Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Old Drama

Since doing research for my own novel “Blood and Ink”, I have had many people ask me about different aspects in the novel, as to whether or not some of the events actually happened or not. Of course, as I have stated before, I am a fiction writer not a historian; but it is interesting as a writer to take things from the real life and apply them to an imaginary encounter in a novel.

One of the events in my novel is where Shakespeare and his family went to Coventry for a county fair and to see the players perform a “miracle or mystery” play on the stage. Did they really do this and what was Shakespeare’s knowledge of the old drama of the day?

So this post is about the knowledge he had and an excerpt from my novel of a day when he might have visited Coventry.

What were “miracle and mystery” plays? Craig’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare reads “The miracle play, also widely current in England, shows a different variety of religious drama, although mystery plays and miracle plays shade off gradually into each other and are not different in origin. Miracle plays, as distinguished from mystery plays, are those which tell the stories of the lives and miracles of saints and martyrs. English records are preserved in considerable numbers of plays on St. Katherine, St. Laurence, St. Nicholas, and other saints; but the texts of only two or three have been preserved, and they are not representative. To know what when on dramatically in honor of the saints one must study the plays preserved in French. One finds there a variety of saints’ plays as well as the great Miracle de Notre Dame.

There are also the great group of dramatized allegories of varying lengths, known as the morality plays. A number of them, such as The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, and Everyman, are still in existence. Moralities were less offensive to the taste of the Reformation than were the mystery and miracle plays so that they had a better chance to survive.”

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Shakespeare knew these plays in their old forms, we know this because of his references, along with a bit of ridicule, to various episodes and characters in them. Herod and Termagant, both characters in mystery plays, appear together in Hamlet. Shakespeare compares Falstaff to the Mannington ox which is a reference to the Mannington fair and possible the morals. Falstaff remarks in contempt about Justice Shallow. Both references in I Henry IV of “that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years” and “that old white-bearded Satan” recalls knowledge of the morality plays.  When Falstaff refers to the flea on Bardolph’s nose as a black soul burning in hell-fire, he may have been referring to the play of the Last Judgment.

Craig’s book also says: “Shakespeare had opportunity to see the old plays, for the Corpus Christi play was performed annually in Coventry, only fourteen miles from Stratford, until he was sixteen years old. It is no extravagant guess that he joined the throng of those who attended the play at the chief city in Warwickshire. In some places in England the Corpus Christi plays continued to be performed until after the beginning of the seventeenth century in spite of the fact that such plays were obviously “blasted with antiquity.” Shakespeare was a child of his time and therefore looked with amusement, if not contempt, on these old-fashioned folk practices.”

Which brings me to my own interpretation of his family’s visit to Coventry. An excerpt from my novel brings the flavor of the day as the Shakespeare family travels on the road toward Coventry for a Mayday fair.

Excerpt from “Blood and Ink” –

The townspeople of Stratford welcomed the drizzly days of May. The ice covering the banks of the Avon melted and laughter came again to the waters beneath Clopton Bridge. William watched the children splashing and playing, jumping from the Roman stone wall holding the bridge in an arch. The wagon he sat upon clacked across the cobblestones, rocking his family from side to side. They were one short on their journey to Coventry this spring, and he looked to the spot where his sister, Anne, would have sat. Little Anne did not make it through the harsh winter and he missed the dimples in her face.

Gilbert nudged William from his dreaming. “I heard Mother say this would be the last year for our trip to Coventry.”

William shrugged his shoulders. “’Tis the same as last year.”

Gilbert scooted closer and lowered his voice. “Nay, ’tis not the same. Father said the council in Coventry has banned the mystery plays. They see it as an old influence of Catholic Mary. You know, watch the plays and scare the common folk to confession.”

“Well, if ’tis banned, then why do we go?”

Gilbert looked to their father whose back was to them as he rallied the horses to Coventry with a click of his tongue. “Father still clings to it, know you this?”

William frowned and pulled his coat closer around his shoulders, still feeling a chill in his bones. Gooseflesh raised on his forearms as he thought of his father’s descent, the meeting with Edmund Campion and the testament he saw his father tuck above a rafter in his workshop three years ago. So much had changed since that talk with his father. Foremost, the capture of Campion. William remembered seeing his father stagger in late from a tavern, his cheeks pale and ashy, but not from too much ale. John slumped in a chair, hanging his head over his hands. Mary and William gathered near to him, sitting on the hearth and urging him to speak. When the words came out, what a tale he relayed.

The lower lid of John’s eyes reddened. “Walsingham arrested Campion, and many others. Edward sent word that his sources at the Tower reported for the past month they subjected Campion to thumbscrews and the clenching jaws of the Scavenger’s Daughter before throwing him into a pit below the White Tower. There is more. Campion crumbled and delivered names to his torturers. After his confession, they dragged him to Tyburn where they burned his innards and quartered him into four parts. His head now sits as food for the ravens atop the ramparts of London Bridge. Edward fears for us all, for the Queen’s wrath will descend upon Warwickshire, headed up by that sinister man, Walsingham. We must learn to suspect strangers in our midst.”

