I always hated Shakespeare.
They made me read him. First it was Julius Caesar. Then Romeo & Juliet, which was only cool because we wasted a week watching the movie. Next came Henry IV, Part One. I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ and scraped by on class discussions. The Bard and I were not friendly.
So how did I end up writing THE MASTER OF VERONA, a novel based on his works?
It started my senior year in high school. I had a choice between a reading-Shakespeare and an acting-Shakespeare class. I’d already done a lot of acting – professional, even - so it was really a no-brainer. As it happened, the teachers of the course had chosen Romeo & Juliet to do that year, mainly because they had a Juliet in mind (irony: she has gone on to be an author as well – Francesco Delbanco).
I remembered from the film that Mercutio was the best part in the show, and after auditioning against the rest of the class, I landed the role. All the best dirty jokes, a great psychedellic speech, a fight, then backstage to play cards until curtain call. Cool.
Somewhere in the middle of rehearsals I realized that the teachers had been holding out on me. It was like the sunburst through a grey stormy sky. Shakespeare didn’t write literature – he wrote plays! Words meant to be spoken by real living, breathing people, up on stage!
Thus started my love affair with the Bard of Avon. Over time I became a professional classical actor, something I would never have believed twenty years ago. By now played in over 40 productions of Shakespeare’s best plays.
So, he gave me a career. Then he did me one better and introduced me to my wife. We met playing Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. She likes to tell the story of me walking in to the rehearsal hall with a girl on either arm. She turned to the stage manager and said, “Who’s that?”
The SM replied, “Your Petruchio. Good luck!” (Clearly, the luck was mine)
And then, in a final, delicious twist, Shakespeare got me to write a book.
Once again it starts with Romeo & Juliet. Ever since first acting in it I’ve been of the opinion that directors miss half the point of the show. R&J isn’t a Tragedy. It bears no resemblance to Hamlet or Othello or Mackers. It’s something much worse – a Comedy that goes wrong. First it makes us laugh, then pulls the rug right out from under us.
After expressing my views a few times at the bar, I found myself asked to direct. Warily, I accepted. It was my first time directing Shakespeare, and I took it quite seriously. I read old versions, Shakespeare’s source materials. I poured through the whole text in a way I’d never done as an actor.
Poking around for lines to cut, I found something. I found a cause for the feud.
I may not be the first ever to see it, but I’ve certainly never heard it anywhere else. It’s oblique, and doesn’t affect the action of the play. Nevertheless, once the idea got hold of me I couldn’t let it go. So I sat down to write.
Thus a book was born.
It was going to be a short book, romantic and sad. Two friends, in love with the same woman, have a falling out over her. Simple, sweet, it would get the idea out of my system. I started to do a little research, and famous names kept popping up in connection to Verona : Dante. Giotto. Petrarch. In a very real sense, the Renaissance began in Verona .
One man’s name kept cropping up more than the others. A man who stood above all his peers, who outshone the luminaries of his day. Giotto’s patron, Dante’s friend. A man fit to be a tragic hero of one of Shakespeare's plays. His name was Cangrande della Scala.
The feud became a backdrop. Because Cangrande reminded me of someone, a rogue I had fallen in love with the first time I played him. In R&J, it is remarked that Mercutio is a cousin to Prince Escaulus – the Latin version of “della Scala.” Cangrande was related, somehow, to Mercutio, my favorite role.
So my life came full circle. In THE MASTER OF VERONA (St. Martin's Press, July 2007) the real people of Dante’s time met the characters of Shakespeare’s Italian plays, allowing me to further explore one of the most enigmatic characters the Bard ever wrote.
I’ve read that when Alan Alda met Donald Sutherland, he simply took the other man’s hand and said, “Thank you for my life.” If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure that’s what I’d have to say.
But I’d start by telling him how I’d always hated him.