I always hated Shakespeare.
They made me read him. In junior high, it was Julius Caesar. In high school, first it was Romeo & Juliet, which was cool only because we wasted a week watching the movie – the Zefferelli, not the DeCaprio version. The next year it was Henry IV Part One, to which I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ and scraped through the test by listening to class discussions.
The Bard of Avon and I were not friendly. So how did I happen to write a novel exploring his works?
It started my senior year in high school, when I had a choice between a reading-Shakespeare and an acting-Shakespeare class. I’d already done a lot of acting by then, so it was a no-brainer. As it happened, the teachers of the course had chosen Romeo & Juliet to do that year, mainly because they had a Juliet in mind. I remembered from the film that Mercutio was the best part in the show, and after auditioning against the rest of the class, I landed the part.
It was somewhere in the middle of rehearsals when everything clicked. The teachers of those other classes had been holding out on me all these years. You don’t read Shakespeare – you perform him! It’s not literature to be scanned, but language to be spoken by real, living, breathing people. Playing one of his characters, I discovered that Shakespeare had crafted the best expression of what it is to be alive.
Thus started my love affair with the Bard of Avon. High school led to community theatre and college shows, then professional outdoor Shakespeare productions. Today I am a Shakespearean actor, something I would never have believed a dozen years ago. I’ve performed over 30 full productions of a dozen of his plays, including the leads in Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Edward III, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. I’ve played on stages like Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and The Goodman, prodded by world-famous directors beside actors the caliber of Mike Nussbaum and Stacey Keach.
So Shakespeare gave me a career. Then he did me one better and introduced me to my wife. Jan and I met playing Kate and Petruchio inThe Taming of the Shrew, giving us banter material for the rest of our lives.
And then, as if all that were not enough, Shakespeare got me to write a book.
Once again it starts with Romeo & Juliet. I’ve long been of the opinion that directors miss the point of the show. I like to compare it to the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. Before the film was released, it was called ‘Disney’s Folly.’ Who was going to sit through a feature-length cartoon? Insanity! But grown men and women left the premiere of the film crying, the critics went nuts with praise, every song became a top 10 hit, and theatre owners were forced to change seat-covers after every showing because of kids wetting themselves in terror. No one had ever seen anything like it.
That’s what I think Romeo & Juliet was for the mid-1590s. It’s not a Tragedy. It bears no resemblance to Hamlet or Othello or the Scottish Play. It’s something much worse – a Comedy that goes wrong. The horror lies in the fact that first the play makes us laugh, then pulls the rug out, leaving us all confused and bewildered.
I expressed my views a few times, and suddenly found myself approached to direct the show. Warily, I accepted. It was my first time directing Shakespeare. I read old versions of the play and Shakespeare’s source materials. I poured through the whole text in a way I’d never done as an actor. Poking around for lines to cut, I found something.
I found a cause for the feud.
I may not be the first ever to see it, but I’ve certainly never heard it anywhere else. It’s oblique, and doesn’t really affect the action of the play, but nevertheless, once the idea got hold of me I couldn’t let it go.
Thus a book was born.
It was going to be a short book, romantic and sad, just to get the idea out of my system. So I started to do a little research, mostly about Verona – the history, the culture. I discovered some facts. At the time the tale of the star-cross’d lovers supposedly took place, a few interesting people were in Verona. Dante, the father of Renaissance literature. Giotto, the father of Renaissance painting. Petrarch, the poet who technically started the Renaissance by finding Cicero’s letters. So, in a very real sense, the Renaissance began in Verona at the start of the fourteenth century.
I then settled in to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, something I would have bet money against at any other point in my life. I won’t say it was easy – it wasn’t the great revelation Shakespeare was – but it did give me the landscape of the time. And halfway through Purgatorio Dante knocked my socks off by mentioning a feud between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Capulet and Montagues, anyone?
Yet, in both the histories and Dante’s work, one man’s name kept cropping up. A man who stood above all his peers, outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare's plays. His name was Cangrande della Scala, but he was also known as the Greyhound, the Master of Verona.
The feud became a mere backdrop to a larger tale, revolving around this incredible man. Because he reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. A character I’ve been asked to perform more times than any other. In the play, it is said that Mercutio is both a cousin to the Prince, and “the Prince’s near ally.” The Prince in the play is named Escaulus, the Latin version of della Scala. Cangrande was related, somehow, to Mercutio, my favorite role.
So it came full circle. The real people of Dante’s time met the characters of Shakespeare’s plays, allowing me to explore one of the most enigmatic characters the Bard ever wrote.
* * * *
I read somewhere that when Alan Alda met Donald Sutherland, he simply took the other man’s hand and said, “Thank you for my life.” If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure that’s what I’d have to say.
