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Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Thirty-One

Can a play show the very truth and nature of love?

The thirty-first book we read this year is the screenplay Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. We chose this book because we have seen the film, which moves so fast, and we wanted the opportunity to take more time with the lines, to understand and appreciate them better.

For those who do not know the story, it purports to tell how William Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. It is full of Shakespearean references, wit, and wordplay that can be more fully appreciated for themselves by a leisured reading. And those who have studied Shakespeare closely and know all his work will probably find even more delight than do we who are merely acquainted with Shakespeare. The film is fantastic, so we read this screenplay not so much for the story as to understand how the story was constructed. Our purpose was perhaps a writer's, or screen-writer's, but a reader will not be disappointed. A quote on the rear wrapper of the book summarizes Shakespeare in Love perfectly: "One of the ... funniest, most enchanting, most romantic ... and best written tales ever spun from the vast legend of Shakespeare."

Young Will is fighting writers' block in order to produce his newest comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. He claims the play is all in his head, and he needs only to find his muse for it all to pour out on paper.

The story is filled with rivalries. There are two competing theatres, the Curtain and the Rose. A Puritan preacher rails against them both, saying, "And the Rose smells thusly rank by any name! I say a plague on both their houses!" In one scene Will meets his most serious competitor, Christopher Marlowe, and they discuss their work. Marlowe has a new play already written, and has a better title than Will has for his. Marlowe helps Will brainstorm the story, suggesting Romeo is Italian, always in and out of love, meets the daughter of his enemy, whose brother kills Romeo's friend in a duel. Marlowe becomes confused about who Will's play is meant for, and says "I thought your play was for Burbage." Will replies, "This is a different one." To which Marlowe asks, "A different one you haven't written?"

When Will finally feels inspired to write the first scene of his play, he is thinking about a woman named Rosaline with whom he is having a serious affair. He would immortalize her in words, but he catches her with another man. When he delivers the scene, the theatre owner is confused because it involves Romeo and Rosaline instead of Ethel. When Will writes about his play in a letter, he describes it thus:
A comedy of quarrelling families reconciled in the discovery of Romeo to be the very same Capulet cousin stolen from the cradle and fostered to manhood by his Montague mother that was robbed of her own child by the Pirate King!
Will disguises himself among a troupe of musicians in order to gain entrance to a posh gathering. During a changing-partners dance (the very same one you get in every Romeo and Juliet), he sees for the first time Viola, and falls madly in love. Viola is a well-born lady thrilled by the theatre and who dreams of being in a company of players. Her favorite playwright is William Shakespeare, and she knows all his works by heart. While disguised as a young man auditioning for the part of Romeo, she has already met Will. Now they are attracted to one another, Will visits below her balcony, where their conversation is regularly interrupted by Viola's nurse. Will is immediately inspired to write another scene, in which the character of the Pirate King is transformed into a lady's nurse.

At one rehearsal, Will berates Viola as Romeo for using too much emotion at the beginning of the play. During this conversation, he conceives of Juliet, which again confuses the owner of the theatre, who is still expecting Ethel. Will asks Viola as Romeo what she will do in the second act when Romeo meets the love of his life. "I am very sorry, sir," she replies, "I have not seen Act Two." "Of course you have not!" he replies. "I have not written it!" Will leaves this encounter inspired again. When he announces his need to write a sonnet, the theatre owner is confused again, for he is expecting a play.

Will is heartbroken to learn that Viola has been given to another man to wed. But the love of Will and Viola is ungovernable and overthrows their lives. After they spend the night together, they debate whether Will should stay or go, whether it is day or night. He has found his muse, and he continues to pour out his play, basing his scenes on everything that happens between him and Viola. Lovemaking follows Viola's private rehearsal of Will's newest scene, which follows the actual recital of the play at the theatre, which follows Will's inspired writing following another night of lovemaking--until we no longer can be sure if what is happening is real or acted, spontaneous or scripted. It has all become the same.

The Queen enters the story. She has a discussion with Viola about theatre, and proclaims, "But playwrights teach nothing about love, they make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust. They cannot make it true." To which Viola haughtily replies, "Oh, but they can!" So the Queen suggests a wager to see whether a play can show the very truth and nature of love.

Marlowe is killed offstage in a bar fight. Viola's husband-to-be has mistaken Will for Marlowe, so the news he brings to Viola is only that a great playwright she knew has been killed. She believes it was Will. When the truth is revealed, Will finds the inspiration for the final twists to his play, conceived as a comedy and completed as a tragedy. Though ostensibly written for the theatre, what Will has really produced is an erotic gift meant for one. This is symbolized by Will presenting to Viola a complete hand-written copy.

Viola is inevitably married, and on the same day the first performance of Romeo and Juliet is scheduled. Viola escapes her new husband and goes to the theatre. The law of the land has forbidden her, as a woman, to perform on stage, so she is banned from acting the role of Romeo for which she had been rehearsing. Will takes on the role himself. And on this fateful day the young man who plays the role of Juliet has had his voice change. Viola knows the play by heart and accepts the risk of the role of Juliet, despite the law. The play that was based on their real love becomes reality played, and a show of the very truth and nature of love. And this marvelous screenplay does the same.

There are probably few facts in this play which concern the conception and creation of Romeo and Juliet. But this is a wonderful story, and perfectly plausible. We want to believe it. And that is, in part, because this screenplay has also shown the very truth and nature of artistic creation. So read the book and see the film, both will charm and delight.

1 comment:

  1. It makes for a far richer story, and more fun with different layers of meaning.