The Book in which Shakespeare gets murdered

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment


Shakespearean Detectives (Ashley, Mike ed.)

Alas, poor Shakespeare (Lawrence Olivier, unidentified skull: courtesy teachwithmovies.org)

This book is subtitled “Murders and Mysteries Based On Shakespeare’s Life and Plays” – and it is neither an inch more nor an ounce less than what it says on the tin. A motley crew of librarians, art historians, scholars, critics and dabblers in science- and horror- fiction have strung together a bunch of short stories, each a murder mystery either set in one of William Shakespeare‘s plays and populated with its cast of characters, or set in the England of Shakespeare’s own times, and with the bard himself appearing as a main character – victim, perpetrator or amateur detective.

Unfortunately, this book seems to me to be conceived in rashness and delivered in haste, without sufficient thought having been invested in identifying the likes and needs of a specific target audience. No doubt it must have sounded like a good idea at the time. I can almost hear the marketing team going: it’s Shakespeare, innit! And jolly old detective gigs! Now available in a single, convenient package! What’s not to like? Well, for one thing, connoissiers of the detective story genre are guaranteed to find the plots contrived, the characters one-dimensional and the structures cliched right up to the predictable twist at the end of each tale. Devotees of Shakespeare, on the other hand, will definitely be devastated at the brutal murder of the great man’s plays and the assassination of his characterizations. Instead of gaining an audience, you’ve gone and alienated two.

In balance, I’d say, the tales set in Elizabethian and early Jamesian England are the best of the lot, albeit marginally so. In addition to Shakespeare, they feature such luminous contemporaries of his as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and even Guy Fawkes, as key characters; at least, in these stories, the reader gets to know a little more about life in 16th and early 17th century London – its dirty politics and stinking streets, its lively pubs, its comely wenches and conniving cut-purses, and above all, its actors, writers, publishers and printers. But history, as we know, tells us precious little about Shakespeare the man: these stories do not add substantially to that meagre store.

As for the rest of the stories, the ones based on the plays: I had made note, in an earlier post, of Harold Bloom‘s memorable comment about Shakespeare’s characters being larger than the plays (“they are more, much more, than what happens to them”); that they have lives of their own, independent of the plays and transcending them, and therefore, that tremendous potential exists for subsequent authors to piggyback on Shakespeare, pick up his characters as is, put them in new situations, and thus concoct entirely new stories – good stories, gripping stories – around them. It is a matter of great disappointment therefore, that the writers in this anthology have failed miserably, in picking the most appropriate plays, in remaining true to Shakespeare’s characterizations, or in constructing spine-chilling mysteries around these characters.

Were I (ahem!) invited to write a mystery along these lines, I think I would re-write Hamlet, leaving it almost exactly the same as the original, word for word, with only minor changes – an omission here, an extra word there – and the changes would gradually accumulate until, at some point towards the end, the audience suddenly realizes that that the man married to Hamlet’s mother is his real father after all, and not his murdering uncle as he believes. Hamlet then proceeds to cause the deaths of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, Orphelia, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude, believing all along that he is merely revenging, and obeying the instructions of, his “dead” father (whose description actually matches that of a wandering Player King who befriended Hamlet once), and it is only when Hamlet speaks nonchalantly about how as a child, he had killed the court jester Yorick even as the poor clown bore the boy on his back, that his only friend, Horatio, realizes that something is rotten in the state of the Prince of Denmark‘s mind. But then it is obviously too late, and Horatio somehow manages to flee to Fortinbras’ protection. The play ends with Hamlet walking around all alone in a graveyard strewn with bodies, struggling as always to distinguish between reality and illusion, truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, idly considering suicide, muttering softly to himself, repeatedly, the words, “To be or not to be, to be or not to be…”

I’m only half-serious, but I am willing to wager that if I actually got around to writing something of this sort, it would turn out to be at least as good as any of the convoluted pieces in the present volume.

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