When an author embarks on writing a fictionalized autobiography of a historical figure, there’s always bound to be some anxiety. It can be hard not to feel that the great man or woman is peering over one’s shoulder, criticizing anything and everything from the overall tone to the smallest turn of phrase.
When that historical figure is someone like William Shakespeare, the anxiety level really gets ramped up — which may be why bookstores aren’t exactly overflowing with stories told from the Bard’s perspective. But David Grant, a local author who also founded the now-defunct S.C. Shakespeare Festival a few decades ago, decided he was up for the challenge. He recently came out with his third novel, Being Shakespeare, a first-person account of Shakespeare’s life in the playwright’s own — imagined — voice. “At first it felt like I was taking great liberties,” Grant says. As he started researching some of the major events in Shakespeare’s life, like his unhappy marriage and the death of his only son, Hamnet, it became easier to construct what he felt was a plausible voice for his protagonist. “He was a great writer but he was also a human, a man. The human condition — that’s what I was looking for in him,” Grant continues. “As I started asking the question, ‘Why did he do that?’ — the point is in a novel you can fill in those gaps in a creative way.”
Grant has been fascinated by Shakespeare ever since he was first introduced to the playwright’s work in school. “Right from the beginning I had always been interested in the man behind the work. He seemed to have something that no one else had, to be able to open up the human psyche to such intense scrutiny.”
That ability is what really got Grant interested in Shakespeare as a person, rather than simply as an artist. Up until the playwright started writing, nearly all dramatic characters, from the Greeks onward, represented ideas rather than individuals. There were morality plays and epic stories of heroism or hubris, but the characters in them generally were types — the villain, the maiden, the duty-bound woman, etc. Shakespeare drew complex, conflicted characters who defy easy categorization, like Hamlet or The Tempest‘s Caliban. That’s why his plays can be adapted to any place or time, Grant says.
In Being Shakespeare, Shakespeare speaks to the reader from an unnamed, purgatory-like location and reflects back on what he considers to be some of the most important developments in his life, from Christopher Marlowe’s murder to the plague that shut down the London theaters to his first attempts to write a play. Grant smartly has his character address the question of truth versus fiction right from the start:
“To entertain myself and others, to retain any relevance I might have achieved and to provide some details of my life others might not yet have discovered, or merely overlooked: these are the reasons for this. Some will call it ‘self-invention,’ or even ‘reinvention.’ Whatever its name, the practice has been popular since the first man walked erect. I have done it many times, as this shall demonstrate.” No matter what readers might think of Grant’s take on the Bard, who’s going to argue with Shakespeare?
Although writing this novel is Grant’s first major involvement with the playwright since the S.C. Shakespeare Festival went under, he says he’d like to get involved with something similar again. “I think the city is ready for it now. The whole interest in Shakespeare has broadened so much,” he says. “I think the activities of the College [of Charleston] and other play groups around town bear that out. Shakespeare is a perennial favorite.”
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