Words are the very DNA of literature; the tiny building blocks that make up the characters we love and cherish, the worlds in which they inhabit, and the sentences that describe every action within.
At least seven hundred words in the English language can be attributed to just one man: William Shakespeare. If words are the DNA of language he is the Lord of creation.
I hated Shakespeare at school. I was won over through my own reading, although the simple fact that he invented the expression ‘what the dickens?’ would have been enough. Mostly it was down to Hamlet. I love that play. I used to know the speech he gives to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act Two, Scene Two off by heart…
I will tell you why; shall my anticipation prevent your discovery and your secrecy to the King and Queen, moult no feather: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.
In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the whole speech is dismissed by one of the title characters as Hamlet saying ‘something about losing his mirth.’
I’m currently working as script editor on a condensed adaptation of Hamlet for a friend who’s directing it at the big theatre in town. I’m pretty proud of that, and was flattered to be asked to do it. It’s a fairly standard production that does little to the original text aside from place the action in a more modern war setting, and cut out as much as possible in order to keep the play to approximately an hour in length.
I’m also writing a version of Hamlet which is little more than a low brow version of Stoppard’s play. It tells the story of Hamlet through the trial of Horatio, who is arrested at the end of Shakespeare’s play and charged with every death in the play. It’s indisputably a low-rent bastardization of a literary classic in which original lines are re-worked as lame jokes.
The bit I’m least proud of is Horatio informing the ghost of Hamlet that Tuborg is the new most popular beer in Denmark, to which Hamlet replies ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark…’
I wouldn’t protest too much if the ghost of Shakespeare appeared in my room, gagged me with his ruff, and then stabbed me through the heart with his quill until I die.
I hope it doesn’t come to that though.
I wrote a play over Christmas which is being staged at an arts festival in the summer. It’s loosely based on The Divine Comedy and features God as an alcoholic raconteur. It plays the concepts of journeying though Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven for laughs— and cheap ones at that.
And yet poking around and mutilating Hamlet somehow feels more blasphemous… more sacrilegious….
There’s always the sense with long dead writers that you can get away with messing with their original work without asking. Jean Rhys didn’t ask if she could borrow the characters from Jane Eyre, she just did. She won a literary prize for it, and then complained that it was long overdue and worthless.
You couldn’t exactly do that with living writers, in the same way you have to get permission to borrow any songs you want to re-work, or borrow parts of. I couldn’t really sit down after lunch and take the characters from The Da Vinci Code and place them into my own idea for a zany comedy.
That’s not a great example to use, as I’m really talking about literature.
How can it be that pillaging from the shit-sodden streets of medieval London feels more acceptable than playing with the characters from a more modern time?
I think it is as simple as the concept of ownership, very similar to the idea of songs entering the public domain. Except that with literature you have to wait more than fifty years for it to be okay. Hamlet has been around so long most people know the story without even reading it, or being conscious of where they picked up that knowledge. Its part of British culture, the same way I knew what a Tardis was despite being born the year Doctor Who was cancelled.
Essentially people were borrowing from Shakespeare before he’d even finished giving us all those new words… those fresh building blocks of literary life.
I’d love to ask Shakespeare what he thinks about all the thousands of versions of his work… particularly how he would feel about my own twisted experimentation with Hamlet.
I hope that he’d crack a wry smile, and enjoy and appreciate the affection that is intended. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you could sit down and write without a deep familiarity with the text, and a genuine love of it…
We sit there, the two of us. We’re drinking Carlsberg against out better judgement. Shakespeare asks me if there’s any mead, and I have to tell him sorry, we haven’t had that liquor here since 1869.
I begin to tell him about this play I’m writing, and about how it starts right after Hamlet ends. I tell him how as Horatio says ‘now cracks a noble heart: good night sweet prince’ we hear police sirens.
‘Police sirens?’ enquires the Bard, who died several hundred years before Sir Robert Peel founded the modern police force.
I explain to him as briefly as I can the history of the police. I tell him they’re officials who are meant to uphold the law.
‘People who stop people like you stealing my work?’ he asks. He asks with a smile so I can’t tell if he’s being serious or if this is that famous Shakespearean banter.
Slightly nervously I try and explain away any feeling of guilt and wrong-doing I feel. I try and explain that no, what I’m doing isn’t theft. I ask him to listen and to understand that I’m taking his characters and putting them in my own story. Then I let him know that what happens is Horatio gets murdered for every murder in Elsinore.
‘That’s ludicrous’ says Shakespeare. ‘Hamlet killed everyone. You should know that.’
I tell him that he doesn’t get it, and that times have changed and that now if the police walked into a building that was full of dead bodies and there was only one guy in there still alive then he would be under suspicion. Furthermore he would have a motive by being Hamlet’s sole heir as his friend, and thus become the King of Denmark.
‘That’s stupid’ he says. Shakespeare starts sulking. ‘I don’t like it.’
‘Tough’ I would retort. ‘I’m taking a logical approach to your story and using that to derive humour.’
He begins to look visibly angry. He crushes his beer can into an aluminium ball and throws it to the ground as he rises to his feet. ‘It sounds like you’re just picking holes and making fun of my work!’
As the Bard rises he draws a small bladed weapon from his coat pocket.
‘What the dickens?!’ I exclaim.
‘Stop. Stealing. My. Words!’ The Bard says through gritted teeth.
I panic and cry; this hypothetical chit-chat has rapidly spiralled out of control.
‘Is that a dagger I see before me?’ I shout, which only really exacerbates the situation.
The Bard moves towards me silently, thrashing his blade in my direction.
‘O happy dagger!’ I cry, still refusing to learn my lesson. ‘This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die!’
I feel the blade kiss the base of my neck, and few droplets of warm red blood blossom like rose against my skin.
‘A touch, a touch I do confess’ I announce, only enraging the Bard further.
‘For fucks sake! Stop taking my words and placing them out of context for comic effect!’ Shakespeare shrieks as the dagger plunges deep, raking over the topsoil of my flesh and planting the seeds of death deep into my leaking heart.
His face contorts into a cracked smile of evil satisfaction. My blood drips from his dagger like the droplets fall from an ice lolly in the hot summer sun.
As I lie there the blood pumps from my open chest cavity, the blood cells escaping like rats deserting a sinking ship. There is a darkness… a terrible, ghoulish darkness. The edges of Shakespeare’s body begin to slip into the shadows and merge with the black abyss.
‘You’re not so clever now, are you?’ he says, and it sounds like a distant echo… a whisper on the wind.
With the last of my vitality I break into a beatific, taunting smile. My lips twitch uneasily. I look into his eyes and I in a fractured whisper I say ‘O! I am slain.’
In those final moments I am left with the frustrated horror enveloping the Bard’s countenance.
The rest is silence.