William found it impossible to care about the death of the Jesuit. His thoughts continued dwelling on pursuing his nagging desire for the stage. A day did not pass without his mind tracing over the peculiar dream he had several years earlier in the forest at Park Hall. Yet, his family needed money and, as the eldest, he had to find work. In between tanning hides for his father’s gloving work, setting traps for hares in Charlecote forest, and packing wool in woven bags, he managed a few chances to walk the boards at Burbage’s tavern. The plays usually brief, always staying to the classic lines of Plautus or Seneca, but just enough to keep his blood stirring.

John Shakespeare hid well the cause of his fall from the rest of the family. The thought made William’s skin crawl, for in his father’s demise he brought them all down. His mother turned into a wafting specter, ashy and non-existent, while his siblings bumped about their lives grasping for semblances of their identities, the way for a family of an ambitious man whose star plummets. William squared his shoulders and jaw, setting down a promise in his mind.

I shall never travel that path. When I marry, my family will never suffer from my ambition.

Within the hour, the cart rallied around Wiltshire Wood where the oak tree girths widen and the whispering tales of thieves in the trees fill the air. They topped the hill overlooking a fresh culled wheat field just south of Coventry, green and lush with new growth, and the lilting music of days long past drifted on the wind. Old Celtic ballads plucked upon lutes and lyres, piping and drumming surged through the gathering crowds, beckoning their pagan past. William stood up in the cart and held his hand over his eyes, shielding the spring sun, and scanned the field for the stage. In the distance, past the maypoles adorned with a rainbow of dyed ribbons, two green banners flapped in the breeze embroidered with the arms of the Earl of Leicester. William’s blood raced. He clasped his hands together and laughed, grabbing hold of Gilbert’s shirt.

“Look there, ’tis Leicester’s Men on the stage. If you look for me, there is where I will be.”

William jumped from the cart and sprinted across the emerald field. As he approached, the sights and sounds of players drowned out all notice of the festival. Richard Burbage, William’s longtime friend, saw him from afar and waved to him.

“Will, come join us!”

William touched his hand to the stage, feeling the knots and the grain as he soaked in the sensation pounding within him. He watched the players as they walked around him. They were all there, the statues of his idolatry: William Knell, Tobias Mills, and John Singer, decked in costume. Tarleton, adorned in white face paint and rosy cheeks, sat on the steps tapping upon a tabor. William nodded to him as he rounded the corner of the stage.

Richard came up to his elbow and nudged him. “What say you, Will, shall you join us for a line or two?”

A knot formed in his stomach as he cut his stare to Richard. “What do you mean? To perform with Leicester’s Men? Surely they would not allow it.”

Richard pulled a mask from his cloak. “Who is to know? ‘Tis a masque we perform today. You know Sidney’s masque The Lady of May?”

William huffed. “Know it? Has not every child in Christendom suckled on his works?”

Richard handed him the mask. “Then put this on and we will keep the secret. Master Wilson owes me a favor. I will have you on his mark, so come with me.”

The groundlings gathered before the stage and roared at the clown Tarleton’s prologue, his comic ambles full of religious slights tame enough to keep his head and wild enough to thrill the audience. The masque came next and William hit his queues with finesse, even falling upon the gestures and attitudes like natural rote. As the last exeunt passed and the final bow before a cheering crowd, William gazed out behind his mask upon the faces and heard his calling. His heart soared. At that moment, his eyes fell upon a golden-haired maiden gazing up at him as Andromeda upon Jason. She tilted her head toward him, giggled and wove away into the crowd.

The May dance began. Hundreds of people gathered at the poles, clapping to the rhythm of the pipes and tabors and watching as maidens attired in white laced corsets and flowing blue skirts circled and braided the ribbons of the maypole, in and out, twisting the colors, as their voices soared breathless in laughter and song. William watched only one girl among the virginal flowers, her hair shimmering like struck gold coins dipped and cooled in water, and flowing down her back to her waist.

*****

*Want to read more? Buy the book here: Amazon “Blood and Ink”

*****

So, using a bit of artistic license, I used Shakespeare’s knowledge of the miracle, morality, and mystery plays as food for my own scene in my novel. While these plays, in Shakespeare’s time, affected the population in moral and religious instruction, Craig points out that it also gave them a command of a way of dramatic thinking and a form of literary culture. The plays were so dear to their hearts that they disappeared slowly from the surrounding countryside, from those who still adhered to the old way of thinking. And do we not see the same in our own modern-day theater and film? Culture and drama are still developing and updating, yet many hold on to old ideas, the old miracles, morality and mystery of our day.

To write about men like Shakespeare and Marlowe is to write about ourselves, for in truth, whether 21st century or 17th century, we are still human, influenced by the same wants, needs, and desires. Ambition still rules our hearts, love still moves us, and tragedy shapes our actions. So, to view a slice of their lives, whether in fiction or non-fiction, gives a mirror into our own soul. At least, that is my thoughts… what about yours?

I would love to hear!

Thanks for reading.

D. K. Marley

How the 17th-Century Religious Question Influenced Shakespeare’s works

This is an interesting question for any writer, no matter what century he or she lives/lived in, and merits a post about Shakespeare’s thinking as he wrote his plays, as well as how modern day writing is influenced by religion, or if it is at all anymore!

