Shakespeare: lost years and letters
"I’ve grown up assuming he’s great"
If someone mentions Shakespeare to you it might evoke an image in your head, possibly of a stern figure with eyes that pierce and a hairline that recedes. But do you actually think about the personal life and personality of the playwright?
Benet Brandreth has. In a new novel he presents a young and mischievous Shakespeare, generous with wine and unfaithful to his wife. The Spy of Venice, set in 1585, is the first in a series about Shakespeare’s “lost years” – those years where we’re not at all sure what his life entailed.
The book documents William leaving his wife Anne and their three children in Stratford and moving to London, before venturing into the dark and hazardous Venice.
“The novels are all set during his lost years,” Benet, presently writing the second in the series, tells me. “Because they’re the lost years we don’t really know what he was up to and that gives me as a novelist free rein to fill in the blanks.”
Although throughout 2016 in OX I’ve been marking Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary in some form or another, I have yet to focus on the playwright’s personal life. It’s an area Benet opens my eyes to, at the same time as letting me know about the antics of Shakespeare’s contemporaries:
“Certainly the playwrights of Shakespeare’s time were a much more rambunctious and dangerous bunch than those of the modern era,” the novelist claims. “In 1597 Shakespeare was arraigned in court papers for having threatened to kill a man, Christopher Marlowe was a spy stabbed to death in a Deptford tavern, Ben Jonson killed an actor in a duel and claimed to have defeated a Spanish soldier in single combat in the Netherlands (while fighting for the rebels against the Spanish), and Robert Greene abandoned his wife and child to take up with a notorious broad – and she had a brother who he used as a bodyguard and the brother (nicknamed ‘Cutting Ball’) was hanged for murder at Tyburn.”
When dissecting Shakespeare’s plays at least you have them in front of you. There’s a lot there to work with. What assistance do you have in producing a piece of work that relies on conveying Shakespeare’s life? It seems that actually, the plays are also a sufficient method of doing this.
Benet looks at themes that exist in the plays, such as “strong, powerful mothers.” He cites Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, “Coriolanus powerfully declares that had Volumnia been Hercules’ wife, she would have done half his labours and ‘sav’d Your husband so much sweat.’ When you couple this with the fact that Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was from a powerful local family, it makes you think that maybe in Coriolanus there is an experience of a mother that William was familiar with himself.”
Having been reading The Spy of Venice prior to our interview, one extract made me touch on the topic of how theatre has changed from centuries ago.
There was loud prattle across the square. All Stratford was in attendance […] William and his father made their way in front of the stage. William watched his father grasp the hands of friends and rivals alike and exchange small nothings and gentle jibes as he passed. The market brought many for their rare visit to town and a special entertainment like the play brought more seldom seen strangers still.
So Benet details the experience of going to the theatre in 1585; I wondered about the major differences between back then and now in terms of the type of person who goes.
“The main difference is now we’ve got so many sources of entertainment that people can pick and choose their preferences,” the writer says. “But the Elizabethan theatre was a much more all-embracing creature. People from the lowest levels of society up to the highest levels of society were interested in, and keen to go to, the theatre. It was – apart from more brutal activities like the bear-baiting – the main form of entertainment available. People went in huge numbers to see the shows. Some of them would have been quite well educated but not all of them. Now the theatre I think is seen as being a slightly highbrow art form – I don’t think it is, but it’s the perception. Back then it was viewed as being for all people.”
This year Benet will talk about The Spy of Venice at Henley Lit Fest – which incidentally describes itself as “a festival for everyone”. He appears on 26th September, 4.30pm at the Town Hall.
I’d like to briefly submit a request to Benet here: in 2008 I died my hair peroxide blonde, drawing unwanted attention to my dark eyebrows – if that year could be rewritten I’d be grateful.
From lost years to what seems like an almost lost form of correspondence. An exploration of the letters in Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare’s Postbag, also features on the Henley Lit Fest bill.
It’s a show created by Richard Howard, whose life has been awash with Shakespeare. He began working as an actor back in the sixties when, as he tells me, “every theatre you worked in, every season, did a Shakespeare play”. He is yet to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but touring with the London Shakespeare Group has seen him perform the Bard’s work “in schools and state theatres, up mountains and on islands all over the world.”
I ask what Shakespeare means to him professionally and personally. “He means income for a start,” a laughing Richard answers. “And I was trained by people who love the works. So I’ve just grown up assuming he’s great without I suppose testing it as much as I should have done. But if you do test it, he passes as a rule.”
Shakespeare’s Postbag comes to the Kenton Theatre, 30th September, 12.30pm. Richard will be joined on stage by a cast he knows well. “We’ve done various things as a group for Henley Lit Fest over the last few years. We wanted to do something this year that was Shakespeare related because everybody else was doing it. Since it’s a literary festival and they don’t expect the same performance a theatre festival would, we thought we’d read the letters and see what we could make of that.”
Will this show engage people who wouldn’t normally watch a Shakespeare play in full? “We would very much hope that and want that,” Richard says. “If we thought we were doing something for our sake I don’t think we’d be interested. We want to provide an entertainment which will absolutely stimulate people who know the plays and think ‘oh yes, I’d forgotten that’ and people who don’t know the plays who think ‘wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that’.
“This is not a pompous show,” he assures. “I hope it will be interesting, lively and amusing. It’s only an hour long, but you can’t spend an hour reading serious letters, we hope to have a bit of fun too.”
With a background in touring Shakespeare it is perhaps not surprising that Richard has thought about this in regards to the new show. “Portable shows of this nature can be put on in small theatres, specialist theatres, art centres and things like that,” he says, “there is a market for it – if it bites.”
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