Happy Birthday, Shakespeare



ShakespeareSo, this post is my answer to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project, in which bloggers are invited to celebrate Will’s 450th birthday by how his works impacted on their lives.

First things first, let me link to this thing I posted back in January, about my first Shakespeare ever. It is relevant to what I want to say. It tells how my very first Macbeth was an initiation. It was more than a little of a shock, too, and it marked eras in my perception of theatre: Before Macbeth, and After Macbeth.

And yet, it didn’t make me like it all of a sudden. It did not turn me into a rabid Shakespearian overnight. It didn’t even make me love English. That would be years later, and through another writer – who, ironically enough, hadn’t even been a native speaker. But it doesn’t matter now – or it only does in that my first impact with Shakespeare was through translations.

And my second, and third, and fourth…

It would be years before my English allowed me to appreciate Will’s works in the original, so I had to make do with translations, most of which were… well.

Let me state here that, much as I love to translate, my faith in literary translation is scant. Too many things are lost in the process, too many hues, and nuances, and shades, and implied meanings just cease to exist the moment you try to turn them into another language… And Shakespeare’s English, this rich, iridescent language that was incandescently moulding itself at the time, just has no equivalent in Italian.

I didn’t realise this back then, but the fact is, there are a number of Italian translations of Shakespeare’s works, often clever and accurate, I’m sure, but… but. I read them, I saw them played onstage, I liked the stories, but the translation was always there like a sheet of glass, dulling, dimming the experience.

Add to that the exasperating schoolbook habit of presenting any and every remarkable as a sort of lonely star, shining and floating in a sort of vacuum…

So yes, I knew I should like Shakespeare, and indeed, did like his plays, but always had this disconcerting impression I should have liked him more. Somehow, I missed the vibrancy, and was left guessing at the power of the words.

Frustrating. Very much.

And then I learned English. I fell in love with the language, and never turned back. I started reading in English when I was eighteen, and never turned back, and within a few years I shyly tried my hand at Elizabethan English – both in reading and onstage – and found I loved it. It, and the time and place that hat prompted this sort of language, this sort of theatre… History I’d always loved. Starting to read about Elizabethan England was a sort of homecoming. For some reason, I still cannot open a book – novel, essay, play – connected with Elizabeth’s time without feeling at home – and the more I read about the time, the life, the people, the more I understood and appreciated the plays.

So, no – it wasn’t perhaps love at first sight, but a love it was. A slow, long one, rooted in language and in history as much as in theatre, which is perhaps, in part, why it lasts the way it does.

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Easter Music


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easter-egg-with-red-birdNothing like the right music to put one in the spirit of the holiday, don’t you think?

So, let’s have a strange-ish, very French rendition of the age-old Easter sequence, Victimae Paschali Laudes, complete with organ – from Notre Dame, in Paris.

If you have any familiarity with Gregorian music, this is very likely not, but not what you are used to. I know it was quite a surprise for me the first time I heard it…

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The Tale of the Nail

Covent Garden Market-675189. An oil painting showing the early morning bustle of Covent GardenEnglish is my second language, I love it madly – just as madly as I love English literature and history. I was lost to anglophilia at a very early age, I read in English more than I do in Italian, I spent years in several parts of the British Islands, and feel at home whenever I go back there.

That said, I maintain that, at times, the English could put a little more effort in an attempt to understand non-native speakers.
Let me tell you a small story.

I was once sitting with my mother at a very nice cafe in Covent Garden Piazza. We’d been trotting around London all day, so we were a tad out of breath and not a little thirsty.

When the waiter came to collect our orders, my mother, who used to speak a very good English but is now sadly out of practice and has been for some years, asked for “an ale.”

The waiter’s eyes went the size of saucers – and I sat back to enjoy the scene – which you might think not the nicest way to support one’s mother, but I can’t resist a good piece of nonsense when it happens. And indeed…
“A nail?” the waiter asked, in utter bemusement. “Whatever for, Madam?”

“What can I possibly want it for?” sweetly asked Mother, all oblivious. “To drink, you know.”Nails

And this is where I think the waiter could have made a little effort, because I know the grammar was off, but really – what could she be asking for?