This section of Craig’s Shakespeare follows: “After Elizabeth came to the throne there was a bitter reaction against the Catholics. Those Protestants who fled abroad to avoid persecution under Queen Mary brought back with them continental ideas of theology and a new and stiffer type of Protestantism. The Church of England assumed a middle position between this extreme Protestantism and Catholicism; this was the position of Burghley and of Queen Elizabeth (as I expound in my novel “Blood and Ink”). By the middle of her reign extreme Protestantism, commonly called Puritanism, was expressing itself either in Presbyterianism or Independency, and the time came when it offered a violent attack on the middle position held by the Church of England. Shakespeare hardly shows himself aware of this powerful and pregnant force. His allusions to the Puritans are few and indefinite, but they have been thought to be scornful. His position on religious matters was probably that of the Queen. He is equally noncommital as regards the Church of Rome, although he shows a sympathetic understanding of the institutions of the Catholic church in Hamlet, King John, and elsewhere.”

This is very interesting, as the whole “non-commital” stance that Craig points out. I do believe that as a playwright, one who had the ear of the Queen (and possibly an entirely different writer as “Blood and Ink” alludes), this goes hand in hand with my thoughts on his possible compromise to promote his works. Keep quiet so the higher powers will continue to patron his works.

I think it is interesting to what extent many artists, and writers, and so on, will go to in an attempt to promote their works. Some compromise their beliefs, their morals, and their own integrity to make money, to commercialize instead of maintaining their love for their own artistry. I am not saying this is what Shakespeare did, for as we are well aware, his works speak for themselves; but at what cost? We may never know, well, for sure we don’t have the present opportunity to speak with the man himself and ask him what he sacrificed in order to see his works come to fruition. He may have sacrificed his beliefs and stayed quiet in order to appease the Queen, he may have sacrificed his life in Stratford-upon-Avon with his wife and children to see his works upon the stage. Who knows?

But the idea makes us, as modern writers, sit back and peruse these thoughts in relation to our own writing. What are we willing to sacrifice to see our works in print? To see them become best sellers? Our time? Our beliefs? Our family? Our name?

For my part, I will gladly sacrifice the words on a page, my writing, if it meant losing any of those things; but that is just me…. what about you?

Thanks for reading and following!

D. K. Marley

How People Viewed Shakespeare in His Day Versus Today

I am finding as I post more and more thoughts on Shakespeare, and as a rule in general, people are very skeptical when it comes to reading or talking about Shakespeare. This, in truth, is a shame, and I find myself scratching my head and wondering if I am just bashing my head against a wall in wanting people to stretch into his plays and words. What am I missing? Or is it that people are doing themselves an injustice in reading the first ‘thou’ or ‘whence’, shaking their head in intimidation and shutting the book?

Curiouser and curiouser, I find.

I started doing some research on what people of Shakespeare’s generation thought about him, and while I do acknowledge that his generation already used (to a certain extent) his wordage and they were familiar with the Elizabethan stage, I started wondering about the ordinary person; or what about later generations who read his plays? What did they think?

Here is what I came across in Craig’s editorial: “A powerful impulse came to the study and appreciation of Shakespeare with the generation who lived during the epoch of the French Revolution. A new Shakespeare criticism was part of that revival of art and letters which we ordinarily call the Romantic Movement. The thinkers of that day were interested in a wider variety of ideas about life than were the pseudo-classicists. They found in Shakespeare such a marvelously significant and consistent picture of life that they came to think of him as endowed with the insight of a seer and the power of a poet, as greater and more significant than life itself. Each of his plays became a microcosm capable of yielding to the student, if he came with love and admiration in his heart, finer truth than science could yield. Science, they argued, bounds itself by fact; poetry has no such limits, but is a mode of revelation of the philosophy of life, presenting in concrete and constructive form what life means and what life might be. Shakespeare, the poet, was thus metamorphosed into a philosopher and teacher so that his works became a hunting ground where one might find the greatest thoughts about existence.”

Wow! What a boost into immortality for this small town actor and writer from Stratford-upon-Avon!!

But what about today? Where is this thinking on Shakespeare in the ordinary modern world of today? Will a movie need to be made, will a game for the new gaming system need to be created, will an app for our cell phones have to be developed to reach the millions of modern tech seekers in this generation for Shakespeare to find a voice in this world of microchip and internet flood? Will his ancient words and his creation of the 17th-century human even make a ripple in this ocean?

My hopeful heart says yes, that somehow his plays still matter and his works will continue to be a hunting ground where one might find the greatest thoughts about existence. Craig continues later saying, “Human nature remains the same from age to age,” so we must continue to see Shakespeare, the poet, as that philosopher and teacher for this modern generation for when we read his plays, we see ourselves. We are Hamlet in his cowardice, in his pain; We are Iago in our jealousy and hate; We are Juliet in our teenage rebelliousness and first love; We are Prince Harry in his stirring ambition and victory, and on and on and on…

These are my thoughts for today about the man, the genius and the poet. I would love to hear your thoughts on how his works influence you or how one might encourage this modern generation to delve into his words…. please comment below!

Thanks for reading!

D. K. Marley

The Mind of a Master Discussing a Master

I decided to do some research on the editor of my grandmother’s college book “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, and get an idea of the man behind the research done in the preface and introductory analysis of each play, and I have to say, I am astounded.

Wikipedia describes him as the foremost authority on Shakespeare and Milton of his time.

