Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Thank you, Shakespeare, for my life."

by David Blixt, Finalist in the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

I always hated Shakespeare.

They made me read him. In junior high, it was Julius Caesar. In high school, first it was Romeo & Juliet (which was cool only because we wasted a week watching the movie), then it was Henry IV Part One, to which I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding’ and scraped through by listening to class discussions.

The Bard of Avon and I were not friendly. Which is why it’s so wonderfully ironic that he now dominates my life.

At the end of high school, I had a choice between a reading-Shakespeare and an acting-Shakespeare class. I was already acting, so the choice was easy. As it happened, the teachers had chosen Romeo & Juliet that year, mainly because they had a Juliet in mind. I remembered from the film that Mercutio was the best part in that show, and after auditioning against the rest of the class, I landed the part.

It was somewhere in the middle of rehearsals when I realized that my teachers had been holding out on me. You don’t read Shakespeare – you perform him. It’s not literature to be scanned, but language to be spoken by real, living, breathing people. What language! What power! What humanity!

Thus started my love affair with the Bard of Avon. Today I am a Shakespearean actor, something I would never have believed in my youth. Moreover, after giving me a career, Billy Shakes did me one better and introduced me to my wife. I met Jan playing Petruchio to her Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, giving us banter material for the rest of our lives.

And then, as if all that were not enough, Shakespeare got me to write novels.

Once again it starts with Romeo & Juliet. I’ve long been of the opinion that directors miss the point of the show. I like to compare it to the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. Before the film was released, it was called ‘Disney’s Folly.’ Who was going to sit through a feature-length cartoon? Insanity! But grown men and women left the premiere of the film crying, the critics went nuts with praise, every song became a top 10 hit, and theatre owners were forced to change seat-covers after every showing because of kids wetting themselves in terror and joy. No one had ever seen anything like it.

That’s what I think Romeo & Juliet was for the mid-1590s. It’s not a Tragedy, it bears no resemblance to Hamlet or Othello or the Scottish Play. It’s something much worse – a Comedy that goes wrong. The horror lies in the fact that first the play makes us laugh, then pulls the rug out, leaving us all confused and bewildered.

I expressed my views a few times, and suddenly found myself approached to direct the show. Warily, I accepted. It was my first time directing Shakespeare. I read old versions of the play and Shakespeare’s source materials. I pored through the whole text in a way I’d never done as an actor. Poking around for lines to cut, I found something.

I found a cause for the feud.

The cause is never actually mentioned in the play, and it’s not vital to either the actor’s or the audience’s understanding of the show. At the top of Act One, the ‘ancient grudge’ is established fact.

I was cutting the script for length and was doing well when I reached the final scene. Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet both snuff it – we’re firmly into the denouement. Suddenly a line leapt out at me. Capulet and his wife find their daughter's bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters to tomb, and the Prince addresses him: ‘Come, Montague, for thou art early up / To see thy son and heir now early down.’

Montague replies:

Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight;
Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath.
What further woe conspires against my age?


So clearly I didn’t need Lady Montague for the final scene. I flipped back to find her last appearance. She’s listed as entering in Act Three, Scene Four, when Mercutio and Tybalt both buy it – but she’s strangely quiet in that scene. Lord Capulet, too, but at least people talk to him. No one addresses Romeo’s mom, even when her son is banished. In fact, looking at it harder, Lady Montague hasn't been heard from since Act One, Scene One, in which she uttered a mere two lines!

So this was my quandary – should I cut Montague’s lines at the end of the show? Why not? The play is basically over. We’ve just watched the two romantic leads die pitiably. Why do we care if some woman we barely remember is dead?

Still, it continued to bother me. There had to be a reason she was dead. (Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there was a very good reason: the actor who played Lady Montague was probably needed in another role – the exigencies of the stage.)

Still, I couldn't let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. An off-stage death like that is supposed to be symbolic. Death is symbolic of an ending. But what ends at the end of the play?

I was going about my business later that week when it hit me – the feud! The thing that gets closure at the end of the show is the feud! Montague and Capulet bury the hatchet. They're even going to build statues to honor their dead kids. Could Lady Montague’s death be symbolic of the end of the feud? The only way that could work would be –

If she were the cause of the feud.

I experienced a breathless moment as the idea formed: a love triangle a generation earlier, between the parents! Romeo’s mother, engaged to young Capulet, runs off with young Montague instead. That’s certainly cause for a feud. And wouldn’t it be worse if young Capulet and Montague were friends, best friends, torn apart by their love for a woman. A feud born of love, dies with love.

This idea explained so much in the play. Lord Capulet, Juliet's doting father, suddenly threatening to kill her for refusing to marry the man he’s chosen for her, telling her to ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’. This from a man who has called her ‘the hopeful lady of my earth.’ His fury seems to come out of nowhere and is brutally excessive. But if his own bride-to-be had jilted him to run off with his best friend, of course Juliet’s similar behavior would press his buttons.

