England, 1586. Swept up in the skirts of a mysterious stranger, Will Shakespeare becomes entangled in a deadly and hilarious misadventure as he accidentally uncovers an attempt to murder Queen Elizabeth herself. Aided by the mercurial wit of Kit Marlowe, Will enters London for the first time, chased by rebels, spies, his own government, his past, and a bear.
Through it all he demonstrates his loyalty and genius, proving himself to be - HER MAJESTY'S WILL.
'I LOVE this book! I'm laughing and on the edge of my seat and turning e-pages so fast, I'm gonna fry my iPad.' - C.W. Gortner, author of THE QUEEN'S VOW and THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY
playing the expectations game. You rewrite Romeo
& Juliet, you’d best bring something new to the table. You write
about the fall of Jerusalem, there had better be something surprising and
uplifting in that awful story. And if you write a novel about William
Shakespeare, you’d best hope that you don’t get crushed by the weight of
expectations. Especially your own.
That was the
danger I was facing as I sat down to write Her
Majesty’s Will. Even though I knew it would be light-hearted and joyful,
a romp of a spy/buddy/comedy, I was still casting William Shakespeare as my
lead character. William Shakespeare! The man who invented one of every ten
words we use. The man who created more common phrases than we can count. The
man whose only rival in terms of influence is the Bible. William Shakespeare!
That’s the problem,
you see. I love Shakespeare – or rather, I love his plays. I’ve been performing
them professionally for over half my life now. I met my wife doing Shakespeare.
Last summer our six year-old son joined me onstage to do Shakespeare. Of the 36
accepted titles that bear his name, I’ve played roles in 19, so I’m just about
halfway through the canon. Through the plays, I think I’ve got a vague sense of
the man: his values, his mistrusts, his instincts, his loves, his hates, his
sense of humor, his sense of drama.
But almost all
of it is negative space. We don’t have anything even remotely resembling an autobiography,
only lines here and there that we can speculate about – Hamlet’s instructions
to the actors, Jacques’ cynical musings on life, Richard II’s thoughts on
England itself. Any of those might be the playwright’s true voice. Or they
might not. Then there are sonnets, which we might take as his own voice, if we
did not know that many of them were written on commission for other people.
that’s not a lot to go on. So when it came time to craft a tale with young Will
Shakespeare at the center, I had to infer a lot. Fortunately, there are themes
that emerge in his plays time and again, snippets and beats and moments that,
taken together, present a picture.
So what do I see
in Shakespeare’s plays?
– I see mistrust
of power and those who crave it. From Henry IV to Richard III, from Lear to
Macbeth, from Caesar to Antony to Octavian, Shakespeare shows how ambition is
often a snake swallowing its own tail, how desire for power leads men to evil.
How power itself is unfulfilling, yet absolute power corrupts absolutely:
BRUTUS: But 'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the utmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
That formula is
as true for the Church and for Government as it is for Mankind. Power is
dangerous, as is ambition. Yet he resolutely holds out hope that man can
transcend this evil. Perhaps my favorite line from Macbeth belongs to Malcolm: Angels
are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Conclusion: Shakespeare mistrusts authority – does that mean
he’s seen the evil of authority up close?
– I see a
longing for justice. It’s in the comeuppance he gives all his evil-doers. From
Richard’s dream to Edmund’s recantation to Iago’s silence to Macbeth’s
sleep-deprived madness, the evils men do return to them. It’s almost a sense of
karma, though if that were the case, then there would not be the harm to the
innocents that also appears – Macduff’s children deserved no karmic suffering,
and poor Cinna the Poet did nothing wrong. No, Shakespeare makes it clear that
there is evil in the world, but also that God or Fate or the nature of evil
itself brings evil back to evil. Blood will have blood, as they say.
This is as true
for the Comedies as for the Tragedies. Malvolio gets a cosmic comeuppance as
he’s made the fool of by those he sought to overmaster. Yet his tormentors go
too far, and he swears he will have his revenge. At that moment, I agree with
him that they deserve it. His crime did not warrant such treatment, and shows
the danger of trying to effect justice outside the law. Shakespeare is no fan
of vigilantism, yet he understands it. And he detests arbitrary justice, as
seen in Justice Shallow in Merry Wives.
longs for justice – because he has been wronged?
