Shakespeare and I have never really got on.
Sure I’ve seen productions of his plays that were fantastic, and some that were quite frankly terrible, and the odd experimental version that was, well, odd.
And the reason why I went to see them was that I enjoy the theatre and its magic, not because I enjoy Shakespeare. I never really cleaved to English Literature and its orthodoxies and its insistence that this is what it meant, and how everyone should bow down in front of the great god Shakespeare.
Instead I’ve seen him as a hack writer, a very good hack writer, but a hack writer nevertheless, stealing ideas from literature and half heard stories of places far away. One of the interesting things about Shakespeare is where he doesn’t mention – like the newly conquered Peru or Mexico, or Japan, despite all of them being in conversation and in the popular tales of Raleigh’s of Drakes voyages and raids.
And this in a time when there were black people from Africa in London, Elizabeth was in negotiations with the sultan of Morocco, and there were even two Japanese sailors who had been captured by Thomas Cavendish.
But no, perhaps Shakespeare simply found it safer, politically, to put his plays in Rome, Venice or Athens, places known at least by reputation to most of his audience and about which he could raid his grammar school education. It’s been argued that the Tempest is set off the coast of South America – that may be so, but the identification is hardly explicit.
And computational analysis of the texts have put to bed any idea that he was anything other than a hack and a writer who collaborated with Marlowe among others.
Recently I’ve read two not particularly scholarly books that have reinforced this – Dominic Dromgoole’s Will and me which is part autobiography and what he has come to feel about Shakespeare after years of producing him, and strangely enough Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novel Ruled Britania.
Central to the plot is Shakepeare’s writing of a play Boudicca. As Shakespeare didn’t write such a play Turtledove uses the text of Fletcher’s Bonduca as a source of impressive speeches.
Fletcher and Shakespeare of course knew each other, and in fact collaborated later in Shakespeare’s life, so the device of raiding Bonduca works well – it could indeed be Shakespeare.
Basically what it comes down to is that the Tudor theatre needed plays, lots of them, and that Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Munday, and the rest of them were in the business of writing them, collaborating, plagiarising and reusing each other’s work. Nothing is truly original and what we know as the Shakespeare canon is only what was attributed to him in the first folio – doesn’t mean that the attributions are correct or are all his own work.
The picture that emerges is of a working writer.
Not some lofty paragon. Not some literary genius but someone who grafted at it – and who had off days – Dromgoole’s commentary on the opening of Cymbeline being wriiten by Shakespeare on an off day when he had a hangover is both wonderfully witty and probably what it was like.
Deadlines. Fights with coauthors and actors. Days when the words wouldn’t come and days when they wouldn’t stop.
And that Shakespeare is altogether more interesting than the rather colourless genius the English Literature types would have us believe in …
(still doesn’t mean his plays aren’t hard work at times)