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Gabby Hutchinson Crouch on her love of William Shakespeare as a fictionalised character

Gabby Hutchinson Crouch on her love of William Shakespeare as a fictionalised character

I love Shakespeare. I love his plays, his poetry, and I love the man himself, as a character. If there’s a fictionalised version of the man, whether brooding in Shakespeare in Love, or a fretful priss in Upstart Crow, I am THERE for it. From serious biographies to silly cameos in Doctor Who and Gnomeo and Juliet, contemporary writers love to have Stratford’s Famous Son appear in our narratives, with a scope for imagining him almost as wide as the scope of his work.

I count myself among those writers. As a comedy writer who has accidentally fallen into a niche for comedy history, I’ve written about the Warwickshire Wonderboy multiple times – runner sketches about him being King James Stuart’s long-suffering sidekick in the search for witches in Horrible Histories, and a potted comic biography on the man’s life for BBC Sounds’ family podcast Homeschool History. And, as soon as I decided I was going to set my new book Cursed Under London in an alternate London of 1599, I knew I would have to make my best boy Billikins a recurring side character. Since I had a lot of fun imagining how Tudor London would be different with magic and supernatural elements, my big ‘what if?’ question for Shakespeare was ‘what if his dashing contemporary Christopher Marlowe was undead and still writing in what would have otherwise been Shakespeare’s heyday?’ Would Marlowe overshadow him, professionally and personally? Would they have been friends, or rivals?

Why do we love old Shakey? What’s his enduring appeal? In Homeschool History we put forward the case that there were multiple aspects to his work which endured – including his playful, inventive use of words; richly well-rounded characters and an unusual aptitude for both comedy and tragedy, with the ability to add humour to the tragic and to craft thoughtful comedies about grief and loss.

But why do so many of us love him as a man, as a character in his own right? There’s so little we know about him, after all, just that he was the son of a glovemaker from the midlands who came to London to act and ended up striving away amongst the great and the good of late Tudor and early Stuart London, building a business and impressing nobles, kings and queens. To me, the lack of concrete information is part of his appeal. So much of him is a blank slate that is easy to project onto. I find my imagination plucked by the idea of him as just this guy from an average background making it amongst the rich and famous through a winning combination of talent and determination. Add to that the sad clown element of him as a failed actor, and it conjures the image of a put-upon underdog, endearingly hardworking and painfully aware of how unflashy he is compared to famous colleagues, not to mention bad boy playwright and erotic poet Christopher Marlowe. Add to this the suggestions that his love sonnets to a ‘fair youth’ may have been personal, romantic and a sign that our lad was bi… well.

As a middle aged boring married bisexual myself, who is deeply unfamous and spends all of her time writing, you can see why I like to imagine Shakespeare being that way. There is no proof that he wasn’t. Having very few recorded details about yourself makes it just too tempting for your fans 400 years down the line to build up a narrative about you. Same goes for Marlowe, by the way. If you don’t want to be fictionalised as a ridiculous swashbuckling arsehole, don’t get stabbed in a bar fight while evading arrest for espionage like the world’s most exciting man.

Would Shakespeare love being fictionalised, 400 years on? Probably not, although he did the same thing to historical figures all the time himself, which is how I justify it. I like to think he wouldn’t mind being slotted into a world full of magical beings, though. Even if none of them turn anybody into a donkey.

Cursed Under London by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (Duckworth Books) is out 4 July 2024

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