– I see his need
to side with the misunderstood. So many of Shakespeare’s best characters are
outsiders. Othello, Iago, Shylock, Aaron, Edmund, the Bastard Arthur, Richard
(thanks to his deformity) – these men are, every one, outsiders. Yes, the
majority are villains, because that’s what the audience expected, and because
villains are the ones who make a story move. But to a one, Shakespeare gives us
some of the most amazing, heartfelt defenses for who they are:
SHYLOCK: If you prick us, do we
if you tickle us, do we not
laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you
wrong us, shall we not
EDMUND: Why bastard? wherefore
When my dimensions are as well
My mind as generous, and my shape
As honest madam's issue? Why
brand they us
With base? with baseness?
bastardy? base, base?
RICHARD: I, that am curtail'd of
this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before
Into this breathing world, scarce
half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark
at me as I halt by them.
That is to say
nothing of the women, outsiders in their own right. The life he gives to
Rosalind, Viola, Kate, and Merchant’s Portia is truly astonishing. They are, in
fact, the true leads of their plays, challenging gender roles either by being
shrewish and assertive, or else by donning man’s attire and becoming men
themselves, always proving better and wiser men than the actual men around
embraces the outsider – because he is one?
– I see him
challenging his audience’s perceptions. There are obvious examples, such as
writing a Comedy and then killing everyone off (Romeo
& Juliet) or rewriting a popular play like The Taming Of A Shrew to make the female the one who “wins”
at the end (and in his version, she’s not whipped and beaten). But the one
that’s been most on my mind lately is the startling nature of his play Julius Caesar. Until 1599, Brutus was
firmly denounced as one of the great betrayers, being eternally chewed by
Lucifer in Hell, second only to Judas in terms of his crime. Shakespeare does
the unimaginable and recasts Brutus as the hero, the man who does a terrible thing
for an excellent reason, raising all sorts of moral questions, while at the
same time redefining Brutus for all time. It may not seem like much to us, but
it was a revolutionary act.
Shakespeare sees the world differently from other men.
– I see the law
of unintended consequences. Nothing in Shakespeare goes according to plan. From
the death of Caesar failing to restore the Roman Republic to the secret
marriage of Romeo and Juliet failing to solve the feud (well, it does, but not
in the way the Friar intended). Tricking Benedick to fall in love with Beatrice
leads to Benedick challenging one of the tricksters to a duel. Shylock
demanding his pound of flesh ends with him impoverished and a forced convert to
Christianity. Nothing – nothing –
goes according to the plan of men.
Shakespeare knew that life was unpredictable, and one must think quickly to
Above all, I see
Shakespeare’s love for the common man – the peons, the rabble, the rank and
file. Oh, as a group he disdains them – he rails at mobs at the top of Caesar, and during Mark Antony’s speech
proves how short their memories are, how quickly they can be swayed. But individually
he loves them. He certainly caters to them, pandering to their tastes with low
humor and bawdy jokes. But he also finds more good in their raw honesty than in
all the upright nobility. It is the rough, the rude, the boisterous that he
admires. Oh, they have faults, but he loves their faults along with their
virtues. Drunkenness, lewdness, cowardice, cheating, lying – these are all
accepted purely as clever means to survive in the world. He gives his greatest
wit to clowns and fools, and makes drunkards the most joyful of his creations.
Shakespeare accepts and loves low men – because he came from their ranks.
So as I thought
about my Shakespeare – not the real one, but the one being created by my pen – this
is the man I saw. A fellow of common birth and uncommon thoughts. A man who
understood the vagaries of life and yet longed for justice and order. A man who
has played the villain for the best of reasons. A man quick on his feet. A man
mistrustful of authority. A man who craves the approval of his peers, even when
his nature renders him peerless. A man who has always felt on the outside,
misunderstood, different, alone.
Even before I
cracked Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful Will
In The World, which gave me incredible historical details for
Shakespeare’s origins and contemporaries, the man himself was shaping from the
negative space created by his plays into a positive and (thankfully) very human
maintained that Her Majesty’s Will
isn’t serious, and it’s not. Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe running around as
spies for Walsingham, working for the Queen? Ridiculous! I certainly wasn’t
aiming to write a biography or some serious piece of literature. This is farce.
I am the first to acknowledge that.