Here is the Wikipedia description of him: Hardin Craig (29 June 1875 – 13 October 1968) was an American Renaissance scholar and professor of English. In his 65-year academic career, he served on the faculties of eight different colleges and universities, published more than 20 books as either author or editor, and was one of the few Americans to be elected to the Royal Society of Literature in Britain.

I thought how interesting it would be to continue posting direct quotes of his from the book while adding my own annotations in parentheses since it seems my blog is becoming more and more Shakespearean by the day. Or at least it is starting that way since I have the intention of delving more into Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as some of my other favorite authors: C. S. Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ken Follett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rosalind Miles, Daphne Du Maurier, The Bronte Sisters, and Jane Austen.

Shakespeare seems to be a good start to this blog, so I hope you enjoy the journey through Shakespeare, to feel the intensity my own heart feels for the plays and the passion that the words of the Bard can portray in these modern times.

(I love these words of Craig’s): “One does not approach Shakespeare as one approaches authors less well known, authors to whom the track has been opened mainly by historical scholars. The road to Shakespeare is a well-traveled highway. Every modern person who has any pretense to culture knows something about Shakespeare and considers himself in some sense an authority in the interpretation of such characters as Hamlet and Shylock, and usually has a firm rooted opinion that Shakespeare was a self-made man with a proclivity for deer-stealing. To ask a person if he knows anything about Shakespeare is to ask him if he belongs to a respectable family and has had any care in his upbringing. No author ingrained in popular thought as Shakespeare is, no author whose words are proverbs for daily use, can be properly studied without some attention to such questions as how he got into print and how his fame grew and thrived through the centuries.”

(Ah, so true…. opinions about Shakespeare are as common as the noses on people’s faces… and those of wanting to debate whether or not he indeed wrote the plays is becoming more and more common. There was a time when I believed he did not write the plays, but as the time passes, I have come to realize that my belief came simply from my in-depth research into my own novel “Blood and Ink” which delves into the possibility of Marlowe being the actual writer of the plays of the First Folio. When Craig says ‘Every modern person who has any pretense to culture knows something about Shakespeare and considers himself in some sense an authority in the interpretation of such characters as Hamlet and Shylock, and usually has a firm rooted opinion that Shakespeare was a self-made man with a proclivity for deer stealing,’ a smile came to my face. There is such a sacredness for those of us who love Shakespeare, especially those of us passionate about the man and the works, and after immersing into learning the beauty of his words and genius, we indeed feel like we have a firm rooted opinion and consider ourselves in some sense an authority in the interpretation of much of his characters and words.

But, in reality, none of us lived during the 1600s. None of us have had the opportunity to interview the very man, so all the authority and opinions any of us feel like we have, they are indeed just opinion and our own interpretation of our idea of what he may have meant in certain passages, what provoked his thoughts to write quips or scenes or develop certain characters, and what in his background added to his ability to create the incredible blank verse we are so fortunate to have before our eyes in this 21st century.

I have found that as an author myself, experience adds much to writing. My thoughts as to Shakespeare’s experience sometimes wavers and tick-tocks back and forth like the movements of a cuckoo clock. Sometimes I believe, sometimes I don’t, that he is the actual writer. But again, I remind myself on a daily basis, I am just a historical fiction writer, not a historian. I am content to remain an avid Shakespearean geek and leave the philosophizing of his authorship, his education, and background to those who, in reality, cannot, and will not, ever truly know.

I am content to revel and relish his words, no matter if they are Shakespeare’s or not. They inspire me… they make me feel happy when the words filter across my tongue. I think Shakespeare would smile at this thought because after all, isn’t that what all of us as authors wish? To one day, five hundred years from now, for our characters and our words to dance through a stranger’s mind and still, after all those passing years, years after we have passed off this mortal coil, for them to inspire another soul and to bring happiness to another human being. That is what Shakespeare is to me.)

Thanks for reading!

D. K. Marley

How to Enjoy Shakespeare

I found this passage while rereading Hardin Craig’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare and found the words immensely agreeable to anyone who might wonder how on earth to completely enjoy reading or watching the plays of Shakespeare.

There are so many I have heard through the years who roll their eyes and sigh with disgust at the very thought of attempting to read or watch anything Shakespearean. I am not of that opinion, nor have I ever been, but I can see if one is intimidated by the wordage or form or style of his plays and sonnets, how they might shrug off any attempt to give them a try.

The passage reads like this and after meditating on the idea Craig offers, maybe if you are not a Shakespearean fan, maybe this will give you the impetus to give him another chance.

Craig says, “All of this repeats from another point of view an age-old criticism of Shakespeare; namely, that he is an exuberant artist, that he is not restrained and classical. But this exuberance has been his chief source of power; we merely cite the facts in order to control, in the interest of a true and vivid appreciation of Shakespeare, idel and unintelligent speculation on the interpretation of Shakespearean characters and plots. We should learn to surrender ourselves so completely and so intelligently to Shakespeare’s artistic appeal that we, like the audiences for whom he wrote, can enjoy his art in spite of its conventions. In doing this we shall not need commentators who insist forever on doing the work over in needless paraphrases of plot and endless discussions of characters. We should put ourselves, if we can, into a sufficiently receptive mood to enjoy Shakespeare’s appeal to simple emotions,, though in doing so it may be necessary for us to suspend our demand for naturalism and philosophy. We should recognize that what we have is a story, told usually marvelously well, with the somewhat crude device of the Elizabethan stage; and that it is a story which, however replete with originality, was usually already familiar to the audience for which it was written.”

