Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

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:

CONGRATULATIONS, SIR JACOBI . . . I AM CONVINCED!

Well, it is official. It has taken a while but Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance have convinced me after all these years. Not that my opinion matters in the least to them, after all, they are huge stars . . . and what am I? A mere unlettered writer who dreams of being a success. I guess I grew up with a fondness for the Stratford man, the Shakespeare we all know by his face and works, since I aspired to be another one of those wannabe writers who did not have the luxury of going to college but aspired to be something greater than a glove-maker.

While in high school, I learned of the extraordinary genius of Shakespeare, and marveled at how this man, a school dropout, could write such words. Mind you, I had big plans of going to college but life circumstances sent me down a different path, a path I do not regret – thus, as Shakespeare, life has schooled me in sometimes the most harsh and bitter way. Don’t get me wrong, Iife has also given me some of the most incredible gifts in the world (i.e. my family).

Anyway, for so long after graduation, Shakespeare was my idol. I absorbed everything he wrote and daydreamed about the day I might get to visit his home in Stratford. And then, it happened. No joke, I fell in KMart . . . slipped through a spilled bottle of detergent after passing two employees chatting nearby. For two months I had to go to a chiropractor to readjust by back but I was in heaven, for not only was my therapy paid for by the BigWigs at Kmart but I paid for my first trip to England with the funds. Two weeks roaming Britain. Ahhhhhh!!!!

1997. September, to be exact, my husband and I touched down at Heathrow airport. Two weeks after Princess Diana was killed. While I played the perfect tourist, gawking at every historical thing I could find, I will never forget the melted candle wax along the pathway to Kensington Palace and the flowers still in the gate. Heartbreaking!!!

We made the normal rounds of sight seeing, onward to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s homeplace and walk the streets where he lived (suddenly I’m singing Freddie’s song from “My Fair Lady”). I was quite overcome with emotion and bought countless souvenirs in the local shops. When back in London, we visited the Globe Theatre in Southwark and took a tour. During the tour, a sort of exhibition was being held in the lobby area, a walk-through about Shakespeare’s life, and the very last display depicted the faces of five men with the headline “Who Was Shakespeare?” Needless to say, I had never heard the story, so I stood there and read every word. I’m not sure what drew me to Kit Marlowe but in his eyes I found the compulsion to write my first novel. For the next 15 years, non-college related, I studied and studied and studied . . . and wrote and revised, wrote and revised . . . on and on and on . . . all with the premise that Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare. To me, the story was plausible but I have to say, I never confessed to be a scholarly historian, just a simple writer with what appeared to be a great idea for a book.

In my book, “Blood and Ink”, Marlowe is not killed in Deptford. He is exiled by Lord Burghley but continues to write and publish his plays through Shakespeare. There is a a lot of spies, intrigue, murder, betrayal, love, rejection, ambition; you know, Shakespearean stuff. I had the privilege of corresponding a few times with Mr. Peter Farey about the topic of Marlowe, and whose research fueled my writing to such an extent that I will be forever grateful. I, also, was fortunate enough to meet Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance at the Globe Theatre when I returned in 2007 at an authorship debate concerning the Earl of Oxford and Francis Bacon. I remember asking Sir Jacobi, “what about Marlowe?” He was so congenial and gracious, allowing a quick selfie on my phone (to which I lost ages ago), and even allowed me to tell him about my book. When I left the debate, I was not convinced about Oxford or Bacon, as my mind was fixed upon Marlowe’s star.

Now, thirteen years later after that debate, my book is published (and has won a couple of awards), and I was determined to hold to the idea of Marlowe as ‘the man’, the true author of the plays, even after meeting the two men who are advocates for the Oxford as Shakespeare idea.

That is, until recently. During this pandemic of 2020, as with most people I suspect, I’ve spent my days staring endlessly at the telly watching hours of movies, documentaries, and mindless soul-snatching dribble to fill the soul-snatching historical year. In my clicking and adding to my ever-growing ‘watch list’, I added items I know I’ve watched in the past but piqued my interest once more. “Anonymous” directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Sir Derek Jacobi, “Nothing But the Truth” and “Last Will and Testament”, two documentaries also starring Sir Derek Jacobi – all covering the topic of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, being the true author of the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. I watched them all with intent, even finding myself chuckling at the same passages I used when referring to Marlowe’s life now being used to show Oxford’s life. Did it cement my resolve towards Marlowe? Well, here is the rub.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_(2011_film)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31673330

