Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Will: A Tribute to the Genius of Shakespeare

by Julia Buckley

What can one say about William Shakespeare? Everyone will be writing tributes to him today, at least those people who love The Bard. He deserves all the accolades, of course, for innumberable reasons; but one of the most important is that the works of Shakespeare have personal resonance with each reader. How else would they have lasted for more than 400 years? That in itself is something to celebrate: literature that has spanned centuries.

I enjoyed the Shakespeare that I read in high school, but I didn’t begin to love his words until I taught them. In trying to make them attainable to my students, I had to take them apart, analyze them, put them in different contexts, examine their impact within the conflict of the given play. In the process I came to feel, most deeply, how perfect those words were, as though the playwright, the poet, had taken 400 years to compose them.

Once his words became a part of me, I found that I thought about them all the time. When I was searching for a title for my first book (my first title, Our Rarer Monsters, a quote from Macbeth, was too difficult to say), I spied it while reading The Tempest. Prospero is speaking to his daughter Miranda, an innocent who doesn’t realize that she ever lived anywhere except on the magical island where she and her father are marooned. Her father decides, when she is fourteen, that it is time to tell her the truth, and asks her what she remembers about her past, prompting, “What seest thou else in the dark backward and absym of time?”

I nearly knocked over my podium. For my students, that phrase could pass unappreciated, but for me, a title jumped out of the text. The Dark Backward! What an amazing way to refer to the past! What a genius Shakespeare was and is! So that became the title of my first book.

In the book, however, it is not The Tempest I reference, but Macbeth. There are endless wonderful lines in this play, and I was inspired by many of them as I wrote a tale about a governor’s corruption and about the young police officer who wants to bring him down. For me, there were obvious parallels here to Macbeth and Macduff, his arch enemy, and Macbeth’s quote:

“Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder.”

Macbeth feels threatened by the man he left alive, as does my villain by the woman he couldn’t kill, Lily Caldwell.

Now I’m working on the galleys for my new mystery, Madeline Mann. Madeline, too, references Shakespeare (I can’t seem to avoid it), and she does make the occasional reference to Macbeth, but she hearkens back to Hamlet, too, when she notes that “Something is rotten in the State of Webley.”

The tributes I make to Shakespeare are almost inadvertent, because that is the effect his words have on me: they get into my mind and float around there, and because he’s covered almost every possible theme, everything that happens tends to remind me of Shakespeare.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And for all of you readers of Poe’s Deadly Daughters, I’ll quote the Bard for you, too:

“I count myself in nothing else so lucky as in a soul remembering my good friends.”


Pauline said...

Have you seen that Canadian series called "Slings and Arrows?" The language is a bit rough, but wow, talk about bringing Shakespeare to life in a unique and crazy way. I'm sitting on the second season until my life settles down, but the first one rocked.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, you evoked several "Shakespeare moments" for me: how my high school friends and I were all in love with Hamlet (whom we saw as a cross between Laurence Olivier and our 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Pospisil); playing Juliet's mother in my freshman year in college--and still knowing and savoring every word of Romeo and Juliet when I saw "Shakespeare in Love" decades later; taking my husband (then boyfriend with big gaps in his literary education) to see the Olivier Hamlet: I still smile when I remember his astonishment at discovering where all the familiar "one-liners" came from. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Pauline, that sounds wonderful! Where can one view it?

And Liz, how neat to play Juliet. I did some high school drama, but never Shakespeare. I think it would be a unique honor. And have you seen Branagh's Hamlet?