But I'd start by telling him how I'd always hated him.
Making violence have meaning was much easier to achieve in a world where any gun held only one shot and most of the violence was performed with sword or dagger. In the words of Frank Miller’s Batman, ‘We kill too often because we've made it easy... too easy... sparing ourselves the mess and the work.’ If you’re going to kill someone with a sword or knife, there’s a certain commitment to the deed, as it will take work. What a good story-teller can do is make taking a life work, re-create that commitment, and never make it casual or easy.
Here’s a modern example of violence with consequence – DIE HARD. Not the second, fourth, or fifth installments of the series, but definitely the original, and to some extent the third.
Most everyone agrees that the original DIE HARD is, if not the pinnacle of the Action genre, certainly a touchstone and model to be emulated. But what producers and writers mistakenly focus on is the set-up – one man against twelve villains in a high rise – and not what makes the film so compelling, which is the humanity of John McLane.
In DIE HARD, surviving hurts. The violence is messy, and has unintended consequences. John is so battered by the end that his wife doesn’t recognize him. He’s been shot, beaten, and had to run (or hop) across broken glass. Of course, this is Hollywood, so they didn’t go the extra mile of NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, the book upon which the film is based, and have Holly go out the window with Hans, killed by that damned wrist-watch, the symbol of her success. But at the end there is a real catharsis. John suffered to do what was hard, what was right.
That he did so with grim humor makes him more heroic. His were not James Bond-like coy tag-lines after an enemy’s death. McLane’s humor was bravado, a way to keep up a brave face against the enemy. But we also see his guard down, in that great monologue where he asks the cop outside to apologize to his wife for him. And also in that moment of pure honesty. "Please, God, don't let me die."
Speaking of Bond, there is a reason I enjoyed CASINO ROYALE more than any other Bond film in years, perhaps ever. I am a huge Bond fan, but have cared less and less for the films over time. I’ll still watch the original trio of Connery’s films, OHMSS, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and maybe GOLDENEYE. But CASINO ROYALE was a return to the Bond of Ian Fleming, the Bond of the books, the damaged, cynical man who kills for his government and who doesn’t get the girl. Twice in the books Bond fell truly in love. Both times, the woman he loved died – once by her own hand, once murdered. While the fantasy of Roger Moore’s Bond was childishly fun to watch, those films have no weight. They don’t matter the way that CASINO ROYALE and SKYFALL do. Because violence has consequences.
Here’s a weird one. I enjoyed the movie TAKEN. And I remember how much of a badass Liam Neeson’s character was. But I don’t remember his name, or much of any of the fighting. I remember his daughter being dragged out from under the bed. That was the only human moment in that film.
The trouble with films like TAKEN or the DIE HARD knock-offs, which try to replicate the original’s formula, is the indestructibility of the hero. Because the explosions have to be bigger, the violence bigger, there’s less and less room for humanity. And it’s humanity, not the lack of it, that makes an Action film great. Jason Bourne’s search for his identity; Aragorn’s reluctance to lead juxtaposed against his natural ability; Tony Stark’s growth from naïve weapon-maker to arrogant protector; and of course, the greatest of all Action heroes, Indiana Jones. Remember that scene in Raiders where – well, remember all the scenes in Raiders, because it’s a perfect film. But there’s no point at which the violence is easy. It can be funny and still be desperate and thrilling. The giant ball at the beginning is hilarious and very scary at the same time, while the great scene on the ship with the ‘years/mileage’ line is a perfect example of simple humanity and the cost of these adventures.
No, we’re not in the age of Shakespeare, and we don’t need or want all our heroes to die if they commit an act of violence. But we do need them to be mortal, and we need their deeds to have weight.
So, to my fellow writers, I have this simple suggestion. If you write a scene of violence, don’t make it bigger. Make it matter. Don’t make it easy, make it hard. Look to character and motivation to root the violence in the people committing it, both for villains and heroes. Because villains are rarely villains in their own mind. Make everyone the hero of their story, make the violence matter as much to them as it should, and make it as surprising and upsetting as it is in life.
There's been a great deal of talk about violence in media (meaning film and video-games), painting all fictional violence with a damning brush. It’s an important conversation, and one I’d like to have. But I’m not for toning down the violence in film. I’m for making it better. By which I mean, making it matter.
The trouble is not the violence. The trouble is violence without consequence.
There are a lot of talented writers out there, writing brilliant stories. But a lot of what I see in the Action-Adventure movie world has no weight, because violence has no cost. A guy fires off a million rounds of ammo, mowing down faceless badguys. It can be visually awesome, and it’s fun to watch, and you forget it ten minutes later. It has no weight.
