There’s something about Shakespeare that I find endlessly fascinating. I think it’s because the plays often seem so ordinary at first … and then … and then they just keep unfolding. You keep thinking about them. You keep murmuring over a line or two, or a word, or a passage, because it sounds so wonderful, or because you abruptly realise it has said to you something you didn’t know before. You can argue about his characters as if they are real people. You can think about the structures of his poetry, of his scenes, of his plays. You can see a hundred different productions in a year. You can read a play new-to-you and suddenly discover that that’s where that word, that phrase, that proverb comes from. You read practically any book written by anyone after about 1800 and will come across a reference of some form — it doesn’t matter if it’s a book on gardens, cosmology, Hans Christian Andersen, Dante, or what.
All this from a man whose life was decidedly ordinary. He did not enter into the historical record in a bang in his own lifetime. He’s referred to here and there in in-jokes and malicious gossip (and retractions for said malicious gossip); he’s mentioned in a few legal records of surpassing ordinariness: buying land, possibly hoarding barley, being a witness for his landlords, his own will. In his day popular, certainly — quoted by students in Oxford and Cambridge, by courtiers and ambassadors and foreign tourists seeing the London sights (then, as now, including a visit to the theatre as a matter of course).
I think, for me, it’s the combination of the transcendent and the ordinary that appeals so much. The heights of his poetry are unsurpassed (I don’t think we need to rank great art one next to each other; they are real in themselves, and thus, worthy of respect and admiration and study and enjoyment); but they are built out of the familiar and the normal, the day-to-day, the fruits of reading and imaginative play. His life seems much the same; in his own day, he was well regarded as an actor, a player, and only to a lesser extent as a poet and playwright. Quite the opposite of more recent views.
I’ve been reading a lot of books by and about Shakespeare over the past few months. I have a long-standing ambition to read his complete works, which I’m slowly putzing along on. Most recently I read The Comedy of Errors, in comparison with Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmi on which it was based. Reading the two of them close together was a delight, showing how Shakespeare took certain ideas, incidents, characters, plotlines, and made them his own. I spent some time last year reading the history plays, though I still have a few to go. I think I might go back to the beginning and read through the plays in chronological order, or as close to chronological order as we can get — there is debate among the scholars on the subject. Close enough will work here for my purposes; I want to see the development of craft, and not be spoiled by turning from Henry V to Henry VI, Part One, which did not respond well to the proximity in the reading.
It’s been interesting doing general research into the life and times of Shakespeare. I’ve not been going at it particularly systematically; I’ve been trying to get an overview of the period and his life within it. For various reasons (because I thought it was cool when I first starting writing what is now called Till Human Voices Wake Us; because I still think it’s fun; because I want to examine different sorts of fame and influence), Shakespeare is a character within my narrative universe. He’s an important person within Till Human Voices Wake Us, though as that takes place over the course of a week and the point-of-view character is thinking about other things, I didn’t need to decide on as many details of Shakespeare’s life for it. I’ve been working on a series of short stories which will carry him from the historical record through Fairyland and into the Will of my story, and even though these do take place mostly in Fairyland or its borders, I do need more details. One day I’ll write an historical fantasy which will be as close to accurate as I can make it — knowing that that will always be only partial. For now, I’m having fun with deciding on a character both pragmatic (he was a very successful businessman) and inspired. “Inkebarrow,” the first short story in this sequence, will be available on 1st May on my author website. (And just as a side note, if you happen to be curious about my fiction and want to be notified of new releases — which will be picking up steam this summer — you can sign up for the mailing list here.)
The accessible scholarly books I’ve liked best so far are 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, by James Shapiro, which is about exactly what it sounds like, and Shakespeare the Player: A Life in Theatre, by John Southworth, which is about the acting side of things (written by a Shakespearean actor of long standing and solid scholarship, focussing on what acting was like in the period and how that inflects our reading of the plays). Contested Will, also by James Shapiro, is a very interesting look at the history of the authorship debate — which is a 19th-century phenomenon far more to do with vagaries of literary theory and cultural snobbery than any historical problem with William Shakespeare of Stratford being the author of the plays and poetry. The historical reception of the Bard of Avon, however, is fascinating.