Here, here, I say… bravo!! Shakespeare was the Lin Manuel-Miranda of his day. For those Hamilton fans of the Broadway stage, Shakespeare used the devices common to his day to tell the audiences stories of history, of love, of hate, of violence, of jealousy, of joy, of lust, of betrayal, of innocence, of arrogance, of passion, of the travails of the ordinary man as well as noble. The invention of the human, as we all know is still happening on the Broadway stage and lesser stages around the world. The genius of Shakespeare is seen clearly today in our modern versions of Manuel-Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Craig also points out: “…the more nearly we can see as Shakespeare meant us to see, the more adequate will be our vision and the keener our enjoyment. Neither the Elizabethan writer nor the Elizabethan audience had a body of ideas like ours, knew what we know or in the way we know it, wanted the same things from life that we want, or thought of drama or life as we think of them… Since Shakespeare did not and could not think and talk in terms of such ideas, he should not be made to do so.”

Shakespeare was and is an artist, a writer, and for most of us who aspire to write even one percent of a tenth as Shakespeare wrote, we can understand the significance of allowing Shakespeare to simply be Shakespeare, the artist, and writer. As writers, we all make allowances for artistic expression and for the most part, seek to align ourselves with our audiences for the sake of commercialization. Five hundred years from now will audiences of that future look back on George R. R. Martin’s book series of Game of Thrones or Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and think, “No, I will pass because the wordage and the style are just too complex or too hard for me to tackle.”

The thought should give us a moment to reflect. Shakespearean plays and sonnets are well worth the time and effort anyone might take to sit back and enjoy, whether by reading or watching. We have enough adaptations on BBC and movies to fill our bellies full of quality Shakespearean meat for any who wish to delve into the buffet without actually sitting down with a book. I have to admit, sitting down with an entire folio of his plays and sonnets is rather daunting, so I have listed a few of my favorite movies, and the links to buy, based on his plays for any who wish to give them him a try (in order from my favorite to least favorite):

Henry V – Kenneth Branaugh
Hamlet – Mel Gibson, Helena Bonham-Carter

Richard III – Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown, The War of the Roses)
Henry VI, part 1 and 2 – Hugh Bonneville (The Hollow Crown, The War of the Roses)
Richard II – Ben Whishaw (The Hollow Crown)
Henry IV – Jeremy Irons (The Hollow Crown)
Henry V – Tom Hiddleston (The Hollow Crown)
Hamlet – David Tennant
Romeo and Juliet – Olivia Hussey
Romeo and Juliet – Leonardo di Caprio
The Taming of the Shrew – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton
The Merchant of Venice – Al Pacino
Richard III – Lawrence Olivier
Hamlet – Kenneth Branaugh, Kate Winslet
Othello – Kenneth Branaugh, Lawrence Fishburne
Much Ado About Nothing – Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson
Twelfth Night – Helena Bonham-Carter
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfieffer
Titus Andronicus – Anthony Hopkins

I have yet to see an adaptation of Macbeth that I truly enjoyed, save for the possible one made years ago by Roman Polanski, but since it has been awhile since I saw that one, I left it off the list. These are my favorites. (addendum to this post: The newest Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was, in my opinion, visually and intellectually fulfilling!)

So, my advice is to give Shakespeare a try again; who knows, perhaps with these words in your mind, the beauty of his verse may find its way into your mind and heart.

Thanks for reading! Please share and comment if you wish!!

D. K. Marley

IMPERFECT ALCHEMIST: WRITING WOMEN’S VOICES by Dr. Naomi Miller

I’d like to welcome Naomi Miller to the blog today for a guest post.

Dr. Naomi Miller is a professor of English and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. An award-winning author of books on Renaissance women and gender, she teaches courses on Shakespeare and his female contemporaries, as well as on modern women’s adaptations and reinventions of Shakespeare. Her debut novel, Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby, November 2020), focuses on Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: https://naomimillerbooks.com/.

After thirty years as a scholar of early modern women’s studies, she realized that her work wasn’t close to being complete as long as the wider public had no awareness of the extraordinary women authors who were published and read in the time of Shakespeare. Imperfect Alchemist is the first in a projected series of novels centered on these authors, called Shakespeare’s Sisters – celebrating Renaissance women not simply for their relation to men (like the wives of Henry VIII), but for their own voices.

She was interviewed by the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast “Shakespeare Unlimited” – a great interview if you wish to listen here:

https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/mary-sidney-imperfect-alchemist-miller

Imperfect Alchemist: Writing Women’s Voices 

Guest Post by Naomi Miller 

Many popular novels about Renaissance women picture them in relation to powerful men. One  need look no further than the steady stream of novels about the wives of Henry VIII, perpetuating a  phenomenon that I have named the “Noah’s ark approach,” which positions women in dependent  relation to famous men. Contemporary readers of historical fiction have missed out on an extraordinary array of women’s voices that were heard in their own period – both acclaimed and reviled – but then  silenced over time and excluded from the canon of accepted classics. 

