Formerly an English lecturer at Oxford University, William's first novel A Good Man in Africa won the Whitbread award and he was named one of Granta’s esteemed 1983 Top 20.
William Boyd has since produced seven best-selling novels and is widely recognised as being one of our best living novelists. He has written ten screenplays, including Chaplin for Sir Richard Attenborough, adapting his own Armadillo for a critically-acclaimed BBC TWO series, and wrote the feature Man to Man, that opened this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Here, he discusses his thinking behind writing the drama, how we may 're-think' Shakespeare and how his Sonnets help to illuminate the great man himself.
How did your interest in writing a film about Shakespeare get started?
The BBC approached me with the simple proposition of writing a film about the background to the sonnets — the ‘love-triangle’ as it were. I thought it was a fascinating idea but it took me a long time to work out the actual story. I had to do masses of research.
Is this your first writing project about Shakespeare?
Yes, but I’m familiar with the historical period. Some years ago I wrote a full length film about The Gunpowder Plot for a Hollywood studio — so I know the background to Shakespeare’s life and times. Also, I taught English literature at Oxford for a number of years: I’m very familiar with the man and his works.
Was it an ambition of yours to portray the man, rather than the myth? Your Shakespeare, although witty and likeable, is haunted by addictions and a sense of despair. Is this how you see him?
Absolutely. I wanted to come up with a film that made us re-think Shakespeare in quite a radical way — to de-mythologise him, to make him human, flawed, understandable — and therefore real. Everything we know about him suggests a man rooted in the real world. I like the idea of him as a professional writer — trying to make as much money as he can out of his writing — and in the process producing masterpieces.
I think it’s very telling that, once he felt he was rich enough, he stopped writing and went back home to Stratford — where he seems to have concentrated on amassing more wealth and property. The great advantage of writing a drama, as opposed to a documentary, is that you have the licence to speculate.
Take the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, when the boy was eleven. We don’t know what WS actually felt, but your imagination can supply a plausible reaction. In the film I use my imagination time and again, but it is backed up by scrupulous research.
You centre your story on the love triangle between Shakespeare, William Herbert and Lucie. How much of this is researched? How did you untangle the myths surrounding this to get to your version?
When you read the background academic material to the sonnets you become very quickly aware of the various theories about who is Mr WH and who is the Dark Lady. From my reading the best candidate — by far, in my opinion — is William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. The case for the Earl of Southampton is far more circumstantial.
Also, if it is William Herbert, then Shakespeare has to be an older man, middle-aged. And the sonnets themselves encourage this interpretation. The Dark Lady is more problematic — the various aristocratic contenders seem to me to be too speculative and ignore the class differences: there is no way that Shakespeare could have an affair with an aristocrat.
The last two sonnets — which are about the mercury cure for syphillis — plus the lustful/misogynistic tone of the Dark Lady sonnets seem to me to lead naturally to the conclusion that she might have been a prostitute. We know that one of Shakespeare’s associates, one George Wilkins, was a brothel-keeper. And there were at the time, in Southwark, actual black or mulatto prostitutes.
The “Lucie” I have created is a fiction — though she could certainly have existed. It also makes sense of some of the references in the sonnets.-- “if hair be wires”, “black” being the new beauty and so on.
You controversially write that Shakespeare contracted the pox, which led to his death. What did you base your evidence on?
The last two sonnets. I don’t know how controversial this is, by the way — and also I don’t claim that he died from syphilis. The Dark Lady sonnets are highly sexual. And the wages of sin, in those days, was the pox. Why end the sonnet sequence with references to the mercury baths, particularly as they also end the Dark Lady sequence, unless you intend a conclusion to be drawn? I think the interpretation – in a drama – is completely justified.
How much did you rely on the Sonnets in illuminating your portrayal of Shakespeare?
Quite a lot. I think as expressions of human emotion they are astonishingly frank and completely understandable, even today, four hundred years on. I feel the fascination for the fair youth, although homoerotic, suggests to me that it was unconsummated. Very Death in Venice if you like. Whereas the Dark Lady seems to have Shakespeare in her thrall, rather: a physical relationship that both excites and disgusts him.
As for the more general portrayal of the man I drew on the plays, and my understanding of what I take to be Shakespeare’s world view. This is a man who has lived a lot, suffered and understands the random cruelty of the world.
How much did you rely on academic research?
The one academic who I consulted (and who is our credited advisor for the film) is Katherine Duncan-Jones, a biographer of Shakespeare and also editor of the sonnets. She is without doubt one of the two or three world authorities on Shakespeare, the man and the work, and on the historical and literary background of his era.
What is your favourite Shakespeare play?
Impossible to select one. The favourites constantly re-align themselves, depending on your reading and mood: one day it’s King Lear, the next Twelfth Night, then The Tempest, then Hamlet, then Midsummer Night’s Dream — and so on. However, I think my least favourite is Henry V.
And finally, what is your next project?
I’ve just finished a new novel called Restless, that will be published next year. I’ve also written a play, called Longing, inspired by two of Chekhov’s short stories (a very Shakespearean man as well, incidentally), that I hope will be produced next year.