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.
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.