The Man Who Wrote His Plays.
Actually, Shakespeare wasn’t a cat, for they famously have nine lives. But he is known to have signed his name with eight different spellings. Actually, it is more like six or seven, but I’d forgotten that and, well, creativity isn’t tied down by evidence of that kind any more than a cat is limited to a single life. What’s more, the way we spell his name today isn’t even amongst them! Historical reality is not all it seems.
Because this is about how to work with inspiration, which is suffocated by the fixedness of spelling.
This post isn’t about spellings as such, it’s about inspiration, and if ever there was an inspired person, it was Shakespeare. Or Shakspere or whatever he did call himself. Actually his friends probably just called him Bill to save any confusion. Mind you, few of them could read, so it probably didn’t make much difference to them how he spelled his name.
Inspiration, like cats, does not come to call. It comes at the oddest moments – like Shakespeare chatting with his friends in the Boar’s Head when he’s nudged from behind by the innkeeper. Turning, he sees the man pouring ale – and at the same time two of his characters enter his imagination and the accidental nudge is replayed in their setting.
For Shakespeare, there is nothing for it: he has to get up to his garret and write it all down. Inspiration is also fleeting, two of my characters had a chat whilst I was laying the paving in my greenhouse. By the time I’d gotten home, I’d forgotten all about it, and still can’t remember what they said now. It was my doing something else that allowed the inspiration to tap me on the shoulder. It wouldn’t have happened had I been sitting down and waiting for inspiration to come to me; nor would it happen if I were just writing from noon to night.
Unless, like Shakespeare, you have long years in training. Even so, I’ll bet he had days where he couldn’t think of anything to write, so went walking in the City instead. Costermongers arguing with waggon drivers, the rank sawdust and suet of a butcher’s down a back alley, the fat carracks with their high masts on the river below London bridge. All the familiar things of Shakespeare’s London, yet with the possibility of inspiration hiding around every corner he turned.
Nor is there anything like the immediacy of the moment for getting the clarity of their interaction – which meant Shakespeare was swilling down the last of his pint and bidding his mates a hurried goodbye.
Quill in hand, the conversation unfolds as he scratches the parchment. When you’re in the ‘zone’ the ball just keeps rolling and ideas flit around like butterflies. Some are useless, some are pertinent. Whatever is useful finds itself written down and recorded for posterity. With this kind of writing, if you can’t find the right word, write something that does the job and allow the word to come to you later. The important element is to keep the flow of the inspiration.
Because if you stop it for one moment it will evaporate. Vanish into thin air.
That Shakespeare couldn’t spell is irrelevant. The words he wrote down were good enough for him and his troupe of actors to work with. Because writing isn’t just about writing down the inspiration, it’s about sharing it with those who know you well enough to tell you what is working. A team of actors working with Shakespeare would have been all too ready to offer feedback of a kind that would have a modern author looking for a safe place to hide. It is searing, biting criticism that makes an effective team. This is when the scratchings out happened, the lost words found and new lines of dialogue added that would round out Shakespeare’s imagery into the plays we know. But added verbally to be transcribed later; after all, an actor needs a good memory – and part of this is for them to get inside their character’s skin which makes everything they say much more sensible.
What none of them did was bother about spellings or grammar. After all, who thinks of spelling their words as they speak?? What’s more, they were Tudor actors, rough and ready – as full of action as Drake or Hawkins. The quintessential opposite to a sober Victorian writer fixated on getting each full stop and comma in their correct order and place. Or, for that matter, the teacher in the class I was observing where the kids had to line up to find out how to spell a word. By the time they’d found out how to spell “windoe”, they’d forgotten why they wanted one for their story. Dictionaries don’t help either. At school myself, I wanted to know how to spell the French word “lafenetre”. I couldn’t find it, and it was a grim, tiresome struggle – yet there are teachers who seem to imagine that dictionaries are the be all and end all of language. You get my drift.
You can’t write properly if you’re always concentrating on where the dots go or how many ‘a’s there are in “apple”. Write it down and worry about the spellings afterwards. It’s what copy editors are paid eight dollars an hour to do; after all, it is the mechanical side of writing. A copy editor is only reading the words and checking the punctuation – they rarely absorb the actual story. There is no creativity in editing grammar, only the formality of a thinking cast in stone. After all, if they started getting creative, they’d start making the kind of spelling mistakes that Shakespeare was famous for. Which is why copy editors are paid eight dollars an hour: their boss can see that he’s getting his money’s worth.
Finally, there is the vexed question of whether Shakespeare even wrote the plays at all. The question I want to pose here is whether Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Francis Bacon or William Stanley would have been content with misspellings in their written work? To my mind they represent the kind of people that a university lecturer would prefer to have written the plays, because they are the kind of people who put grammar and punctuation first…