Man of Many Parts: Shakespeare, Modern-day Novelist

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Since his death Shakespeare has had a long and illustrious career, playing many memorable parts: immortal bard, literary imposter and, somewhat improbably for an upstart crow, a swan.

Recently, Will has even been cast as a shiftless time-waster – a timeless shape-shifter, I mean.

Clearly, Shakespeare has been many things to many people. In his lifetime, though, he was simply many things full stop. The son of a glove-maker, Will turned his hand to one vocation after another – actor, poet, playwright, investor, producer – acing them all. And yet he never became a novelist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, since in his day the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, was over a century away.

Back then, the future, too, was still to come, as was our current century – the twenty-first.

Would Shakespeare make it as an author today? Would he ever! To my mind, Will is the very model of a modern-day novelist.

I came to this startling conclusion a week ago, while pretending to write a proposal for a PhD project located in the city from which I’d fled last year, a project entitled ‘The Novel in the 21st Century: Reading Contemporary Book Culture’.

I read novels in the 21st century, I thought. I’m qualified to critique the state of the art. And yet part of me wasn’t so sure. I’d failed to finish any of my forays into long-form fiction, after all, let alone have one published.

Deflated, I wondered why. Robinson Crusoe had appeared long ago, so I couldn’t use Shakespeare’s excuse. Was I simply a shiftless time-waster?

And then it struck me. Shakespeare!

I haven’t made it as a novelist because I’m not like Will.

New-age novelists don’t sit lord-like in an inky tower, channelling unchallengeable wisdom, painstakingly making immutable monuments designed to be decoded in private. They’re performers who collaborate like playwrights and play many parts.

The novel of now isn’t a big book thick with detail and description, whose life is strung along lines and bounded by covers. It’s a set of directions aimed at activating an audience and spawning new stories – a staged production, no less.

For a time Shakespeare was based at the Globe Theatre in London. There, during performances, actors and audience, playwrights and producers alike would interact, working as one to put on a play.

Literature is theatre once again. Today’s stories, though, are told on a truly global scale, woven in a web populated by people working with a will, like a Will.

Until I join their ranks I might as well hang up my pen and paper.

[Artwork from OpenArt]

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