Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's Shakespeare's Birthday!

It's Shakespeare's Birthday! Yay! Will is 450 and still going strong. I like to imagine Shakespeare transported from his time to our own, suddenly dropped down one evening onto a busy street in London or New York or -- why not? -- Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. Amid the whizzing cars, beneath the blinking stars and plane lights in the sky, by the tall buildings and the strangely clad peoples of all hues, he stands astonished for a moment. But just for a moment. Then, like Malcolm McDowell as the time-traveling H. G. Wells in Time After Time, he quickly pulls a tablet (paper, not a drug) from his pocket, and starts taking notes. "My tables! Meet it is I set it down." He walks a block, glancing and scribbling all the while, then enters a building that, for some reason, bears his name on a signboard. If he's in

Monday, April 7, 2014

More on Writing Historical Fiction

I've been invited by Christine Sneed (www.christinesneed.com), author and friend, to participate in a blog-relay of sorts, by which writers answer a slate of questions about their writing and then pass them on to other blogging writers. So here goes. The questions come with the relay, and I shall answer them to the best of my ability.

What are you working on? My diplomatic manner (still in the formative stages), my empathy and listening skills, my resistance to worry, my students' Othello exams, and, oh, yeah, some stories! At the moment I'm engaged in perhaps the third rewrite of a book I call Gunpowder Percy. It tells the tale of the twelve men and several women who conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Like most of my novels, it involves real historical characters and events with a bunch of made-up stuff thrown in -- ok, I mean artfully added -- to shape a story. This one centers on Thomas Percy, one of the leaders of the plot, who's driven slightly cuckoo by his obsessive attendance of Shakespeare's history plays. Any more would be a spoiler.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? It's much better. Ha! Actually:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bones of Macbeth Uncovered at Scottish Supermarket

Incredibly, forensic and DNA evidence have revealed that bones long preserved in the deep freeze of an Edinburgh Tesco in Queen's Road are the remains of the eleventh-century Scottish king Macbeth.

The investigation of the store's kitchens was initiated by Judith Paddock, Jane Pywacket, and Harpier Malkin, founding members of the "Friends of Macbeth," a group that has long maintained that Shakespeare's play Macbeth maligned a king who was neither tyrant nor murderer, but noble Scottish ruler.

"Shakespeare was always looking for villains for his plays,
and rewriting history," Paddock says. "And in 1605 he worked
for King James I, wh'od been the victim of several assassination
attempts, and was a generally unpopular geezer. James wanted
a play to caution his subjects against all thoughts of rebellion
or regicide. Shakespeare the King's Man knew what side his
bread was buttered on, so he came up with Macbeth, a play in

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The World Must Be Peopled

I was going to title this post "Shakespeare's Cuckolds," but that would have been misleading, since Shakespeare didn't create many actual cuckolds. (By the way, my students don't usually know what "cuckold" means, but when they find out, they become very interested.) What do I mean by saying, "Shakespeare didn't create many actual cuckolds"? This. For every bona fide Shakespeare character whose wife is truly sleeping with another man, there exist five who only think their women are cheating. Have I done the actual math? Hell, no. But I know I'm right in spirit. The fact is, Shakespeare is way more interested in masculine jealousy than in feminine sexual treachery. To be sure, his plays (not to mention his sonnets, about which, read the whole story in Paint!) do contain a few loose or, to

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Great Shakespeare Adaptations

What are the best adaptations of Shakespeare to fiction, film, poem, opera, or what you will? If you're reading this post, you'll have to settle for my largely arbitrary and probably temporary favorites. The usual thing in these lists is to pick the ten best. But my list is better, because I've chosen eleven. That's right, this goes to eleven. Look, read, watch, listen, and tell me what you think.

Best Greenish Painting Based on a Shakespeare Play: John Everett Millais' Ophelia, painted in 1852.


Justly famous, and often pictured in editions of the play, Millais' painting translates Gertrude's suspiciously detailed description of Ophelia's suicidal plunge and drift into an image as peaceful as the queen's speech. Ophelia captures Ophelia's haplessness and her helplessness, as well as Gertrude's dreamy beautification of the last moments before she drowns. Millais realized in a visual medium the queen's curious suggestion that self-slaughter can be pretty. The painting's hanging in the Tate.

In case you're sick of Hamlet, here's more Hamlet.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Scrooge Is Falstaff

It’s January 1st, and still Christmas if you celebrate the holiday from December 25th to January 6th, like Shakespeare, instead of from Halloween through December 24th, like Wal-mart. So I’ve got a Christmas question. Of what Shakespeare character was Charles Dickens thinking when he created Scrooge for A Christmas Carol?

The answer is: Falstaff.

What!?, you say. Falstaff? Jolly, festive Falstaff, the decadent, witty, frolicsome knight of Shakespeare's history plays? Falstaff as the miserly Scrooge? Impossible! (you say). Does Falstaff not have more in common with Scrooge’s kindly old employer Fezziwig, who spends his money on a Christmas party for his employees, and makes merry?

No. He does not.

Indeed, Falstaff is fat and festive, but he’s also a sinner and a skinflint, and the last person in any of Shakespeare’s plays who'd pay out of his own pocket to throw a Christmas party for his employees. He's worse than Scrooge, because he would never buy a friend a turkey. The redeemed Scrooge at least does that. Falstaff wouldn't even know what a turkey was, staggering around in London in 1410, leeching cash. Throughout his three-play career (the two Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor; four plays, if we count his reported death scene in Henry V), Falstaff's main occupation is to steal others’ money to pad his own purse. In fact, in Merry Wives, his “apprentices” (no Bob Cratchits they) abandon him because he won’t give them a raise. (Their income is entirely derived from theft, and Falstaff keeps the split uneven.)

But let me back up. Why compare Dickens’s characters to Shakespeare’s, anyway?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

How Not To Write Historical Fiction

I remember how piqued I was when a Publishers Weekly reviewer criticized my first novel, My Father Had a Daughter. She didn't like the book -- a fiction based on the life of Shakespeare's youngest child, Judith -- because it didn't end with the girl's death, like the sad fantasy about Shakespeare's sister spun by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own. Woolf's protagonist was also named Judith, and Woolf's Judith killed herself. The critic thought mine should have, too. Yet it wasn't this puzzling critique that sparked my ire. What got to me was this critic's disparagement of my novel's