Pathways to Shakespeare

Hilary Mantel

February 7, 2014

I was delighted when Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies agreed to answer some questions about her experience of Shakespeare for the Pathways to Shakespeare blog. Here's what she had to tell me.

Viv: What is your earliest awareness of Shakespeare?

I can answer this precisely. It came from an old schoolbook I found at home when I was eight. We weren't a book-owning household and I don't know how this one came to be there. It has the unenticing title: Steps To Literature: Book V: Readings On Europe. It doesn't have a publication date — I've checked, I still own it — but it long, long predated me. It was a book of extracts: poems, prose, plays - nothing later than the nineteenth century.

Ray Fearon as Antony in Gregory Doran's 2012 production of Julius CaesarIt includes an extract from Julius Caesar, the scene in which Antony turns the crowd against the conspirators. I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had ever read or heard of or known, so I learned the whole scene by heart.

I had heard of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and thought this was it.

Two years later when I was out with my family I saw a fat, cheap book, which was in fact a Complete Works. Imagine my joy. Luckily for me, this discovery coincided with my mother's ascent into the middle classes, and she thought we ought to have a book of our own. This was it.

Viv: What Shakespeare did you study in school? What plays do you remember and was it studied as Literature or Drama?

That Complete Works was acquired the spring before I went to secondary school, and I spent the summer reading it. So I was ahead of the game. Shakespeare at school was highly academic, divorced from any idea of theatre. If you didn't instinctively love Shakespeare, there was nothing to entice you.

For most of my contemporaries it was just another exam subject. For me it was a sort of escape hatch, giving access to a world where my family didn't follow me. The trouble was, they resented my going there. My stepfather, an aggressive philistine, used to rage about the house saying he hated b****** Shakespeare and it was an evil waste of time. I was banned from watching it on television. Looking back, the whole thing was highly comic.

Viv: You have described coming to the RSC when you were fifteen as a shaping experience. In what way? What did you see?

Just before I was 16, I came to Stratford with two friends. I am still amazed that my mother allowed this trip. It was probably some tactic in her long war with my stepfather. But I didn't stop to question, I just grabbed my bag and ran to the coach station.

Janet Suzman as Rosalind in the 1968 production of As You Like It.In three days we saw: John Barton's Troilus and Cressida, As You Like It, with Janet Suzman as Rosalind, Eric Porter in Trevor Nunn's King Lear, and Doctor Faustus, again with Eric Porter. It was almost too much to take in. From Lear, I learned the power of a single gesture to haunt a viewer for years. And Troilus, not a favourite with many people, became one of my shaping texts. It went straight into my imagination, like a long sharp poisoned pin.

It was after this trip that I began to read literary criticism alongside the texts, and came away with some idea of the variety of approaches to staging and interpretation.

The logical thing would have been to read English at university and creep my way towards becoming a Shakespeare scholar. Or try to become an actor. Why I didn't do either of these things … that's a long story, and not really a story I was in charge of.

But my present involvement with the RSC means more to me than I can easily express. Suppose you lost something you valued, and looked for it for so long that you forgot what it looked like and why it mattered, but still you went on looking. Forty-five years pass and then one day you open your front door and it's sitting on the step, unchanged and undamaged. 'Magic!' is what you'd shout.

Of the two friends who were with me in 1968, one is still a very close friend. The other I hadn't seen for 25 years. Till in the first week of January, there she was, in the foyer of the Swan, Wolf Hall programme in her hand.

Viv: In the Shakespeare canon were you particularly interested in the History plays and subsequently the History Cycles performed here?

Geoffrey Streatfeild plays Henry V in Michael Boyd's History Cycle from 2008History was my other passion, so yes, they have a special appeal, and Michael Boyd's 2008 cycle was one of the big events of my theatre-going life.

I'm glad I read the history plays when I was still a child, because it meant I knew instinctively about different ways of narrating the past, and how we construct history, and what we use it for. They also ignited my ambition to tell big stories.

When I began writing, I didn't tiptoe into the slender semi-autobiographical fiction which is the classic beginner's choice; for better or worse, I marched into a huge, 600-plus page epic about the French Revolution.

Viv: What attracts you and indeed people in general to Tudor history?

I didn't begin my recent books thinking 'I want to write about the Tudors.' It was rather, 'I want to write about Thomas Cromwell.' Because to my mind, he was the most interesting figure of the early Tudor period, and (as far as fiction was concerned) a piece of unexplored territory.

The Tudors are our national soap-opera, and when I say that I don't mean to sneer. Who else has a king who married six times, and beheaded two of his wives? A king who fathered a weirdly white-faced, all-conquering virgin, who herself seemed immortal? It's the stuff of myth, and yet it's sober, documented fact.

Our deepest and most tender human preoccupations are here, and so are the most fundamental dilemmas and difficulties that beset us when we try to work out how to order a civilized society.

Viv: How does your view of this period differ from Shakespeare's? Is it just that you have more freedom whereas he was more subject to political constraints?

