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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.