For me, all violence should tell a story. That story should never be easy, never comfortable. It can be enjoyable, sure. Even better, it can be inspiring, heart-pounding, and cathartic.
I’m a fan of Shakespeare. I love his plays. And Shakespeare learned the rules of his craft from Aristotle, including the importance of catharsis, the cleansing that happens through a shared trial. As an audience, we share the hero’s trial. The greater the trial, the deeper the catharsis. That’s the theory.
Unlike Aristotle, Shakespeare never wrote down rules, or at least he didn’t pass them along to us. But reading his plays, there are some very definite rules at work:
- Instigate an act of violence, and you will receive a violent end
- There is no justification for murder. Ever.
- Justice is for the authority of King, Prince, or God, not the average man
None of this is to say that Shakespeare doesn’t have his characters flout these rules. Nor do these rules apply to warfare, where armies meet. But he is absolute in his rules for personal violence. If you commit violence, or if you take the law into your own hands, you are sowing the seeds for your own destruction.
A few examples:
- Romeo attacks Tybalt for murdering his friend, Mercutio. Though in our eyes he’s justified, he is taking the law into his own hands. And by killing Tybalt, he is dooming himself and Juliet.
- Titus Andronicus, whose sons have been murdered and his daughter raped, kills the rapists and cooks them into meat dishes to serve to their mother. Revenge is achieved, and perhaps some form of justice, but he is again placing himself in the place of authority, and dies. Unlike Romeo, he accepts this as the cost of his revenge.
- Laertes agrees to kill Hamlet in revenge for the Danish Prince murdering his father Polonius behind the arras. Laertes, of course, is cut with the same poisoned blade he used to cut Hamlet, a lovely ironic touch, mirroring the old phrase ‘when setting out for revenge, first dig two graves.’
- Brutus, the best example of all. He tries to save Rome from monarchy by killing his friend and mentor Caesar. He is clearly portrayed as a good and honorable man doing a very bad deed for the best of reasons. It is still a bad deed, and he pays the ultimate price for it.
Then there are those who are not even trying to justify their violent deeds – Macbeth, Iago, Richard – who commit acts of violence to satisfy their ambitions, their jealousies, and their rage at life. None of them live. In Shakespeare, the instigators of violence are always, always, consumed by violence.
In short, there is never violence without consequence.
Next time - a look at violence done well in entertainment today.
For those who missed it, I was just interviewed by the marvelous Sharon Kay Penman. Instead of telling you about it, I'll just send you over to her page to read it. It's quite wonderful, as she is a delightful person and eerily talented writer. And she said many flattering things, the best of which was this: "For anyone who has not yet read one or more of David’s novels, you are about to hit the literary lottery. Yes, he is that good." Swoon!
So click here to read, and enjoy!
Based on a single line from Romeo & Juliet, David Blixt explores the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud. But that's just the backdrop to a sweeping story with thrills, intrigue, battles, romance, betrayals - everything you want from a novel. Dive in and lose yourself in this rich world of 14th century Italy!
Get your copy HERE!
In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, HER MAJESTY'S WILL is free on Amazon Kindle today! You're welcome. Pass it on!
VOICE OF THE FALCONER
Sequel to 2007's THE MASTER OF VERONA.
Italy, 1325. Eight years after the tumultuous events of THE MASTER OF VERONA, Pietro Alaghieri is living in exile in Ravenna, enduring the loss of his famous father while secretly raising Cesco, bastard heir to Verona's prince, Cangrande della Scala.
When word of Cangrande's death reaches him, Pietro must race back to Verona to prevent Cesco's rivals from usurping his rightful place. But young Cesco is determined not to be anyone's pawn. Willful and brilliant, he defies even the stars. And far behind the scenes is a mastermind pulling the strings, one who stands to lose - or gain - the most.
Born from Shakespeare's Italian plays, this novel explores the danger, deceit, and deviltry of early Renaissance Italy, and the terrible choices one must make just to stay alive.
"David Blixt is a man of many talents--an actor, director, author. In his hands, history comes to bright, blazing life." - SHARON KAY PENMAN, The Sunne In Splendour and Lionheart
"David Blixt is one of the masters of historical fiction. Dramatic, vivid, superbly researched, VOICE OF THE FALCONER captures Renaissance Italy in all its heady glamour and lethal intrigue. This is a novel to savor - and then read again!" - C.W. GORTNER, The Queen's Vow and The Tudor Conspiracy
Buy your copy on Amazon today! Just $11.17 (regularly $16.95)!
(This edition is revised from the Kindle version, with some new material!)