Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

David Blixt, Author of "Master of Verona"

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 psychedelic 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 pored 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.

For more about the feud, the research, and the novel itself, please drop by www.themasterofverona.com and www.davidblixt.com.


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Friday May 23rd 2008, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I loved Lamb's 'Tales From Shakespeare, but any love of his works was destroyed in high school when we 'did' him in Lit.

There were maybe 60 in the class and the first seat person would read a part, then the next would read the next part and so on.

Then I learned that Shakespeare rewrote history to please the ruling monarch and that became my excuse.

Recently I heard the late Charleton Heston recite part of Hamlet. I understood.

The time is long past to enkindle a love of his works, but I know enough now to regret what was done in Lit!

Jane B.
Friday May 23rd 2008, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I was lucky--I knew they were plays first, and literature much later. I first encountered Bill when I was 7 and BBC TV produced a chronological serial version of the history plays (from Richard II through Richard III) called An Age of Kings. It became a weekly family ritual to watch every episode on WTTW Chicago in the late 1950s. It was either the young Sean Connery as Hotspur, the unremembered actor who played Hal or the young Judi Dench as Lady Anne and whomever played Richard Gloucester that hooked me (and my younger brother) totally.

After that, I voraciously read all the plays, memorized a few and attempted without much success to enlist the rest of the neighborhood in staging them. Oddly enough, I did not become an actress, nor a literature scholar, but my science communications career and my leisure time continues to be enriched by Shakespeare, read as well as viewed on stage or screen. If anyone knows how to find those old AoK episodes, please comment!
Friday May 23rd 2008, 5:00 PM
Comment by: marji K.
I was also fortunate to be introduced to Shakespeare through live theater. My mother took me to a summer evening series in Marin county which staged his plays in an outdoor theater. It was wonderful. She introduced me to (my grandmother's copy of) the Lamb's version when I showed a bit of interest in the stories. That, and the giant chocolate chip cookies purchased at intermission, launched my appreciation of the Bard.
Looking forward to checking out the new book on the Gentleman of Verona.
Saturday May 24th 2008, 2:27 AM
Comment by: Mahadev S. (Nagpur India)
My inroduction to Shakespeare was through the medium of long playing records from the British council. Famous actors like Sir John Geilgud and others of his era playing all those fascinating parts. Hearing them while reading the plays was an entirely different experience. one could alomost live each part.
looking forward to reading the book and probably make an attempt at writing myself.
Tuesday June 10th 2008, 10:12 AM
Comment by: irma M.
I simply love Shakespeare, his work marked all my time...

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