Instead, he kept staring at Mother in rabbity fascination – and one could see the debate going on behind his eyes: shall I run for help or not? And Mother was staring back with raised eyebrows, and looked ready to get flustered, so I stepped in, and suggested that she might mean just “ale.”

The relief in the poor man’s eyes was a sight to see. Confident once again that the foreign lady wasn’t a a potentially dangerous, nail-drinking lunatic, he informed her that they were not licensed to sell alcoholic beverages at that time of the day, and could he get her something else instead?

At which point Mother grasped the whole ale/nail tangle, and had a fit of the giggles, and it fell to me to order grapefruit squashes to go with our sandwiches, and we acquired one of my favourite anedoctes ever.

Well, this was all of fifteen years ago, so perhaps things have changed since – but really: a a tad, a drop, a particle more effort?

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Talking Shakespeare


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2941I turned forty yesterday, and my mother threw a surprise party for me, with a crowd of theatre and non-theatre friends, and we laughed, and sang, and improvved well into the wee hours, and the wine was very good – so today I am slightly vague…

You won’t hold it against me, will you, if just link this article on The American Scholar, on How to Talk Shakespeare.

While mostly aimed at improvisers in need of convincing pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, it is of interest for writers too, with a series of no-nonsense tips that could come in handy when trying to devise an Elizabethan-ish language for historical fiction.

And besides, it is fun to read.


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Paris Stamps


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paris-stamp-postmark-style-grunge-11487450“Suppose you keep a journal,” I was told once. “And suppose you have, for each day, just the back of a postage stamp. A largish one, if you like, but all you can jot down is one sentence. One place, one person, one image, one impression – it doesn’t matter. One single, vivid thing you want to remember for that day.”

I have always liked the notion, in that vague, airy way you do with pretty ideas. I even tried it once or two, and enjoyed the extreme distillation, the quest for vividness and effectiveness… But every time I tried it for a few days, a week, even a month, then dropped the habit and forgot about it.

For some reason, it came back to me the first night in Paris, last week, and proposed it to my friends, and they agreed to make a game of it. Every night, over dinner, we shared and discussed our stamps.

At times they were huge, like viewing the Tour Eiffel from the Trocadero against a grey and windy sky. At times they were as tiny as a cocotte of moules marinières. They might have music in them, like entering Saint-Germain-des-Prés to find a choir rehearsing Renaissance motets, or they might be full of people, like the very multi-ethnic population of the underground, or it might be anything from Shakespeare & Company on the Rive Gauche to art students in Notre Dame, to the slanting sunlight in the morning, to the scent of coffee…

It was fun, it was interesting, it said much about each stamp-maker, it made us think and search, and observe – and, come evening, we were all eager to play.

So I’m beginning to think I might try it again. Finding The One Thing every day, trimming it down to one sentence without losing its texture, even choosing amongst possibilities.. it must be good writing practice, mustn’t it?

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The Daughter of Time

The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_Tey2Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot is one writer I really like.

I like her whodunits, I like her plays, I like her historical novel about Henry Morgan, and I’m dying to read Claverhouse, her life of John Graham, the Bonnie Dundee. She writes great characters and brilliant dialogue, she anticipated by decades the modern debate on language in historical fiction… Quite an author after my own heart.

Of all her things, my favourite has to be The Daughter of Time, ostensibly one of her Inspector Grant mysteries – but so very much more than that.

To begin with, by having Grant stuck in hospital with a broken back, Tey practically invents the armchair detective. Oh, right – technically it’s the bedridden detective, but you get my point. And this is only the beginning, because this time the investigation delves far, far into the past… Fact is, when actress friend Marta Allard brings him a handful of reproductions of historical portraits to play detective as a pastime, Grant becomes obsessed with a portrait of Richard III. Without knowing who it is, he pronouces him a good and conscentious man – and is rather thrown on learning the face he likes so much belongs to Shakespeare’s hunchbacked monster.*

What does one do, in this case? Well, Grant enrols a nurse, a young American historian and Marta herself, and directs them in an investigation into the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Facts are sifted, witnesses gauged and… listened, sources compared – except, everyone has been dead for centuries, so it all happens by books and records.

