Shakespeare in Love

A post for Valentine’s day, a kind of draft of an essay, from an exploratory series on the process of artistic creation (I omit the conculsion as I haven’t really formed it well enough in my mind – as I say, it’s an exploration).

We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life, but we know that the plot of the film Shakespeare in Love isn’t true. For in Tom Stoppard’s vision, we have Shakespeare deriving the entire story of Romeo and Juliet from his own ill-starred love for Viola de Lesseps: – there is the same “undying” love for another woman; the same meeting at a ball; the same balcony scene. It seems Shakespeare was struggling for ideas, and it is only the inspiration engendered by his love which makes him capable (indeed, contrary to all known human behaviour, it is that first burst of the passion of his love which grants him precisely the concentration he needs to settle down with his quill and write his play); – and it is the subsequent impossibility of his love affair with Viola which inclines him to shift his play from comedy to tragedy, and to come up with the notion of their twin poisoning. As the film maintains, in its wager with the queen as to whether art can ever manage to show love as it really is, it is life as it is really lived which inspires the best art.

And yet, we know it didn’t happen this way. We know that really Shakespeare lifted the plot of Romeo and Juliet – his “undying” love for another woman, the meeting at the ball, the balcony scene, the twin deaths by poison – wholesale from the translations by Arthur Brooke and William Painter of Matteo Bandello’s Italian short story. None of it is his own invention. If love inspired anything in the play, it must have been the language – or we might say perhaps, the inspiration to find in the passivity of the short story a dynamic dramatic core, and to compress the passage of time. And yet still, if this were so, Shakespeare must always have been in love (or hate, or filled with jealousy, or envy, or pride, or ambition), because he employed the same methodology, with (largely) the same results, in almost all his plays.

As well as Shakespeare in Love, I’ve recently been watching the comedy series Upstart Crow, which takes that film’s central idea (that all Shakespeare’s plays are derived from incidents in Shakespeare’s life) and runs with it much further. Because of this Upstart Crow encounters at times a fundamental paradox, which is that Shakespeare, who understood human nature to its core, is constantly shown as understanding nothing about life unless it is shown to him plainly. Such a paradox, of course, is fine for comedy, but as always it should point us towards the truth that our premisses are incorrect.

To me, these are artistic lies – cleverly fancies of their authors – which, like so many discussions and teachings about art, seek to simplify the process of artistic creation – and the nature of art itself – for mass consumption. It is absurd to suggest that Shakespeare lived all his plays before writing them; – yet all the same he must have gained the experience to write them from somewhere.