My own projected series, Shakespeare’s Sisters, comprises six interrelated historical novels  that imagine the stories of early modern women authors from their own perspectives. These novels offer fictional engagements with an array of early modern figures, from queens to commoners. Historical women, including Mary Sidney Herbert, the protagonist of Imperfect Alchemist, are at the  center of the narratives, bringing their voices and experiences to life for modern audiences.  

Shakespeare’s Sisters centers on women whose lives and voices both shape and are shaped by  women, many of whom appear in each other’s stories. Spanning generations and social classes, the  series paints a multi-hued portrait of Renaissance England, seen through the lives of courtiers,  commoners, poets, playwrights and, above all, indomitable women who broke the rules of their time  while juggling many of the responsibilities and obstacles faced by women worldwide today. 

Imperfect Alchemist, the opening novel in the series, is an imaginative reinvention of the  remarkable life of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke – friend of Queen Elizabeth, visionary  scientist, advocate for women writers and scandalous lover of a much younger man. One of the earliest  women authors in Renaissance England to publish under her own name, the Countess successfully  forged a place for herself in a man’s world.

A member of one of England’s leading families, she carved out space for herself as a daring  and often controversial figure in a royal court riven by jealousies and intrigues. Her pioneering literary  and scientific experiments challenged many of Renaissance England’s established conventions – one  of the things that most strongly drew me to her.  

As an influential literary patron as well as author, she convened a literary salon of writers  whose membership included Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson and other authors interested in  testing the limits of literary forms. Her own play about Antony and Cleopatra is believed to have  influenced Shakespeare.  

Responding to the Countess’s role as mentor to a cohort of women writers – including Mary  Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary and Anne Clifford, all of whom will play lead roles in the Shakespeare’s Sisters series – I have imagined these women into her circle, their interaction with the  male authors inspiring visions of new possibilities.  

In Imperfect Alchemist, the fictional Mary Sidney Herbert is mediated through my knowledge  of her real-life circumstances and her writings. She was also a scientist, practicing alchemy in her  private laboratory to prepare chemical and herbal remedies. Although the Countess was a well regarded alchemist, no manuscript records of her alchemical recipes or experiments survive. I have  drawn on historical accounts documenting the detailed practices of other female alchemists of the  period present an authentic, if conjectural, account of her scientific work.  

As the acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Dunant observes, fashioning historical  verisimilitude, “like a pointillist painting,” lies in the details. Indeed, Dunant describes historical  details as “gold dust,” giving her readers confidence that they’re encountering worlds that actually  existed, thus grounding the novel’s inventions in a “multicolored” world.  

To lend a broader perspective than Mary’s point of view alone, I introduce an invented  character, Rose Commin, her lady’s maid – a country girl who brings an entirely different outlook to their intersecting lives. Trained to serve and observe, Rose proves to be both a keen judge of character  and a skilled artist whose drawings give new dimension to Mary’s own life and writings.  

Most of the characters in the book are fictional renditions of real historical figures whose roles  combine elements of their actual lives with my own inventions. The “supporting cast,” both real and  invented, adds three-dimensionality to the fictional storyline. 

Once I embarked on the first draft of the novel, I had to guard against my tendency, as a  scholar, to plunge down historical or literary “rabbit-holes,” enticed by fascinating details that would interrupt the writing process and might obscure rather than illuminate the story – dust rather than gold  dust. The most valuable advice I received came from a novelist friend who reminded me that “as a  novelist, your responsibility is to the story, not to history. Just tell the story that matters!” 

So what is the story that matters in Imperfect Alchemist? Most of the novel is written from two  alternating points of view: Mary’s, in the third person, and Rose’s, in the first person. As I was writing,  the story that came to matter the most was about both of these women, driven by sometimes conflicting  imperatives of creative expression and desire – one a quiet artist, the other an outspoken author – who  come to connect across class lines, learning truths from each other that they never expected to discover  about themselves and their world. 

The celebrated novelist Hilary Mantel maintains that “you become a novelist so you can tell the  truth,” and observes that “most historical fiction is … in dialogue with the past.” My driving aim is to  “tell the truth” that becomes visible in these historical women’s writings, and to put my own fiction  into dialogue with theirs. 

My goal has been to tell a story that imagines the perspectives of historical women in a world  that encompasses both known facts and imagined possibilities, illuminating the historical record without being limited by it. I like to think that the real Mary Sidney Herbert, alchemist and author, would appreciate my transmutation of her story.

Naomi Miller, “Imperfect Alchemist: Writing Women’s Voices”

Thank you for your guest post!

D. K. Marley

The Hist Fic Chickie

Buy the book:

I Adore “The Hollow Crown”!!

There is a good thing about getting sick. You are forced to lay in bed or on the couch and binge watch some really great shows (plus do some writing if your brain can focus out of the fog of pain).

I must say, I am completely and utterly enamored with the portrayal of these Shakespeare plays on BBC. And I came across them quite by accident a while ago, while researching some things on Shakespeare for my novel, The Prince of Denmark. Needless to say, my husband thought I lost my mind when I jumped up from my sickened state yelling, “Hurry up, buy this for me! I just found this on Amazon and I need this now!!”

He did, and we spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday night watching the series The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses, which covers the plays Henry VI, Part One and Two, and Richard III. We were both speechless after watching them.