But just as
Shakespeare gave his best bits of wisdom to his fools and clowns, I hope that,
through my own clowning, I’ve been able to imbue my Shakespeare with something
close to Truth. If this is not who the real Shakespeare was, this is perhaps
who he should have been. A man not
dragged down by the weight of my expectations, but rather raised up by his own.
Here's a guest piece I wrote for Bilerico.com that ran last Sunday.
I’m getting some lovely praise for my new novel, HER
MAJESTY’S WILL. I wrote it as a tongue-in-cheek spy story starring Will
Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, and it seems to be received (mostly) as I would
have hoped – with mirth, laughter, and joy. Yes, a couple reviews declaimed
loudly against the “crude” nature of the relationship between Will and Kit, but
I kinda expected that. I brush it off, knowing history is on my side. Marlowe’s
“infamy” is well established, and there’s plenty of reason to think that, if
not gay, Will Shakespeare’s sexuality spanned a wide vista of possibilities.
But one question has surprised me. It goes like this: “David,
you’re straight. What was it like writing a gay love scene?”
Are you kidding me?
First and foremost, love is love. Writing about the
excitement of a kiss, of a caress, is the same across the board. Thinking about
a first meeting of lips, or even a touch of a hand, is an electric,
heart-hammering human experience. The best part is acknowledging what fools we
are for love, how desperately grateful and fearful we are when it’s dangled
Secondly, let us all agree that there are more far factors
in human attraction than mere gender. One of them is talent. Talent is sexy. Talent
is a force of attraction. And in a time when words were prized, when publishing
was new, when reading was exciting, when instead of saying “Let’s go see a
play” people said, “Let’s go hear a
play,” there were few talents bigger than Marlowe and Shakespeare. A pair of brilliant
young men, thrown into each other’s company and on the run for their lives –
from the Catholics, the government, the dregs of London, and a bear – the
attraction was as natural as anything I’ve ever written.
In fact, the love scene between two teenagers in my novel
FORTUNE’S FOOL was infinitely harder to craft. In that story, the couple are so
young and stupid, so timorous and full of the weight of their actions, it was a
hurdle to write. Whereas Will and Kit came together quite naturally, kissing
spontaneously after a wild and breathless chase.
No, Will Shakespeare might not have been gay. But he
certainly wasn’t straight. With all the cross-dressing, the veiled pining, the
inside jokes, he showed that human experience trumps gender. He played with
attraction, loss, pining, devotion, and the dark side of desire across the
board. Most of all, he understood that love transcends sex. It’s universal.
Hell, how could he not see it plain as day, when his Juliet
was played by a young man in drag? Yes, Shakespeare wrote the greatest love
lines between a man and a woman, and he wrote them to be spoken by two men. I wonder if anyone asked him if
it was hard writing a love scene between a straight couple? If so, I like to
think he laughed in their faces. Just like I do.
The 18th season of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is down! It's been a particularly wonderful run, with a great company and amazing reviews and audience response. The only downside is that I haven't been writing or promoting books. The upside is, I now have two more novels in my head, as well as a plot for the sequel to HER MAJESTY'S WILL, and I've agreed to co-author a play with a dear friend of mine. But more news will be forthcoming. I'd like to take this moment to share a few images from this season. Enjoy my clean-shaven face - it won't be seen again until the next director decides I must be shorn.
Same moment. Not only was I shorn, my director decided to put me in a fat suit. (The young lad behind me is my son, Dashiell, making his stage debut as my show-son, young Richard of York).
A shot of the amazing David Turrentine as the title character. I like this shot because it shows off Jeromy Hopgood's astonishing set.
Here's David up close, reveling in his villainy. People couldn't stop talking about his performance - rightly. It was a joy, an evil joy.
While I was eventually hired to act, I was originally planning only to do the fights. The director (my wife) wanted all the murders to happen on-stage. Hence poor Clarence being drowned in plain view. Alan Ball was wonderfully game to be soaked and pummeled for a very long time.
On top of that, I choreographed a 10 minute Battle of Bosworth. 13 actors, with weapons ranging from swords and shields to daggers, maces, spears, and a saddle.
Kate Hopgood, the festival composer, created a magnificent underscore, the likes of which I've never heard before. 200 cues, each taken off of our movements, building to a thunderous choir singing "Now is the winter of our discontent" in Italian. Amazing.
