Shakespeare, Marlowe and the pageboy guy

So the world is talking about Shakespeare’s collaborations, and this girl couldn’t be happier. We’ve long known that Will’s plays are full of interpolations from other writers, but to have Kit be specially credited warms my heart.

Because the whole point of Rival Poet is that Will needs help. His hand, his country manners, his lack of brashness, his dialect, his tendency to give up… he wouldn’t have got anywhere without his best friend Richard, his loyal company from whose voices he crafted his characters, and above all, without Kit.

And neither would I.

You see, Kit is the person I never can be, but sometimes wish I could. He’s my secret animus and the man of my dreams – literally. When I was eighteen, I started having this recurring dream about a tall guy with a pageboy cut – which was sometimes a bright green – who just sort of moved through the dream and was cool and mysterious and intelligent and wore a Sherlock style coat. Irresistible. I always woke up with a feeling of yearning. I wanted that man to be real. I wanted him in my life.

But not as a partner. I wanted to be him.

So for me the “pageboy guy” has become the symbol of a side I never reveal. He’s the part of me that speaks through my less-than-considerate characters. He’s Becca in Pax, and maybe Nathan. He’s Laila in All You Can Eat and Garangjas in Last Communion. But above all, he’s Kit Marlowe.

MAJOR RIVAL POET SPOILERS AHEAD. If you want to avoid them, scroll until you see the cover and then continue reading below it.


There was an earlier version of Rival Poet where Kit actually died for real. A non-romance version, obviously. But he continued haunting me. There was a niggling doubt at the back of my head. I didn’t want him dead. I also didn’t want to buy into some stupid conspiracy theory and ruin the part of the plot where losing Kit was the breeding ground for all of Will’s tragedies. To say I had cognitive dissonance is an understatement.

And then finally, I brought him back. I sometimes wonder if it was the right thing to do, but the answer is always the same: yes. Because he does live on. Just like Shakespeare, Marlowe is as alive today as he was four hundred years ago, and I needed that scene, that (slightly twisted) riding-into-the-sunset-and-living-forever scene that can be taken as face value, but which also has a more symbolic meaning that nudges the reader and says, “You know? Wink, wink.”

Rival Poet ARe


So yeah, seeing people today be all excited about how my two favourite boys collaborated on a bunch of plays is a joy for me, because I’m personally convinced they did. Will and Kit go together like the two halves of my soul: the middle-aged woman who guards her tongue, and the devil-may-care shadow with the artsy coat who laughs at everything.

I even wrote a song about it. Now, I’m not a flawless singer, and I’m definitely not a pianist, but I do consider myself an amateur composer. (Can’t write novels all the time, you know?) So here it is, in all its do-I-really-remember-the-chords glory: my tribute to Kit Marlowe.

Lyrics below.



He steps out of the shadows like
An impish sprite on the lookout
For a narrative to hijack
’Cause he didn’t have enough time
In his own lifetime
To fill the world with his words
And he will not be able to sleep soundly
In his grave until

He has conquered all the world
Like the pampered jade he is
He’s been made immortal by
Another Helen’s kiss
His cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

So here I am, in this song
I suppose it’s about me
But if you look, I’ll be gone
’Cause I’m strange and elusive
Now you see me, now you don’t
I’m the Magus, I’m the Puck
I am Mercury, I bring a message from the gods

I have conquered all the world
Like the pampered jade I am
I’ll be made immortal by
The kiss from another man
My cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

I am back from Hades
And I know you can’t resist
So come with me and we will get
Fictionally pissed

’Cause you can conquer all the world
Like the pampered jade you are
You’ll be made immortal by
The kiss from a shooting star
Your cry will be Come live with me
All through the night
’Cause whoever loved
That loved not at first sight?

An ode to Hal and the histories

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (abridged) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. The “histories football match” made me laugh until I almost threw up. I adore the histories, I wrote a nerdy sixth form college essay on Hal, and Henry V once gave me an inappropriate case of patriotism by proxy, but maybe that’s why the football match is so hilarious to me. They reduce eight plays to a three-minute tussle for the crown, and in many ways, that’s what the histories can seem to be, especially the Henry VI ones.

But they’re also intricate studies of character. Falstaff and Richard III may be the most famous ones, but there are so many other fantastic roles in there. For me, the young prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, remains the most compelling character of the histories.

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Lookit! There’s my college nerd paper, complete with my fan girl drawing of Michael Maloney and Julian Glover on the cover page.

The reason I wrote that essay was that I’d read so many critics who painted him as a scheming turn-coat. I seem to have a thing for morally questionable Shakespeare characters (Coriolanus being another), so I set about to defend him against such slander.

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For this was in the days of dot matrix printing…

For me, he’s the teenage Everyman who has to leave his carefree youth behind and shoulder his adult responsibilities. I don’t really have any sympathy for the Falstaff-huggers, since in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he’s actually kind of an asshole. He may have been a surrogate father to Hal, because the king is a bit low on the touchy-feely-o-meter, but he also has no scruples about deriding him in public or lying about killing Hotspur, who was Hal’s grand prize in the war. Sure, the old man is witty and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Of course Hal has to leave him behind.

So much for the philosophy. Now on to the clothes. Adrian Noble’s fantastic 1991 production of the two parts of Henry IV didn’t just star Julian Glover and Michael Maloney, it also starred a costume designer named Deirdre Clancy (branded on my memory forever). Before seeing those clothes, I had no real appreciation for the texture of suede hose, the length of boots or the cut of shirts.

