried!

And now imagine something from our own time and place having that kind of symbolic value for somebody in 500 years’ time. For example, the Swedish king’s official motto having sentimental value to someone in 2416 Argentina.

Mind-bogggling, isn’t it? But it happens. It happens all the time. As humans, we seek for patterns and symbols in everything, and the meanings of artifacts change and change again, moving in and out of the personal, in and out of the general.

The distorted echoes of history. Seriously. It’s the reason to write.

Being gay in Elizabethan times

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

In sixteenth century England, sodomy was a capital offence, but maybe not for the reasons we think. It wasn’t just about homosexual behaviour, but about sexual debauchery in general. It had nothing to do with who you were (there was no such thing as “a homosexual” then), it was just something you did. Anal intercourse was a sin partly because it avoided conception and was only done for fun, no matter who you did it with.

For this reason, you could be hanged if you practised it, at least in theory. There aren’t many records of such executions, but this can have other reasons: records can burn or otherwise disappear. From what we can surmise, though, it seems the authorities mostly chose to look the other way. Maybe that’s understandable. I mean, if they had to hang every Tom, Dick and Francis who did something sexually questionable, they wouldn’t have the time to focus on the really important stuff like wars, would they?

Curiously though, they looked more sternly on the offence if you combined it with coining and atheism. To a 21st century person, this is completely baffling. What do sodomy, coining and atheism have to do with each other, after all?

Well, as this article and this book put forward, sodomy, like atheism, could be used as a symbol for antisocial behaviour in general. Also, funnily enough, coining and sodomy were viewed as two sides of, forgive the pun, the same coin. Lots of fascinating reasons are laid out in this article, but one aspect touches on the current view (of some!) that gay people somehow have an agenda to spread homosexuality to straight people. The Elizabethans believed that you could be “contaminated” by it, and that by practising sodomy, instead of creating children, you created new sodomites. If you also created fake money through coining, that was taken as further proof, because look, you’re making more of something bad, and it’s the same thing, right?

Right. In hindsight, many beliefs can look downright silly, but just try to view our own times with a future person’s eyes. Won’t they find a lot to laugh about?

Anyway, back to the sixteenth century. Poet Kit Marlowe was accused of sodomy, atheism and coining, and some believe that these are the things that led to his death. I won’t comment on that in this post, since it would completely ruin Rival Poet for you, should you ever wish to read it. I will say, however, that the accusations smack of truth. His poem Hero and Leander is nothing short of a gushy Leander fan letter, and Hero is described mostly through her clothes.

Exhibit A, Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;

Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.

Even as delicious meat is to the taste,

So was his neck in touching, and surpast

The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,

How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;

And whose immortal fingers did imprint

That heavenly path with many a curious dint

That runs along his back…

Okay, we get it. He was delicious enough to eat.

On to exhibit B, Hero:

The outside of her garments were of lawn,

The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;

Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,

Where Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;

Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,

Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.

No need to go on, we get the picture: Marlowe liked a bit of flair on a gal, but the gal herself? Barely there.

Another prominent person to be accused was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This guy, held by some to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works, was charged for raping his boy servants. Not just sodomy, then, but pederasty. Insert horrified gasp here. Our revered perhaps-Shakespeare, a child molester?

But wait a minute. The men who accused him may have had a bone to pick with the earl. It’s the old Michael Jackson conundrum: how can we ever guess the truth about an alleged crime committed by a rich and famous person when 1) the law tends to be lenient towards them just because they are rich and famous, and 2) people tend to accuse them of crimes in order to bring them down and/or get at their riches? Add to this that the crime in question happened more than four hundred years ago, and all we can do is speculate. In the end, Oxford was acquitted, but we can’t know why.

For my part, I chose to exploit this little historical nugget in Rival Poet. I’m not saying Oxford really did it, but I used it to add some tension to my plot and to strengthen one of my themes.

Also, as a devout Stratfordian, I guess I’m not above a little bitching…