Of all of CW’s plays that I have read thus far, this is the most performable! Any theatre directors reading this should seriously consider staging this play. Furthermore, of all of CW’s books that I have read thus far, I’d say this one is the most fun. It is quite unlike CW’s others writings, and has been a bit of a relief and a kind of vacation during my chronological read-through. It’s quite a surprising little play.
Let me explain it. This play is a fictional biography of William Shakespeare, interspersed with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. So the text is about half Shakespeare, half Williams. Shakespeare interacts with Marlowe, Jonson, other playwrights, and Queen Elizabeth, talking about his work and theirs. Whenever a play gets mentioned, actors then perform the scene in question as a live example of whatever principle Shakespeare and his friends are discussing. Sometimes the characters from Shakespeare’s plays are “real” in his life, holding conversations with him in a meta-meta-theatrical manner. It’s very clever and beautifully well-composed.
The play opens as Shakespeare travels the road from Stratford-upon-Avon to London. He is fresh from the country, blooming with his young love of Anne Hathaway. He meets Quince, Bottom, and the rest of the “rude mechanicals,” who then rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare interjects comments throughout their rehearsal, just as the royal audience members do during Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Then Shakespeare arrives in London, and gets a job (in accordance with legend) holding horses outside The Theatre. He meets Christopher Marlowe, to whom he speaks so beautifully in extempore verse that Marlowe immediately recognizes his genius. Marlowe invites him to a rehearsal of Tamburlaine, so we are treated to a scene from that play.
And so the story goes. Marlowe introduces Shakespeare to Henslowe and Greene; Shakespeare eventually meets Burbage and Jonson, and along the way gets presented to Queen Elizabeth and carries on an affair with Mary Fitton — claimed by some scholars to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets.
But that is only the plot. And as is usual with Charles Williams, the plot is really only the smallest part of the work. The IDEAS are the real essence of the play. What, then, is the idea-essence of this play?
It is the Crisis of Schism. Remember that CW measured the power of a poet by how he faced, expressed, and overcame a sense of a split identity: an “Impossibility” in which something simultaneously could not be, yet was. Furthermore, he claimed that Shakespeare faced this crisis, poetically, in Troilus and Cressida. In The English Poetic Mind, a work of literary criticism written four years after A Myth of Shakespeare, Williams would construct a proposed chronology of Shakespeare’s plays. In A Myth of Shakespeare, he (roughly) follows this order of composition, building up through the light-hearted early plays (according to his order) through to a moment of climax with Troilus and Cressida, then leading to the great final ambiguous masterpieces such as Othello, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. Later, in my discussion of The English Poetic Mind, I will compare CW’s proposed chronology with what the latest scholarship suggests. But for now, scholarly accuracy is not so important (for A Myth of Shakespeare) as are story and concept.
The point is that the character Will Shakespeare, in CW’s play, goes through a Crisis of Schism just when the poetic persona is going through it in composing Troilus and Cressida. I’ve already written, here, about Troilus’ crisis. What is the character Will Shakespeare’s crisis?
It is his misplaced lust for Mary Fitton. He is bound to her while he is appalled by her grotesque ugliness. CW’s Shakespeare cries out to Burbage that he is:
…I have loved,
Lost, tasted, been bemocked and surfeited,
Played with it as a rattle, drunk it like sack
To warm my heart—and gone the round again
With many another trick and fantasy—
And all betwixt my lodgings in Cheapside
And the stage door.
Compare that first quotation to the famous “My Mistress’ Eyes” sonnet, #130:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
(Better yet, for a little levity in your day, watch Catherine Tate recite it in this hilarious sketch with David Tennant).
This Will Shakespeare’s crisis is a divided self: He is not the kind of man to cheat on Anne, not the kind of man to “lower himself” to such a mistress—and yet he is. He has done so, is doing so, does so again as Act I closes and “Mary Fitton comes to the entrance, and beckons Shakespeare with a movement of her head”—and he goes to her. Then Act II opens with the composition of Troilus and Cressida, with a glorious piece of writing as Shakespeare struggles to get the line just right: “Nothing at all, unless that this were she.”
So what, then, of the verse? How dare Williams try to write in the voice of Shakespeare? How well does he do?
He does pretty jolly well. Considering that CW’s character is speaking, not writing, his verse is a fair sample of how we might imagine a mythic Shakespearean genius speaking, casually—in iambic pentameter—with his friends. CW’s verse does not jar against Shakespeare’s. The one is a graceful frame for the other. There is one major difference between CW’s and Shakespeare’s: the matter of layered meanings. Think of any famous passage of Shakespeare, at random. Think of even one oft-quoted line like, say, “She should have died hereafter” (from Macbeth). That one simple line is packed with significances. Which “should” is implied? Does the line mean, “It would have been better if she died later?” or “She would have died sometime anyway”? Those are almost opposites. Or did Shakespeare intend to have both meanings layered in there, to express Macbeth’s ambiguous feelings on the death of his wife? I vote for the latter.
So as I read through A Myth of Shakespeare and shifted from CW’s verse to Shakespeare’s, that was the biggest difference that struck me. CW’s verse is more layered and complex than that of many of his contemporaries—certainly more so than that of the other Inklings—and much more than just about any living poet now, in 2013—but showed nothing like the skill of Shakespeare to pack into each word all the power it could hold. But on its own terms, CW’s poetry reaches some sublime heights in this little work.
That said, however, if I were listening to this play performed, rather than reading it on the page, there would certainly be moments when I would find myself unsure which poet’s lines were being spoken. And it is a playable play, quite a playable play. I would LOVE to see it performed. Its staging is rather simple, merely calling for a curtain between the two scenes of action. The cast could be fairly small, since everyone except Shakespeare could double: I think 16 actors could do it, maybe even fewer. It moves along at a lively pace, since each CW-scene is short, and each Shakespeare-scene is a dramatic one, a climactic one. CW gives instructions in his forwarding “Note” for ways the play could be shortened or expanded. So if you are a director, will you please schedule in this play for your next season??