I'll talk about the other shows in later posts. For now, please enjoy these images, and get ready to make your reservations for next year! As one reviewer put it: "The Michigan Shakespeare Festival seems to be going from strength to strength, at last becoming the sort of summer destination event it was surely meant to be." And the lion's share of the credit goes to the Artistic Director, Janice L Blixt. I am as proud as can be.
More images from the show can be found at the MSF Facebook page here.
I get a lot of compliments for my battle scenes. Which is lovely, as they’re some of the most fun and challenging for me to write.
I come from the theatre, and among the hats I wear in my professional life is Fight Director. I’m trained in different styles of swordplay, and I’ve traveled all over the world to learn from the best in the field. So when it comes time to write an skirmish, a duel, or a battle, I find myself standing in my office, sword in hand, working the movements one after another. I pick up a spear. Then an axe. I actually own a halberd, a gift from a cast of a Richard III I once directed, and that came into play up on my roof. I always find myself choreographing the fights as I would for a stage show, but on a much larger canvas.
The art of stage combat is looking incredibly violent while being incredibly safe. I try to bring some of that to my novels, varying the type of fighting, the kind of weapons, the intent of the combatants. Sometimes the fighting is light-hearted, sometimes desperate and sudden. But there’s a secret to making a good fight on stage, and I’ve found it works perfectly well in my writing as well.
But first, the technical elements. The page allows me to do two things. First, I can broaden the scope of the fighting, doing a great deal on horseback, which I have only had one abortive attempt at in theatre (seriously, don’t ask). Second, I can slow the action down. Part of the trouble in stage violence is that if it goes by too quickly the audience isn’t sure what happened. If it happens too slow, they don’t believe it. A very tricky balance to maintain. Pacing is as important in a novel as it is onstage, but the written word does afford me a little more latitude.
In fact, one big influence in how I “stage” my written fight scenes is, of all people, Tom Clancy. The pacing in his early novels is fantastic. I love the way he intercuts scenes, building tension and rhythm for Jack Ryan’s adventures, cutting away at the most dramatic moments. Having stolen this technique, I’m told it makes my novels cinematic, which I choose to take as a compliment.
Something else I’ve noticed I do is wound my characters far more than I ever intend at the outset. In the Star-Cross’d series, Pietro was never meant to be crippled by a blow to the leg so early. It just happened, and I have to admit it’s made all his subsequent fighting much more interesting. I’ve always been a fan of the James Bond and Sharpe books where the hero has to spend a month in the hospital after saving the day. Violence has to have stakes. We can’t just create a red shirt to kill him off. People we care about have to die, or at least be hurt, to make us feel the importance. There have to be consequences.
The hardest part for me is balancing what I need to know to write a fight with what the reader needs to read it – which is often much less. I write out the whole of the physical fight scene, then begin paring away excess detail, revealing the core.
Which brings us to the secret of a good fight scene.
One thing I’ve learned in theatre is that a good fight is not about cool moves. It’s not about blood, or violence. It’s about story. The fight itself has to tell a story. A fight is like any conflict – it’s a tale of desire and denial.
Desire: I want your life.
Denial: You can’t have it.
It’s almost romantic, and combatants have just as much intimacy as lovers. One funny story is that a rather famous theatre with rather famous actors had to hire a Fight Director friend of mine, not for a fight scene, but for a love scene. The actors just couldn’t stage the lovemaking right – kept stepping on toes and banging teeth. So they hired a Fight Director to stage the lovemaking.
Likewise, I’ve found that writing a love scene is very much like writing a duel – everyone has a motive, everyone has a goal. The writer cannot be too graphic without losing the audience, but too vague and it becomes a wash.
Sex and violence - two sides of the same coin. Both are all about desire.
Longtime readers of this blog will certainly recognize the centerpiece of this collection - my take on the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud which led to the writing of THE MASTER OF VERONA. But I've gone much further in this collection of essays, exploring the show itself - from a theatrical standpoint as well as a literary one. In fact, most of the pieces are about the play in performance - how to merge scenes, the question of the balcony in the Balcony Scene, and much much more. Only $1.99 on Kindle!
My wife and I have penned several short essays on Shakespeare's MACBETH. Fans of this blog will recognize a couple - our take on the famous Tomorrow & Tomorrow speech has long been a staple here. But we've expanded on that piece, along with several others, to share our thoughts on the cursed Scottish play! Only $0.99 on Kindle!