That Shakespeare: what a character

Syphilitic and suicidal or watchful and detached? No one knows what Shakespeare was like for sure, but many playwrights have taken an educated guess.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Putting Shakespeare on stage is a global and unending activity - if by "Shakespeare" you mean the works of. Putting Shakespeare the man on stage is a less widespread practice, though one that's not as uncommon as you might suppose. Tomorrow, at the Young Vic, David Thacker and the RSC revive Edward Bond's Bingo, a play in which a depressed, written-out Shakespeare commits suicide, in a double bill with The Tempest, a play in which Prospero - often seen as a surrogate of the dramatist - also commits a kind of suicide in renouncing his magic powers.

It's a mere three years since the figure of William Shakespeare, playwright, last trod this company's boards in Peter Whelan's The School of Night, a fascinating drama about Marlowe, atheism, state repression and Elizabethan espionage. On the stage and on the page (from plays by the likes of Clemence Dane and Snoo Wilson, to novels by such as Colin MacInnes and Anthony Burgess), fictional versions of the Bard have persisted in equipping this most elusive of entities with an identifiable CV and a specific symbolic import. One way of focusing on the distinctive qualities of Bond's approach is to view Bingo in the light of other attempts to give the Bard a posthumous existence in art.

The paucity of firm facts about Shakespeare's life seems to constitute an incentive rather than a discouragement to creative writers, as it does to biographers. But it also poses problems. There's a poem by Borges called "Everything and Nothing" in which, standing face-to-face with God, Shakespeare remonstrates thus: "I, who have been so many men, want to be one man - myself." God's reply indicates that, where this particular predicament is concerned, Shakespeare is in exclusive company: "I too have no self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who like me, are many men and no one." This mythic, mammoth lack of identity, which in the romantic view of his genius is the concomitant of Shakespeare's God-like powers of creating character, might be thought something of a handicap, however, to writers who want to make a character of Shakespeare.

Hardly surprising, then, that some of them should resort to projecting themselves on to the otherwise blank screen. George Bernard Shaw was cheerily insouciant about such apparent lese-majesty. "I am convinced that he was very much like myself: in fact, if I had been born in 1556 instead of 1856, I should have taken to blank verse and given Shakespeare a harder run for his money than all the other Elizabethans put together."

This comes from the preface to Shaw's The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910), a playlet in which the Dark Lady, entering and not recognising Queen Elizabeth as the woman Shakespeare is endeavouring to kiss, jealously knocks the pair asunder with two vigorous cuffs. Then, recognising her error, she falls to her knees and cries, "Will: I am lost: I have struck the Queen."

To which, Shakespeare, having clearly adopted Shaw as his role model, replies with majestic indignation, "Woman: You have struck WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!!!!!!"

Likewise, there's a drolly self-regarding structure to Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun, a verbally pyrotechnic novel in which it is suggested that Shakespeare's tragic genius was fired by a dose of syphilis picked up from a dark lady of East Indian origin (Burgess's prose keeping gruesome tabs on the spirochaete's progress). The story of Shakespeare's love-life is presented in the form of a drunkenly irresponsible valedictory lecture delivered to students in a Malaysian college by one Mr Burgess, who gets drunker and drunker and "ends by identifying his own stupor with the delirium of the dying Bard." If God can presume to identify with Shakespeare, why not Anthony Burgess?

At the other end of the scale are those writers who use the fact that Shakespeare the man dematerialises, like the deity, into his own creation not as the pretext for self-projection but as the basis for an examination of the social responsibility of the artist. In the premier production of Peter Whelan's The School of Night, Shakespeare at the start of his career was portrayed by Nigel Cooke as a cagey, detached, deeply watchful young man, and the effect was amazingly convincing. As one reviewer put it, "The scene that finds him writing a sonnet as if quietly taking dictation from an inner voice could become, in a less sure production, dangerously like a skit from No Bed for Bacon".Through a witty and hauntingly conjectured relationship between the young Bard and the older, freethinking Marlowe, Whelan's play also looks at what Shakespeare's genius lacks. "He holds his mirror up to humanity. I look behind it," says Marlowe, distinguishing the savage dissidence of his own art (dedicated to the belief that the only sin is ignorance) from the impersonal self-sufficiency of the art of Shakespeare. Whelan's Bard is resolved that his writing should express not "my purpose", like Marlowe's, but something altogether more disinterested and even eerie: "my mind's purpose".

Engulfing him so that he starts to feel dazed and suffocated, Shakespeare's genius puts Marlowe in a frame of mind where he welcomes the death awaiting him. In Bingo, it has that effect on Shakespeare himself, who is depicted during his last year in Stratford. Subtitled "Scenes of Money and Death", Bond's play presents us with Shakespeare the shrewd rentier, estranged from his sick wife and surly daughter, capable of standing by while vagrants are unjustly hanged and of entering into shady deals with a local businessman who wants to enclose land for profit, thus dispossessing the impoverished tenants. Bond's objection to King Lear is that the social radicalism the hero gives voice to on the heath never becomes a rallying cry for social reform because the focus shifts back to the personal tragedy of a politically enfeebled old man. In Bingo, it is Shakespeare who comes to the despairing realisation that his art has changed nothing. "Was anything done?" he asks, before taking poison.

Bond's play fiddles with the facts (the Stratford Corporation unanimously resisted the plan for enclosure) but, in his version, Shakespeare becomes an unforgettable symbol of insulated genius and of the artist who realises too late that his achievement has required disproportionate sacrifices and neglected responsibilities. In presenting a withdrawn, taciturn Bard, it also, for the most part, ingeniously gets round the perennial problem of how you make a fictional Shakespeare talk. Its view of the dramatist was endorsed, comically enough, in a 1981 novel, Shakespeare's Dog, by Leon Rooke, where our hero is viewed through the disillusioned eyes of his canine companion, a plucky creature who saves alleged witches from lynching and beggars from starvation while "Snakespit" complacently scribbles. It will be fascinating to see how Bond's Shakespeare and Shakespeare's Prospero reflect on one another in David Thacker's imaginatively conceived double bill of farewells to Art.

n 'Bingo' and 'The Tempest' at the Young Vic, London SE1 (booking: 0171- 928 6363)