There are so many valid reasons to love Shakespeare, don’t you agree?

But back to the more cerebral stuff. The funny thing is that the histories aren’t very historical. For example, Henry IV says he wishes his infant son had been replaced with Hotspur:

O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

But at the time Hal was a baby, Hotspur was already grown up! And the histories are filled with inaccuracies like that – either because Shakespeare didn’t know any better, or because he didn’t care. I’m leaning towards the latter.

In the same vein, I’ve had the characters in Rival Poet speak in a modern way, because I didn’t want the action and the vibrance of the tale clouded by arcane language. Of course, this may be jarring to some readers, but I chose to do it because I wanted the story to feel as if it took place right now, out there in the street or at your local corner pub.

And now I’m comparing myself to old Willie himself to rationalise it…

I’ll end this rambling post with a film tip: The Hollow Crown. Especially Richard II with Ben Wishaw in the title role is absolutely magnificent. That play isn’t even among my favourites, but he does the king with such… I don’t even know. He brings him to life. Makes him understandable, even though he’s kind of weird.

In fact, I think I’ll try to persuade the husband to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tonight by watching it in our cinema!

My love story with the Bard (abridged)

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

So yes, I’m going to be a snot all day and post/reblog oodles of Shakespeare and Marlowe stuff. If there’s one day of the year when your obsession looks normal, it’s today, right? Even the prating coxcombs on breakfast TV try to appear educated, so… no holds barred for the truly smitten.

My love story with Will began when I was ten. With… Troilus and Cressida. Unusual suspects, to be sure. But I’d been innoculated with opera for four years, so I was used to not understanding what the people on stage were on about. According to my parents, I “looked at the pictures” and I “understood everything”.

Since then, I’ve lost that level of scholarship.

Anyway, yes, Troilus was the first play I saw, with Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson. I remember him lounging on a pianola and, um, not much else actually. Oh yeah, a bunch of white-haired men discussing maps.

And yet I was hooked.

Or was it when I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream a few days later? That would be typically banal, wouldn’t it? But then we were in the first row, and I remember Hippolyta getting up from a sofa with an expression of disdain on her face when Theseus gave Hermia her punishment. I remember thinking, “How is it possible to act like that? How can someone convey something so lifelike when it’s all fake?”

As I see it written down, I realise that I was posing the exact same question as Hamlet when he heard the Hecuba speech.

So. A passion was born, and each summer after that, I was treated to the best of the best in both Stratford and London. I saw Sean Bean as Romeo (that bloody worked!), Antony Sher as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Richard II before I had acne. I realise this puts me in the privileged-beyond-belief box, BUT we lived on Mother’s Pride the rest of the time, so swings and roundabouts, okay?

When I was fifteen, my father deemed it time to take my education to the next level. That summer, we were going to watch As You Like It, Richard III and King Lear (both with McKellen in the title role – feel free to gnash your teeth), and my father put a couple of Cliffs Notes in my hands. Making me go, “Whoa! You mean there’s more to it than pictures?”

Yep, there was more to it. A lot more. Before I knew it, I had graduated to the actual texts in Arden editions, and my obsession with language history was a fact.

To this day, I wonder how the actors do it. How they can make something so fake – and in verse, too! – look and sound so natural. You think Iain Glen shines in Game of Thrones? He filled a completely empty stage as Henry V, making me believe he really was a king. Oh, and on the subject of GoT, Owen Teale, who plays Ser Alliser Thorne, was Hotspur in the best production of Henry IV that will ever be made – the one that made me realise the importance of directors (and costume designers, but that’s for another post with slightly more nsfw flavour).

So yeah, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. Not that I haven’t had my moments of doubt. Once, I tossed my Complete Works in a spring/depression cleaning gone haywire, but luckily I hadn’t inherited the Arden editions back then, and my stash is reupped by now. I understand how people can think it’s unbearably boring, and sometimes it is. I’m not a fan of the Olivier era, and so much acting is still over the top and yawnworthy. There are idiotic puns and long-winded speeches and pointless interpolations (I hope!), and if anyone can see the dramaturgic arc in the Henry VI’s, please let me know.

And yet I just can’t stay away. A few years back, my obsession metamorphosed (ha! see what I did there?) into an urge to write about him. Ever the enabler, my husband bought me the ultimate Christmas present: a trip to London for a week-long Shakespeare course. I took the opportunity to nip off to Stratford for a look at the Birthplace – which, weirdly enough, I’d never seen despite my many trips there. I spent hours in that house, interviewing the guides and taking notes and imbibing the atmosphere, so when I wrote the domestic scenes, I had a complete picture in my head of every single room.

Sadly, those scenes didn’t make it into the book, because in the end, it wasn’t Shakespeare’s story at all, but Marlowe’s. *sigh* Trouble-maker and quicksilver madcap, knavish sprite and prince of cats. He ruined and salvaged everything, and I’ve written about that whole mess here.

I guess writing about Shakespeare’s whole life was just too big a project. My version of his childhood and youth will always live on in my head, but the 200K megastory was just too unwieldy to publish. For the abnormally interested, I’ve posted some deleted scenes here.

All that remains (because I really should go help M plaster a wall now) is to raise a glass on this the 452nd birthday of the Bard, and in the words of Petruchio in The Shrew, “Be mad and merry or go hang yourselves!”