This notion also goes on to inform much of Capulet's relationship with his wife – a younger wife, we know from the script, not well content in her match, married to a man who thinks she is ‘marred.’ It hints, in turn, at her relationship with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea. Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad.

Oddly enough, all this doesn’t affect the actual performance of the show at all. It’s fun for the actors to play, and there are moments when it can be very clear, but the play stands, as it always has, on its action and language. The backstory ends up being superfluous.

But the idea had its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go. Throughout the following year, I was unable to leave it behind. The play was done, but my research continued.

Submerging myself in the history of Verona, I discovered some interesting facts. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the time the tale of the star-cross’d lovers supposedly took place, Dante was in Verona. Giotto was in Verona. Petrarch was in Verona. In a very real sense the Renaissance began, not in Florence as I’d assumed, but in Verona.

I cracked open earlier versions of the play, the short stories (some not so short) that were Shakespeare’s sources, and then back further to his sources’ sources. Luigi da Porto pinpoints a four year period wherein the tale is supposed to take place – during the reign of one Bartolomeo della Scala.

Della Scala? Shakespeare’s Prince of Verona is named Escalus, a Latinized version of della Scala. But the name was ringing another bell. I went back and found that Dante had dedicated the final third of his Divine Comedy, Paradiso, to Bartolomeo’s little brother, Cangrande della Scala.

Cangrande. It didn’t mean much at the time. But it would.

As I was running around doing historical research, I was also pleasure-reading. I am a glutton for well-written historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series, all of it. At the time, though, at the suggestion of my future wife, I was reading Dorothy Dunnett.

To me, Dunnett is the pinnacle of the genre. Her writing is smart and densely layered. You have to earn Dunnett, but once you’re in her world, there’s no going back. She weaves a tapestry so fine, so richly detailed, so at the core of human experience, that each of her books are a treasure. It was Dunnett more than any other writer who showed me that a book can be intelligent, dark, witty, gruesome, and exciting all at once. Her death was a heart-breaking loss to literature.

But back in early 2000 I hadn’t yet completed even the first of her series of historical novels. I wasn’t fully able to enjoy The Lymond Chronicles because Dante and the rest of the Verona cast kept crowding my brain. So I temporarily laid her books aside and started to write.

It was going to be short, more a novella than anything. Two friends in love with the same woman have a falling out over her. Simple, sweet, it would get the idea out of my system.

The first couple attempts I couldn’t find the voice. I was obsessed with the notion of the feud, which I thought was the core of my book. But while the origin of the Capulet/Montague feud fascinated me, it was the backdrop – the della Scalas, Giotto, Dante – that kept leaping to the fore.

I fought halfway through a bad version before I realized I wasn’t writing the story I wanted to tell. More research, more false starts. Finally I took a deep breath and settled in to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, something I would have bet money against at any other point in my life. It wasn’t the great revelation Shakespeare was, but it did give me the landscape of the time. And halfway through Dante knocked my socks off by mentioning the feud between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Capulet and Montagues', anyone?

In reading both the history of the period and the footnotes to Dante’s work, one man’s name kept cropping up. A man who stood above all his peers, outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Cangrande della Scala, known as the Greyhound of Verona. Revered as almost a God in his own lifetime, the man took Verona to its highest height, just before its worst fall.

Tall and handsome, with a smile famous for its joy and perfect set of teeth, he was successful in everything he did – warrior, lover, reveler, patron of the arts. Under his rule Verona was a hub of commercial and artistic growth. It was also hated and feared by its neighbors. Venice conspired against Cangrande, as did popes and emperors. He waged an almost-unceasing war with nearby Padua, finally winning through benevolence, not battle.

Cangrande’s life fascinated me as much as any play I’d ever read. Because he reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. The ties between Shakespeare and Dante were growing.

Soon I was reading about Dante himself – his wit, his loves, his politics, his exile, his family. It was then that it happened – one of those moments you hear writers talk about, where a character steps off the page and introduces himself as the lead.

Pietro Alighieri, also known as Pietro di Dante. Barely eighteen when my story starts, he came upon the scene and knocked down all my plans, which is very unlike him because he’s such a good guy. A really good guy, the kind of guy I’d want to play if I didn’t enjoy scoundrels so much. Raised in his father’s ever-growing shadow, he was a prospectless second son until the death of his elder brother elevated him to heir.

With no particular skill in anything, just great heart and determination, he gave the series its initial voice, allowing us to watch his growth, feel his joys and hopes, and share his disillusionments.

