How did the historical moment impinge upon, inform and preoccupy Shakespeare? Michael Rosen’s Shakespeare: His Work and His World draws young readers into the world behind the plays. Here, he explains the impetus behind the book.
I wonder whether there are enough books about Shakespeare to fill the North Sea. I remember from when I did English at university that sometimes I felt as if it wasn’t possible to read or see a Shakespeare play without reading a book about it first. So, I have to admit, it feels odd that I’ve joined the industry. It all began from reading a few of the recent biographies of Shakespeare, something I had never done before. For years I had allowed myself to live in that strange netherworld where the plays exist largely separate from the person and the era. Even so, you can’t live for fifty years in this country without having some kind of awareness of both. Shut your eyes for a moment and conjure up images and phrases linked to Shakespeare the man and Elizabethan or Jacobean England.
If I allow memories from, say, primary school, to flood in, I’m filled up with explorers bravely sailing round the world, long elegant rooms in country mansions, the Spanish Armada seen off and a generalised boar’s head, madrigal, velvety glow. Shakespeare is someone clever and jolly strutting about on the stage at the Globe, furiously scribbling plays, before retiring to Stratford to die.
The problem with all this is that it’s very hard to make any kind of match between what you see unfold in front of you at the theatre and the historical myth you have in your head. Just consider the matter of plotting and danger. Almost all the plays involve these. Now you can take the attitude that this is because it’s the stuff of drama, or you can ask the question, was Shakespeare’s time particularly full of this kind of scheming and conspiracy? Is there a way of looking at Hamlet, Coriolanus and even comedies like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream and see them as normal? Full of people behaving as people would have behaved at this extraordinary time?
I think, looking back at the way I’ve seen the plays in the past, and yes, loved them, I had enjoyed them as incredible yarns, grand exaggerations of life. The more I read of Shakespeare’s life and times, the more the plays started to feel real. Take King Lear. I had somehow grasped this play as an elongated and agonising parable about such matters as the arrogance of old age, forgiveness, redemption and all that. Even so, this left some awkward questions in my head about why Edmund is not only a Bastard but also a complete bastard, why Lear raves on about poverty and justice when he’s out on the heath and with ‘poor Tom’. My new reading led me to realise, what had perhaps been obvious to many but not me, that it’s not simply Lear who is old, but also Lear’s social group, the old aristocratic class. Meanwhile, Edmund, who snarls at us: ‘Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit’ is part of some kind of new order.
Then again, I was discovering that when Shakespeare came to London, he was part of a company of players that crept out in the middle of the night, less than a mile from where I live, dismantled their theatre and trundled across the river, to re-erect it, with trimmings, on Bankside. At the very moment when Shakespeare was writing and acting, a new kind of spectacle was emerging in world culture, the renaissance play. It was, I felt, a bit like that moment a hundred years ago when cinema started to happen.
A dramatic project
With my head buzzing with all these ideas, I approached Caroline Royds at Walker Books with an idea of making some of this accessible to young readers. I was asking the impossible both of her and me: that we could make a book that would convey the excitement and danger of Shakespeare’s time, the wonder of the moment that a new kind of entertainment was emerging, a sense of Shakespeare’s life going through rapid social mobility while all this raged about him. As it happens, Caroline wanted more! Couldn’t I also give some sense of how the plays work on us as audiences? How does the language and the drama get to us? Yes, yes, of course I could.
Well, as writers love saying, yes of course every book tells a story, but there’s also a story in how the book, Shakespeare: His Work and His World, came to be written. I was an editor’s nightmare, offering up tantalising snippets, followed by long delays of nothing, mingled with slabs of incomprehensible prose as I struggled to say something quite complicated in as simple a language as I could find. We found with Robert Ingpen someone who could capture the drama of the project and the always amazing Amelia Edwards who is not simply a designer but a maker of beautiful books. Now it’s all done, I hope that it helps anyone of any age, but especially young people, to sit in a theatre and feel gripped by the deep realities of a Shakespeare play.
Shakespeare: His Work and His World by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Robert Ingpen, is published by Walker Books, 0 7445 5581 7, £12.99.
Michael Rosen is a writer, poet, and broadcaster. BfK readers voted him their ‘outstanding’ and ‘favourite’ poet of the last century.