I thought I would post the brief synopsis of the series for anyone who reads this and is looking for a 16th-century story told about 15th-century history.  When Shakespeare wrote these plays the history was only about 200 years old. My husband said it would be like writing something today about the history that happened in the early 1800s. Interesting, huh?

Here is the synopsis:

These three screen adaptations, Henry VI in two parts and Richard III, tell the story of The Wars of the Roses, an exceptionally turbulent period in British history. Shakespeare’s plays are filmed in the visually breathtaking landscape and architecture of the period. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins, & Sophie Okonedo, these exhilarating and emotionally charged films feature some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent and powerful language.

Don’t even get me started on how I feel about Benedict Cumberbatch. And he plays Richard III…. need I say more? As well as, Judi Dench and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey plays the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of Henry VI).

In other words, history synopsis goes like this: Henry IV seized the throne, thus the throne of England passed to his son, Henry V, and on to Henry VI; but there were other claimants to the throne who had better right, such as the Duke of York who claimed right not only through his father but his mother, as well; and the Duke of Somerset who claimed right through the third son of Edward III, his great-grandfather). Although, Henry VI still had right from the same third son of Edward III (his great-great grandfather). So, the throne switched from hand to hand over 40 years. Much to-do about a red rose and a white rose, a lot of blood spilled, wars fought, back-stabbing women, ambitious men, and all for the one English throne. Take a break from “Game of Thrones” and watch the history of the real-life game of thrones!

And here is the link on Amazon if you are interested in buying (which I most heartily recommend!!)

The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses

Oh, my! As I was looking up the link for this one, I just discovered that there is a first season of The Hollow Crown!! Jumping up and down, again!! Wanna guess what I will be doing this weekend?

Historical Leadership in Fiction: Writing Great Leaders by Clare Rhoden

BY Clare Rhoden

In these uncertain times, we are all looking for great leaders.

When I wrote a novel about Australians in the World War One (WWI), I discovered that there are many different interpretations of good leadership.

It’s a bit of a cliché in Britain that the WWI leaders let their men down. You might remember the joke from Blackadder Goes Forth about an attack being ordered because General Haig wanted to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.

It’s not quite the same for us downunder. We still revere John Monash, William Birdwood and Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott – we saved our greatest disgust for their superiors from Britain, fairly or unfairly. For the Australians, good leadership was essential to any success, because alone of all the combatant nations in the conflict, ours was an entirely volunteer force. Leading volunteers is different. I had to research how various styles of leadership look in fiction, before I could convincingly create effective characters in my own novel.

I checked out Shakespeare’s great leaders. The Bard knows that simply naming a man ‘leader’ is not enough. Look how he portrays Richard II and King Lear: they fail to act their kingly parts and come to sticky ends. Richard III and MacBeth use their power for personal gain with the same result. Gathering treasure for yourself would be fine for a leader in Alexander’s Macedonia, but not in Shakespeare’s day, or ours. Coriolanus, even while leading from the front, separates himself from his emotions and becomes too distant from his followers. He ends up despising them, and they rise up against him. Again, he comes to sticky end.

However, Henry V is successful and heroic. He can relate to ordinary people as well as high-caste advisers, and he links his emotions with his responsibilities. Henry V has confidence in himself and instils it in others (‘once more …’). He instigates change and takes the long view rather than the easy road. He doesn’t lie, even in dire circumstances. Most importantly, Hal can invest dreadful situations with coherence and meaning (‘we few, we happy few …’). I needed somebody with this kind of leadership in my novel.

Maybe it’s what the world needs now.

About the author

Clare Rhoden is an author and book reviewer living in Melbourne Australia. Her historical novel The Stars in the Night follows the adventures of one South Australian family through the First World War. The novel was based on her PhD studies into leadership in Australian WWI narratives, and was inspired by the experiences of her grandparents who emigrated to Adelaide in January 1914.

Clare has also written a dystopian trilogy The Chronicles of the Pale, inspired by the worldwide refugee and climate crises. Strangely enough, dystopia and WWI seem to go well together.

She reviews for her website, for Aurealis magazine, and for the HNS website.

Links:

Website: clarerhoden.com

Blog: https://clarerhoden.com/blog/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clareelizabethrhoden

Instagram: @ClareER

Books:

The Stars in the Night The Chronicles of the Pale

My First Encounter with Shakespeare

My first encounter with Shakespeare came at the age of eleven. My grandmother, an English teacher and writer, introduced me to the works of Shakespeare. She inspired me with her love of books and love of English history and literature. My eager eyes spied a couple of her college books sitting on a shelf while visiting her one summer and my fingers brushed along the shelf, making imprints in the dust bunnies. I slid the books out and sat on the floor in front of the bookshelf and slowly turned the pages, soaking in the beauty of the language into my young heart. It wasn’t until later I realized she had been watching me, and after I returned the books to their hallowed place, she came up, took the books back down and placed them into my hands and said, “Here, these are yours.”

I still have them, to this day, some forty years later, and they hold such a precious place in my heart and in my home. Her gift and those words set my feet on the path of English history, inspiring me to take up my own pen to begin writing the stories floating in my head.

When in school, I adored English literature, the classics, the poets, the playwrights…. everything!

