Oxfordian Journal Chapter 4: Searching for Shakespeare’s Creative Process … His Working Method … His Confidence That What He Wrote Was Real and True

It was the spring of 1987 and I was living in Portland, Maine, with an office in the Congress Building on the corner of High Street.  After a quarter of a century since college I could still recite most of Hamlet’s soliloquies; during those years I’d walk the river, as they say, spouting the prince’s lines to the trees or the ocean or the sky…

What an idea! A play set in the White House…!

After several months on Deer Isle and now in Portland, for some reason it occurred to me that I should write a play.  And that I should set this play … in the White House!  I had spent several months as a journalist in the West Wing press section, so I had some familiarity with the place.

I planned to write a one-act drama about a government official who manipulates people and the different ways they respond to him.  My main interest was in the psychological and emotional dynamics.  What happens when a powerful figure tries (skillfully) to manipulate others?  What happens when someone attempts to resist?  And of course there were wider implications, in terms of how such a manipulator might affect political decisions and government policies.

Congress Street in Portland, Maine … A long way from the White House

I’d already written plays and scripts for TV and film, but this project offered a chance to go back to the basics.  I read some books on play-writing (a favorite was The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, a classic work written in 1942) and I read a good many plays.  At the same time I wrote out character biographies, made plot outlines, sketched out scenes with some dialogue.

Everything was going pretty well, but at one point I started thinking about the need to do some research.  Did I really know enough about how things worked inside the White House?   How far could I trust myself to make up dialogue for the President or the Secretary of Defense and so on?  I had no doubt that writing such a play was possible, even if I’d never set foot in the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room, but it felt good to go to the library to find some materials that might help.

After about a week of research, I spoke with a friend at a coffee shop in downtown Portland.  “I think I can write this play,” I said, “but I still feel kind of distant from it.  Maybe it’s just that Washington, D.C. seems a million miles away from here.  And it’s not like I can just go down there and walk through the White House gate.  I’d need credentials.  And besides, what kind of notes would I take?  What would I learn if I was still an outsider?”

“Well,” my friend said, “you’re using your imagination.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s starting to feel more like fantasy.  I think most writers end up writing what they know best, don’t they?  Why am I giving myself such a difficult challenge?  Who do I think I am?  Shakespeare?”

Prince Hamlet with the Players who have arrived at the castle

Then it hit me.  Of course!  Shakespeare!  He, too, was an outsider – an actor.  Every so often he must have found himself inside those great royal palaces with the other players, to perform for Queen Elizabeth or King James and members of the Court, but he still had to do research!  How else could he write all those chronicle plays – King John, Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, Richard III and so on?

To write those plays he needed to know a hell of a lot about England’s royal history, solid information, and he had to inhabit each of his kings and queens and nobles with utter confidence in his ability to bring them to life.

[Here’s a strange thought — according to the traditional view of the authorship, Shakespeare would have been one of the players being greeted by Hamlet…]

How did Shakespeare do it?  How did he gain such belief in his own power and abilities as a writer?  He wrote the way Babe Ruth swung his bat.  What was his creative process?  How did he get ready to write, say, Macbeth or King Lear?  When Shakespeare created characters inside a palace or a royal court, I thought, he was doing the equivalent of some modern playwright creating characters inside the White House.

There were still lots of great used bookstores around.  (A friend, Pat Murphy, ran one of the best ones, over on Danforth Street.)  You could get some wonderful old books quite cheaply.  So I started browsing, in and around Portland, for biographies of Shakespeare that might tell about his creative process.

During the first week or so I came across five of them.  One book cost only three dollars and none cost any more than ten, as I recall.  I lined them up according to their copyright dates and figured I might as well start with the oldest, which was A Life of William Shakespeare by Sidney Lee, published in 1898.  I was pretty excited as I opened this book, which seemed to cover every aspect of Mr. Shakespeare’s time on earth.

I was about to meet the man, the artist, the genius who gave us Prince Hamlet, the most complex and fully realized tragic hero ever created for the stage…

(To be continued)

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