The result might have been a dead bore in lesser hands, but Tey makes it a wonderful tale about how history is told, shaped and perceived. About the weight of lies, misdirection, political expediency, and propaganda. About the role of literature. About asking questions and questioning given truths. richard-iii-take-

All of it delightfully written, with very engaging characters, and dialogue to die for.

Having felt somewhat sorry for Richard even when all I knew of him was Shakespeare and Stevenson, long before I even knew there was such a thing as Ricardianism, I fell in love with this book. And frankly, it’s not even all about Richard. I’m not, and never will be, a rabid Ricardian, but to find a novel that, without ever becoming preachy, makes such an interesting and convincing case for history, for its fluidity and iridescence, was a real trove and joy.

It’s one of those books everyone should read – if only to get a glimpse of the true nature of history, the one that boils, and roars, and glimmers beneath the curricular surface.


* Ironically enough, some modern scholars seem to believe the portrait in question to have been a piece of Tudor propaganda, aimed at showing Richard as frail and ill, and therefore unfit for the throne…


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Of Other Places And Other Times

MapThe site is actually a collection of RPG resources – and I’m sure there is plenty of interest to gamers in it.

But I happened there while looking for a map of Elizabethan Cambridge, and found this page, with a treasure of links to old city maps across the world and history – all of them absolutely gorgeous.

And note especially this link to the Historic Cities Project of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, that offers maps, literature, documents, books and other relevant material concerning the past, present and future of historic cities and facilitates the location of similar content on the web.

Beware: it is the kind of thing you visit at your peril, seeking one single street name, only to end perusing maps for half a night.

A perfect window on other places, and other times.

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Portrait of the Artist


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stunned_shakespeareIt strikes me how often fiction and theatre portray Will Shakespeare in the act of absorbing his materials rather than creating them.

No, really: the average fictional Shakespeare spends half his life jotting down, more or less metaphorically, everything he hears.

The notion goes as far back as the 19th Century, if you consider Léon Daudet‘s Le Voyage de Shakespeare, a half-picaresque thing in which a young Will travels through Europe, collecting all the experience the Stratford glover’s boy might have needed to write his prodigious canon.

G. B. Shaw, in The Lady of the Sonnets, makes it stage-worthy by having Will make notes of every other phrase in his conversation with the Dark Lady, the Beefeater, and the Queen herself – something that annoys them all no end.

P.F. Chisholm (that is to say, Patricia Finney), in her Carey Mysteries has her Shakespeare do very much the same, but in a curious, deliberate manner: he hires people of all sorts and provenances to transcribe their speech, idioms, quirks and accents. “He’s odd that way,” comments a perplexed Robert Carey – and we smile and see the point.

And then there is Robert Brustein‘s The English Channel, reprising Shaw’s idea, with a Shakespeare who, in conversation, keeps interrupting himself and everyone to observe that “this could be something.” Part of the fun comes from one of the interrupted ones being Marlowe, who is less than amused to have his speech, mannerisms and poetry ransacked by this word-magpie of a fellow poet.

Interestingly, on the other hand, fictional Marlowes are seldom seen absorbing, pilfering or borrowing anything: as a rule, they create – and humanity be damned. Just think of Nat Cassidy’s The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, juxtaposing a fiery Marlowe who spins poetry out of abstractions, ideas and fire, and a barely articulate Shakespeare in love with the essence of human nature. “Stories, people,” is all that Will has to say for himself and his poetry.

Then again, if his works are anything to judge by, the egocentric and ambitious Kit Marlowe mustn’t have been overly interested in people, whatever his passion for stories – while Shakespeare…

I must admit it: everything else apart, the two men’s styles, biographies and manners all support the notion of a Marlowe pouring forth, and a Shakespeare absorbing like a sponge. It would seem that, as a pupil of mine observed a few days ago in some surprise, novelists (and playwrights) know what they are about.




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