Readers can expect lots of laughs, clever wordplay and a fun Shakespeare connection in This Private Plot, the third adventure for amateur sleuth Oliver Swithin. This time out, Oliver discovers a corpse while on vacation. It seems the victim was driven to suicide by blackmail, and it's up to Oliver to figure out why.
In a guest blog post based on a lecture in This Private Plot from Oliver, author Alan Beechey corrects a few common Shakespeare-related misunderstandings. For example, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is not a love poem at all!
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
(Yes, but what was the answer?)
This year, we celebrate the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Or rather we have already, because it was on April 23, also the day of his death and, fittingly, the feast day of England’s patron saint, St. George.
I also celebrate the publication of This Private Plot, the third book in my Oliver Swithin mystery series. I mention that not merely because I want you to rush out and buy it, but also because Will S. looms over its pages like some great looming thing. Indeed, because the question of Shakespeare’s true identity is a feature of the story, I was actually forced to do some research for once instead of just making everything up, as I usually do.
It’s amazing how much we still get wrong about Shakespeare. For example, that patriotic date for both birth and death is pure speculation—we only have records of Will’s christening and his burial.
But we misinterpret his works, too. Take his most celebrated sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” When Colin Firth started reciting it in Bridget Jones’s Diary, it caused Renée Zellweger to go all unnecessary, as my mother would have put it. The trouble is, though, that particular sonnet (number 18 out of about 150) isn’t about romantic love at all.
And it was originally addressed to a man.
(And the answer to the question is “no, I shan’t.”)
Shakespeare’s early sonnets were written to flatter his patron, a young, effeminate nobleman whom he admires, but not in “that” way—as Will makes quite clear with a smutty joke in Sonnet 20. Instead, the effusive man-to-man admiration and passionate praise were a convention of the time, especially from an inferior to a man of high birth, and especially if he’s paying you a groat or two to say so.
But the plot thickens. Sonnets 1-17 are all variations on the same theme—that the young man should stop preening, get a wife and start begetting sons, so that his great beauty will be passed on down the ages even though he’ll get old and wrinkled and die. (Very flattering.) There’s even a theory that Shakespeare’s real backer was the young man’s mother, despairing of ever having grandkids. She makes an appearance in Sonnet 3.
By the time we get to Sonnet 18, there’s a shift of focus, but it still isn’t about love. It’s about the power of poetry. In brief, Will reminds us that summer days are no bargain—they’re too hot or too cold or too windy, and anyway, autumn’s here before you know it. You, my sweet lord, knock the spots off summer, because your beauty will last forever. How’s that then? Because I’ve written about it here in this sonnet, duh. In these “eternal lines to time.”
Ah, but here’s the clever part. The poem itself has indeed memorialized the young man’s beauty for posterity. (A bit arrogant of Will you might think, but four centuries later you can’t deny he was right.) But aren’t all those hoped-for sons and grandsons, snaking down through the generations on a family tree, also an eternal line to time? Clever, huh? Alas, not original — the dual immortality conferred by both verse and procreation was introduced in Sonnet 17.
By the way, did you ever wonder what those “darling buds of May” in line 3 of the sonnet are doing on a “summer’s day”? Well, in Will’s time, England was still on the Julian calendar, and May was a summer month. (Research!)
Now what about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy? He’s thinking of killing himself, right? Wrong. For a start, he dismissed that idea several scenes earlier. And at no point in the solo speech does it get personal—Hamlet never uses the words “I” or “me” or “my.” He basically weighs up the two options we all have when our fate takes an “outrageous” turn. We can roll over and put up with it, or we can fight back, even if resistance inevitably gets us killed. (Hamlet never states that this death is self-inflicted, or that the “bare bodkin” is turned on oneself.) And because death is scary, we usually play it safe. We be a live coward rather than not be a dead hero. The whole argument, the whole of this speech, is a kind of cheesy self-justification for Hamlet’s dithering over avenging his father’s murder. Later, he does act, and gets skewered by, yep, a bare bodkin of sorts, poisoned for good measure.
Hamlet features a lot in This Private Plot (although the book’s title comes from Henry VI Part 2), including a scene where a third-rate amateur drama group, rehearsing “To be or not to be,” run headfirst into one of Shakespeare’s finest mixed metaphors: “to take arms against the sea of troubles.” They eventually decide Hamlet’s thinking of some kind of harpoon.
So sorry, Renée, but unless you’re a philandering nobleman, Colin got it wrong. He needs to do more research.
Thanks, Alan! Readers, This Private Plot is now available!