Taking On the Bard

Posted By claire on January 25, 2010

Robin MaxwellToday, we have a guest post by Robin Maxwell, author of the brilliant historical novels “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn”, “Mademoiselle Boleyn”, “Virgin: Prelude to the Throne” and “Signora da Vinci”. Here, she writes about what it was like writing “O, Juliet” which is due to be released on the 2nd February.

Taking on the Bard by Robin Maxwell

In the days after I had made the decision to retell the Romeo and Juliet story – for the first time in literary history as a novel – two thoughts began warring in my head:  “You’re a genius – lucky as hell that no one’s thought of it before… and “You’re out of your friggin’ mind!”

Yes, I knew I would feel comfortable in late fifteenth century Italy.  My last historical novel, Signora da Vinci, had been set there.  For that book I had outdone myself in researching the period (to the point I thought my head would explode).  I loved the Italians, and the thought of setting my Romeo and Juliet amidst them really got my creative juices bubbling.

But take on the Bard and one of the most beloved literary works of all time?  What about all those Shakespeare fans out there who would rip me to shreds for daring to tread on these sacred shores?

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Granted, I’d just learned that the Shakespeare’s had not been the first telling in history.  Since ancient times, countless “girl-and-boy-from-warring-families” tragedies have been written.  The Roman writer Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” tells the story of forbidden love between a girl and boy from two feuding families, and a secret rendezvous in a tomb…one that ends in tragedy.

The Greek author Xenophon in his “Ephesian Tale” spins a wild story that includes a trip abroad, pirates, a crucifixion and sleeping potion, all of which culminates in a tomb.  There had been three Italian short stories written in the fifteenth century about these star-crossed lovers, and in the sixteenth one long English poem.  Of course Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” had been adapted into Broadway musicals, ballets, operas, and even a graphic novel but these, in their own way, faithfully adhered to the great man’s work.  Then there were the countless movie versions.  These were even more devoted presentations, simply filmed versions of his play.

What I had in mind was rewriting the story in my own words, in my own way.  I knew I needed to lengthen the period over which it was told from a few days to a few months, and I wanted to change the setting from Verona to Florence (where the “historical” Romeo and Juliet had played out their drama.  I’d be fleshing out the lives, character arcs and motivations of Romeo and

Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus and Thisbe

Juliet, losing some characters (Juliet’s nurse!), and adding others (a truly evil suitor and a best girlfriend).  I’d be changing the helpful cleric from Friar Lawrence to Friar Bartolomo, and giving him a public face – the man who taught a weekly symposia on Dante Alighieri at Florence Cathedral (this really happened!).

I decided that both Romeo and Juliet would, like so many Italians of that time, be Dante freaks, and that part of their initial attraction – aside from the proverbial but perfect “love-at-first-sight/sexual chemistry” – would be their shared passion for that legendary poet.  Then I really stepped in it.  I cast the pair as amateur poets themselves.  “Now you’ve done it,” I thought, “Now you have to write love poems in both their voices!”

I suppose the greatest challenge was what to do with the ending.  Should I stay true to the classics or let either Romeo or Juliet live…or both?  Either way was bound to be risky.

But I took the plunge and I have to say,  I’m quite happy with the results.  I hope you’ll read O, JULIET and decide whether my choices work for you.

Robin Maxwell

O JulietO, Juliet

You can pre-order “O, Juliet” by Robin Maxwell at Amazon US – click here – or at your usual bookshop, and you can read a sneak peek of “O, Juliet” at Robin Maxwell’s website – click here to read part of Chapter 6 now. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy and I have reviewed it over at our Tudor Book Reviews site – click here to read my review now, I thought the novel was wonderful.

Don’t forget to take part in Robin Maxwell’s special Love Games to celebrate the launch of her new book – check out Robin’s blog at http://robinmaxwell.blogspot.com/ for more details.


One Response to “Taking On the Bard”

  1. Jeane Westin says:

    Another interesting post, Claire. I am constantly surprised by the depth and breadth of your research. This site looks to be a full time job. Thank you for all the enjoyment and analysis you send your readers way.

    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters, In the Court of Elizabeth I, August, 2009 and
    His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, August 2010

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