My first attempt at story writing was in eleventh grade when I joined the Short Story Writing Competition for our city. My story came in second place. And then, our school started a small literary magazine and a few of my stories made publication.

My senior year I began my first attempt at a novel entitled “Feringhi” – about a young Indian girl with a British father and Indian mother, set in 1800 Kashmir; a laughable piece, but now looking back on it, a necessary step toward developing my voice.

My next attempt, a sort of romance set in the 1700s during the early colonization of Massachusetts and Georgia and the barrier islands of Jekyll and Cumberland, in the style of one of my favorite authors in my younger days, Victoria Holt, entitled “The Jekyll Child”. Romance, or at least the style of Historical Romance, is not my forte nor my passion.

Later, after reading books such as Rosalind Miles’ “I, Elizabeth” and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”, I knew where I wanted to take my writing. Thus, the combination of Shakespeare and learning my own voice, as well as my many visits to London, I arrived at the current air of my novels.

Writers write, and writers write what they know. I never went to college or studied Shakespeare to the extent I wish I could have, but I hope the passion for his works come out in my novels. My grandmother’s book is “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” edited by Hardin Craig and published in 1961 and I thought it might be interesting to blog about things within this book that inspired me, and hopefully will move others and younger ones to look into the incredible words of this genius. I hope my words mingled with Shakespeare’s will find some other eager eyes to pass along my dust bunny soul.

The opening lines of the book read: “In order to fully understand and appreciate Shakespeare, it is necessary to see him as a whole. It is not enough to read individual passages, scenes, and plays as independent units; they should be studied in their relation to the development of Shakespeare’s powers as a dramatist, to the drama itself, and to Renaissance literature. The student who would know Shakespeare needs to know the temper of the Elizabethan age. As the student comes to understand better the meaning that Shakespeare had in his own day he will at the same time, the editor believes, develop a richer appreciation of the qualities of Shakespeare’s genius that have given his work meaning in all ages.”

I wholeheartedly agree. In this world of technology, let none of us take for granted or lose the beauty of his words. Young people today, well not only young ones but all, are inundated with screens – cell phones, computers, movies and TV – but there is something grounding when they are encouraged not to forget the smell of a classic book, the eloquence of a phrase, or the heart-moving verse in a sonnet or poem. This is a legacy, Shakespeare’s legacy, needing to be sounded from the corners of the world.

This is my sounding from this blog and I pray someone hears. If you are out there, listening, I heartily thank you. Now, pick up your own pen and carry on….

Simplicity Versus Academia

To me, simplicity is always the answer. If something rings true, then it most often is true. I love the quote from Galileo below in my article, but if you want more of an academic answer to the question of Shakespeare’s authorship, then go no further than the astounding academic research done by Ros Barber, winner of the Hoffman Prize and author of “The Marlowe Papers”. She, along with the incredible research done by Mr. Peter Farey, inspired me to write my own novel on Marlowe.

Here is her newest article: Big Data or Not Enough? Zeta test reliability and the attribution of Henry VI

From the Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog: Link: http://marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com/2009/03/simplicity-versus-academia-by-dk-marley.html

My Article:

Simplicity Versus Academia

Galileo said, “Facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty.” Simplicity often reveals truth, whereas there is confusion in an overabundance of words. I do not claim to be an academic, nor do I ascribe to the level of a scholar who spends her days wrangling with Stratfordians about the identity of “Mr. W.H.” or “the Dark Lady.” I am simply a writer who finds beauty in words, the way certain phrases roll off the tongue, the transcending feeling that a mere paragraph can invoke, or when a novel shows the commonality of the human condition. In that beauty, that naked and simple beauty, stands stark truth uncluttered by a convocation of words. At last, seeing the forest and not just the trees. Facts that Stratfordians voice as improbable, the fact that Christopher Marlowe is the true writer of the plays and sonnets, even on scant explanation, such as I am able to produce, being as I am just another common enthusiast, has indeed, to my mind, dropped the cloak which has hidden them and stands bared for all the world to see. Truth is simple. Truth is the one person shouting that the emperor is naked when all others shut their eyes, look away or refuse to believe. And the simplicity of it relates to the everyday ordinary person, which is the vast majority of the world. If the world was able to be presented with the simple facts concerning Christopher Marlowe, as I was, there would be no more doubting. Even if the academic world can never produce solid evidence, we have more than reasonable doubt here that William Shakespeare had the skills, education, knowledge of languages, etc. to produce such profound verse. Simply put, he was an actor, not a playwright or poet. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, on the other hand, was gifted at an early age with skills that exceeded his years. Educated at the best schools and surrounded by those who prodded him, he travelled to the continent, he excelled in languages and proved himself a capable playwright and poet well before his twentieth year. Where was Shakespeare during those years? Still in Stratford, married with three children, with no evidence that he wrote a single thing. Again, Galileo, an academic himself, revealed the answer in relation to these two men. Simple truth trumps pretentious fabrications any day, all you have to do is to remove the veil from your eyes, to stop gorging on the Shakespearean propaganda fed to you through the years, and hear the ring of truth sounded in Marlowe’s own words in Sonnet 76: “Why write I still all one, ever the same, and keep invention in a noted weed, that every word doth almost tell my name, showing their birth and where they did proceed?”

D. K. Marley

Read the book inspired by the Shakespeare Authorship debate: