Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Bard

You'd think after my post about paladins, this one will be about the bard as a roleplaying and fantasy concept. Not so, alas. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to this article at Flashlight Worthy, a site of book recommendations and reviews. The article lists some of the best fiction set in Shakespeare's world, a world like Shakespeare's world, and/or featuring Shakespeare as a character.

I must confess that most of these premises do not thrill me. Though a theatrically inclined guy, I have never been an enormous fan of Shakespeare. Oh, sure, I appreciate the artistry of his verse and the sophistication of his plots and characterizations - especially when compared to some of his contemporaries - but I really see him as one brilliant author among the many brilliant authors and playwrights of the past, not a theatrical demigod.

What I really don't get is exactly what this post is about: Shakespeare adaptations and riffs. I don't find Shakespeare's plots to be the most fascinating thing about Shakespeare. Most of his stories are historical adaptations, fairly transparent farces, or iterations of plots and themes are were as old as dirt when Shakespeare was alive and are even older now. What makes Shakespeare brilliant, in my mind, is his artistry... which is exactly what you lose when you "adapt" Shakespeare or make him a character in a totally different story.

To complete my true and total alienation of my audience: I also think that arguing over who Shakespeare "really" was is completely goobery.

All of that said, however, a lot of people I really respect - including my wonderful fiance, the Abigail - never get tired of seeing Shakespeare plots finding new life, so there must be something there. If any of my audience wants to take a look at the books listed on the far side of the link and let me know which are the best - or make a recommendation of any kind in regards to this subgenre - I'll be happy to take you up on it.

While I'm on the topic of the Bard, I ought to confess that despite everything I wrote above I once did it, too. The game was Exalted, the player was the Abigail, and the character was Delicate Orchid, a rich merchant's daughter with a bad case of asthma, and had thus been raised in a wealthy "gated community" situated in the tall, air-conditioned (and more to the point, filtered) apartments of a First Age ruin. Orchid is a good example of mixing humor and drama in a game, as the character exalts as a Lunar and comes to grips with being a member of a society composed primarily of self-consciously barbarous barbarians... and she a Delicate Orchid who has never been outside because before the gods fixed her lung problem, a bad case of hay fever would have killed her. The best part was when she nearly panicked about the thought of being allergic to herself.

In any case, the moment I'm referencing took place during Orchid's rites of passage. She was tasked with arranging a marriage between a pair of star-crossed lovers in a half-civilized border town with a strong ethic of dueling and tragic/heroic suicides. I had a lot of fun playing those two hormone-crazed teenagers as really, really keen on killing themselves for love (just like so-and-so from the epics!), with Orchid acting as their divine patron, delivering messages and desperately trying to keep them alive. Her parting advice "take this girl to your aunt's in the country and get her pregnant as fast as possible!"

So, I suppose there's life in old Shakey yet.

1 comment:

Abby said...

"but I really see him as one brilliant author among the many brilliant authors and playwrights of the past, not a theatrical demigod."

Rank heresy, I say!

Seriously, though, to each their own. Even if their own is wrong.

Of the books on that list, I enjoyed Ill Met By Moonlight and The Shakespeare Stealer very much, along with Shakespeare In Love and The Complete Works. (But those last two are actually a movie and a play, respectively.)

Actually, many of the books on the list are fictionalized versions of Shakespeare's life, but they're not about "who was the real Shakespeare", a topic that I only find moderately interesting. Ill Met is about how Shakespeare ended up writing the plays despite being a poor shoemaker's son because he had an affair with a fairy queen, and it put things into his head. It was lovely, though the sequels sucked. I don't think they were trying to advance an actual theory as to Shakespeare's identity, but there's something mysterious and charming about answering the question of his identity that way. If it's a topic people are that interested in, a piece of fantastic fiction about it is appropriate.

Shakespeare Stealer is actually more of a historical novel, the story of an orphan who finds a family in Shakespeare's company of actors. It also rather cleverly has bits of the plots of the plays happen in the company's actual life.

As for the question of adaptations of the plays (of which that list seems to skip a lot of the good ones), the allure for me is often character studies. Shakespeare's characters are often deeply compelling, but there isn't time to get the whole story. One of my favorite adaptations is one about Jessica from The Merchant of Venice, a minor but interesting character. The novel tells the story from her perspective as she falls in love and makes difficult decisions. The play gave me enough to be interested. The novel advanced one theory in a compelling way. It's kind of like those popular fairy tale adaptations (which I also love) that shift the perspective, or fill in details.