I am now a convert. The huge amount of evidence and reasoning portrayed in these documentaries, especially astounded me beyond anything so at the last I am declaring, “How can it not be DeVere?” While this does not at any rate take away from my novel Blood and Ink – I still stand behind what I wrote, after all, as I said before, I am a historical fiction author (alternate historical in this case) and not a historian. Whether it was Marlowe, Oxford, Bacon, or the actual Will Shaksper from Stratford-upon-Avon, you have to admit, the stories do make for great historical fiction. I still present my novel as a sound story. While not historical fiction, it is an alternate theory which will boost those in favor of Marlowe as the author. Who knows, maybe this second watching of these shows have sparked another novel in the making! And I am all for that notion!!

I loved some of the quotes they used in the second documentary, some of the famous men throughout history who also believed in the Earl of Oxford as the man, or at least believed the man from Stratford was not the true author.

Such as, Henry James, author of The Wings of the Dove and The Portrait of a Lady, who said:

 I am “a sort of“ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.

Or these others:

“In the work of the greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare … I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.” – Charlie Chaplin, actor

The Egyptian verdict of the Shakespeare Societies comes to mind; that he was a jovial actor and manager. I can not marry this fact to his verse. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him.” – Sigmund Freud

“But what if it turns out, as it just possibly might, that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the plays ascribed to him? There is a theory, advanced by reputable scholars, seriously and, in my opinion, plausibly, that Shakespeare merely lent his name as a cover for the literary activities of another person … If, by some terrible chance, this theory should be proved, then straightaway Stratford’s tourist status would dwindle.” – Sir William Tyrone Guthrie, Tony award-winning theatre director

“Isn’t it odd, when you think of it, that you may list all of the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen … clear back to the first Tudors — a list of five hundred names, shall we say? — and you can … learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them. Every one of them except one — the most famous, the most renowned — by far the most illustrious of them all — Shakespeare!” – Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

“I think [an alternative candidate] wrote Shakespeare. If you don’t, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away.” – Orson Welles, Actor

“I am firm against Shaksper — I mean the Avon man, the actor.” – Walt Whitman, American Poet

Thank you for reading my ramblings or listening to my Southern un-degree’d voice talk about high-falutin’ things!!

D. K. Marley

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:

The Allure of Marlowe

Imagine this: meandering down a corridor in the great Globe Theatre full of relics of the past, all speaking William Shakespeare’s name. But, of course, before that day you had no reason to consider any other name nor had any such thought been presented to you. And then, it happens. You round the corner and before you is a wall that displays the names and faces of five men that could have been the writer of the plays.

This is what happened to me. I perused the names with interest and amazement. Like finding a rare antique at a yard sale that someone missed, Christopher Marlowe’s face stared back at me and my heart skipped a beat. How could the world have missed the obvious; how could I? The sparkling little trinket of truth that spoke to me as if his ghost whispered in my ear, “Tell my story. Foul deeds will rise though all the world o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.”

I suppose I could have chosen any of the men, but something moved me. From the very moment, Marlowe’s allure buried in his mysterious eyes made me know a story lay there hidden, waiting to burst forth. Within a week and endless hours on the internet and at the library, the clues he left behind, the secret little smile in his Cambridge portrait and the knowing glint in his eyes lay before me. The pieces of the puzzle fit together like never before: the treasured words of Christopher Marlowe, the Muse’s Darling, and not the man from Stratford, linked into a beautiful and tragic telling of a man who knew the world. Here was the man who travelled the continent, who knew court life and country travails, politics and provocateurs, religion, science, languages, intrigue, love, betrayal, and exile. All the meaty experience to fill the pages of mighty plays and sonnets.

One of the first things that we are told as writers is, “Write what you know.” The adage cannot have changed since the 16th century. Marlowe wrote what he knew, leaving behind the clues, which were a common and clever tool used by writers of the day. So I ask, why buy a reproduction when you can have the real thing? It’s a lot more fun to dig for authentic Marlovian gold than float along with the crowd picking up synthetic Shakespearean souvenirs.

And if you listen closely, you may hear his voice, as well. “I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name.”

D.K. Marley

Original post: http://marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com/2009/02/allure-of-marlowe-by-dk-marley.html

“Blood and Ink” by D. K. Marley – published May 2018

Winner of the 2018 Bronze Medal for Best Historical Fiction from The Coffee Pot Book Club Awards

Winner of the 2019 Silver Medal for Best Historical Fiction from The Golden Squirrel Book Club Awards