Shakespeare looms large on our cultural map. His extraordinary work continues to inspire, fertilise and enrich the lives and work of countless people all over the world. But many writers are wary of treading in the Bard’s footsteps: of pinching a bit of spice here, a sub-plot there, a character or two, a hint of gossamer, a whiff of sulphur, a touch of mystery, from the work of the greatest writer of us all. Perhaps that is understandable. After all, he looms as the Writer’s God most of all, a major anxiety of influence.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. It is enormous fun, and not as scary as you might think, to merrily plunder and delve within the Shakespearean corpus to produce your own work. I’ve certainly found it so. Four of my novels have been directly inspired by Shakespeare’s plays: Cold Iron (1998), based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare (2003), based on The Tempest and Twelfth Night, Malvolio’s Revenge (2005), also based on Twelfth Night (which is my number one favourite among the plays), and the forthcoming The Madman of Venice (2009) based on The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. I’ve also just finished writing the first draft of a fifth, The Understudy, which is based on Hamlet.
How did it all start? As someone whose native language is French, not English, I had little idea of the idolatry in which Shakespeare was held until I was in high school. In fact, my first introduction to Shakespeare was as a songwriter, because my music-lover of a father had bought a record of songs from Shakespeare’s plays, sung by the counter-tenor Alfred Deller. I loved those songs and knew them by heart long before I knew the plays they came from. But the very first Shakespeare play I looked at was The Merchant of Venice, which we read in class, when I was in my second year of high school. I was struck by the story, but also by the feeling and passion of the characters, especially Shylock. The exotic setting of Venice, too, helped in the glamour of it. I was swept into the sheer storytelling verve of the man, the cleverness and deftness of his plot, as well as the spine-chilling, striking depiction of the strangeness of human nature in all its contradictory aspects.
I cannot pay a high enough tribute to the wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Leaf, who first introduced me to the plays, The Merchant and all the others that followed. Soaking them all up like a sponge, I revelled in an atmosphere of excitement and discovery, and challenge, for I was indeed challenged as well—by the language, the sheer depth of thought, the subtlety of understanding of Shakespeare, as well as excited and thrilled by his stories, character, and the whole atmosphere of his work. Challenge is necessary for children, as much as excitement: together, they can lead to amazing things.
But as time went on, I became aware that Shakespeare represented a kind of Mount Everest of writing. And as my own writing progressed, I kept away from Shakespearean themes and references. Shakespeare stayed imbedded in my world, but being cautious – wanting, also, to not only to avoid pratfalls but also foolish swaggering – I kept away from approaching the plays directly through fiction.
And so it took me till 1998 to approach Shakespeare directly. By that time, I had accumulated enough knowledge and feeling and understanding of not only his work, but also my own voice as a writer, I had written enough books to feel more confidence, to be ready. I remember when the idea first leapt into my mind; it was when, browsing in a music shop, I discovered a CD remastering of those very same Shakespearean songs, sung by Alfred Deller, that I had loved as a child. The sprightly lightness, the underlying melancholy of the songs, the sense that anything and nothing was possible, gripped me. I had just read, and loved, the English fairytale Tattercoats, the version of Cinderella which seems to me to perfectly capture that elusive thing called the English spirit, just as Cendrillon does for the French, or Aschenputtel for the German. In that moment of songlike inspiration, I just knew that the lame gooseherd with his pipe who takes the place of the fairy godmother in Tattercoats, and whose sweet haunting music can be heard at the end of every country lane, was a Puck; and from that, the two worlds of fairytale and Shakespeare mixed, with seamless fluency. That was Cold Iron; and the experience of writing that, gripping, joyous, aching, felt so right that I knew I did not need to be afraid any longer.
All of my Shakespearean novels have been like that, to write. In each one, I’ve felt very strongly the sense of naturalness, of things clicking in, of experience and imagination combined, which makes of writing such a wonderful and scary thing. My characters lived and breathed Shakespeare’s world, and yet they felt very close to me too. Somehow, in that atmosphere, in the inventive language and no-windows-on-men’s-souls of the Elizabethan period, something really deep in me was being released. It felt like I was coming home—like I was giving my fancies, thoughts, dreams, feelings, a ‘local habitation and a name’.
Read a little about Sophie’s Shakespearean series at http://sophievmasson.googlepages.com
You can also watch a trailer for The Madman of Venice (to be published in the UK, Australia and the USA) at http://www.youtube.com/sophievmasson