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Lucy Briers as Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, Oscar Pearce as George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall.I think that as historical novelists or dramatists we are writing out of our own time and its preoccupations; that's inescapable. So all fiction about the past is also fiction about the present.

I can't put on a 16th century head when I write. But I can try to understand and respect and love the people of that time, observing always the gulf between us, never pretending that it isn't there. Privileging the differences, rather than wishing them away.

I know that in Shakespeare's day, dramatists operated under strict political constraints. But in many ways, their imagination was freer than ours. We are bound in a different way: bound to the facts, to the record, to the sheer weight of documented and accrued information.

I can't conjure my heroes and heroines out of the content of a handful of excitable Italian folk-tales, as Shakespeare could. (Though to be truthful, excitable Italian folk-tales are quite useful as a source for Thomas Cromwell's missing years.) When I am writing about real people, historical figures, I must consult the documents as well as the myths, though it is important to consider the myths too; somehow, in imagination, I have to reconcile them. I have to be sober and diligent, like a historian, and immerse myself in the sources, and then try to work out some compromise between the documentary and the dramatic.

Or at least, that's the task I'm setting myself. But one thing that fascinated me, in writing Wolf Hall the novel, was knowing that my eye was passing over some of the same material that Shakespeare had used for Henry VIII: seeing the inspired grabs he made, looking at the rough reported originals of those great speeches he gave to Katherine and to Wolsey (and which will still be spoken when the shifting sands of taste have buried Wolf Hall.)

Viv: It would be nice to have Henry VIII performed alongside your plays, don't you think?

I'm not sure what would happen if Henry VIII were played alongside the Wolf Hall plays, except that there might be audience participation. When Shakespeare's defeated Wolsey says, 'Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition,' the Wolf Hall audience would shout, 'As if!' Or maybe, 'Yeah, right!'

Ben Miles in rehearsal for Wolf Hall. Photo by Keith PattisonViv: You are a novelist but I know that you have worked alongside the RSC team in bringing this work to the stage. What in the process have you learnt about stagecraft and the Shakespearean theatre space?

I'm still pondering what I've learned, so I can't make a slick answer. It will take me a long time to absorb. I won't really be able to evaluate it, unless and until I become involved in the process of another play. Stagecraft is a practical art; I'll know when I know.

Mike Poulton, the adaptor of the plays, has vast experience and skill, and he has allowed me (literally sometimes) to sit alongside him for three years, and has worked with my contributions and suggestions. He alerted me to the practicalities and possibilities of working in the Swan.

Then I was able to learn more from watching director Jeremy Herrin orchestrate the action and negotiate its complex demands. And I learn every day from watching the cast at work, interlacing complicated patterns of space and time, action and character.

Viv: Do you think what your experience with The RSC in shaping the play for the stage might possibly be reflected in The Mirror and The Light when you come to write it? Might you now see the characters, as you write, fleshed out by this company?

The characters in my head will not look like the actors now playing them. (Though there's maybe one exception; he knows, but I'm not saying.)

My characters are never represented, anyway, by a set of features and limbs. They are an energy flow, a voice in the next room, feet on the stairs, a shadow against the wall, a glimpse of a known person instantly defamiliarised by the movement of flame or sunlight across their faces.

Lucy Briers as Katherine of Aragon and Leah Brotherhead as Princess Mary in Wolf Hall. Photo by Keith Pattison. The adaptations of the first two novels strike sparks from the third. There's a fluent interplay. At one point late in the rehearsal period I suggested inserting a line into Wolf Hall which changed the whole thrust of a scene. Later that day the actors rehearsed it.

Then I went back to my room and wrote the scene, as a flashback, into the third novel.

Viv: To those teachers and pupils who think Shakespeare is difficult what would you say?

I have enjoyed Shakespeare in Africa with teenagers who had only basic English, and who had never been inside a theatre or imagined one. (I refuse to say I 'taught' Shakespeare; I don't like to think of it that way, and anyway it was only by accident that I became a teacher)They loved it because no one had ever told them it was supposed to be difficult. And I certainly wasn't going to tell them.

I would say, open your minds, open your ears, get on your feet, shout the words, sing the words, learn the words. These are plays, so play at them. And believe that these were given you, as a present, by a man who lived centuries before you were born, and didn't know you: but all the same, he knew you.

Images in order from top of page:

Ray Fearon as Antony in Gregory Doran's 2012 production of Julius Caesar. Picture by Kwame Lestrade.
Janet Suzman as Rosalind in the 1968 production of As You Like It. Photo by Reg Wilson.
Geoffrey Streatfeild plays Henry V in Michael Boyd's History Cycle from 2008. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Lucy Briers as Jane Boleyn, Oscar Pearce as George Boleyn, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall. Photo by Keith Pattison.
Ben Miles in rehearsal for Wolf Hall. Photo by Keith Pattison.
Lucy Briers as Katherine of Aragon and Leah Brotherhead as Princess Mary in Wolf Hall. Photo by Keith Pattison.

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