But there was another element missing. If the idea for the feud was going to become the subplot, a crucial but subdued backdrop, where was my plot? What was my spine? The book seemed to be writing itself, everything falling into place, and still I didn’t know what Pietro’s goal was.

All good actors, when they are lost, return to the text. That goes for directors and, it seems, writers. I sat down and once again pored through the story of the star-cross’d lovers.

Then it came, the answer. In my mind, the Bard of Avon chuckled as he met Dante’s son and gave him his raison d’etre. I had come full circle, the best of all possible worlds.

Mercutio. Of course, Mercutio. Referred to as both a cousin to the Prince, and ‘the Prince’s near ally,’ Mercutio was in some way tied to the della Scala family. The pivotal figure of Romeo & Juliet would be only a newborn babe when my story began. We couldn’t follow him, not from the outset – following the adventures of a toddler in fourteenth century Italy is not what I call exciting. But following the trials and tribulations of his protector, young Pietro Alighieri – that had promise!

All at once it was Mercutio’s story. The possibility of creating from Shakespeare’s text and real history the tale of this marvelously troubled young man was just too tempting. I could explain the darkness in the Queen Mab speech, from his disdain of love and his homoerotic tendencies to his fear of war drums and his foul images of childbirth. Shakespeare’s Mercutio has a wealth of possibility, and if I could tap even a little of it, I had the makings of a great story.

Moreover, bringing it back to Shakespeare led me to look at the phrase ‘star-cross’d,’ which carries elements of both prophecy and futility. Looking closely, Mercutio is the agent of the stars, because his death is what leads the young lovers to their fate. So Mercutio is a tool of the heavens.

Dante uses prophecy often. The Inferno begins with a retooling of an ancient one regarding the mythical Greyhound, a man who will save Italy and take it into another age. I knew from my reading that scholars have often speculated that Dante was referring to Cangrande – but what if he meant someone else?

Here I was faced with a decision – can I bring the prophecies of Shakespeare and Dante together, roll them together, and slap them on a defenseless child still in his crib? Am I that cruel?

Turns out I am. Researching astrology and numerology, I came up with a prophetic doom revolving around Dante’s Greyhound that all my characters could struggle against, in vain. With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that the ‘new age of man’ alluded to in the Greyhound prophecy was the Renaissance.

The stars aligned, the story poured out. Once into the thick of it, I started seeing connections with the Bard's other Italian plays. Characters and events from The Taming of the Shrew are actually mentioned in R&J, so Kate and Petruchio make cameo appearances. There are characters from Two Gentlemen of Verona, of course, but others as well – Shylock, Don Pedro of Aragon and his nasty bastard brother. The Duke from Measure for Measure (also an Escalus) is mentioned in passing. The original idea of the Montague/Capulet feud blossomed into a panoramic story about Shakespeare’s characters living in Dante’s world.

The book ended, sold, and was published. But I was nowhere near finished. The Master of Verona was followed by Voice of the Falconer and Fortune's Fool. Pietro became a man, and the child grew, becoming more and more the focus of the story. The Prince’s Doom is the tale of him stepping into manhood, with wonderful and disastrous results. The story is now fully Mercutio’s.

I’m hard pressed to choose a favorite. Everyone likes beginnings. Some people like the sticky middle. But I think of the whole series to date as a symphony. Themes were built early on, providing familiar ground. Then more instruments came in, digressing and intriguing. But this, this is the swelling crescendo, where all the elements come together to pull the spirit straight out of the chest and into the air. It has something for everyone – mystery, romance, murder, war, politics, law, whimsy, horror, chills, pathos, hope, and ruin.

I read somewhere that when Alan Alda met Donald Sutherland, he simply took the other man’s hand and said, “Thank you for my life.” If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure that’s what I’d have to say.

But I'd start by telling him how I'd always hated him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

David Blixt is the author of seven novels, most recently The Prince’s Doom, the fourth volume in the Star-Cross’d series, which began with The Master Of Verona and continued through Voice Of The Falconer. The third volume, Fortune’s Fool, was Editor’s Choice for the Historical Novel Society in 2013. The Prince’s Doom is a Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction.

Born in Ann Arbor and now living in Chicago, David’s career began in theatre. Drawn to classical works, he’s traveled far and wide, performing Aristophanes in ancient amphitheatres, Shakespeare in re-creations of the Globe, acting and designing theatrical combat for national productions. In 2014 David won a Wilde Award for Best Actor In A Comedy for his portrayal of Algernon in The Importance Of Being Earnest.

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3 comments:

  1. I spent most of my working career at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and have been a Dorothy Dunnett devotee since 1968, so thank you for this on two fronts, despite R & J being my least favourite Shakespeare play! Will definitely read your sequence

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  2. Have just bought 'Master of Verona' for my Kindle!

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  3. Have just bought 'Master of Verona' for my Kindle!

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