They’d found seventeen new Shakespeare plays, in the back of a fish and chip shop in Stratford upon Avon. No one had ever staged them before, or written critical studies of them, not a single academic had heard of a single one of them – they were brand new, as new as anything could be said to be that’s four hundred years old. Everyone was very sceptical at first, but the manuscripts were submitted for carbon dating, and graphological analyses, and the words were put through computers to assess how similar the writing style was to the plays we already had – and the results that came back were pretty conclusive, they said that these new texts were authentically Shakespearean, and indeed more authentic than quite a number we already took for granted. The couple who ran the fish and chip shop had found them down the back of the fridge, and in the local paper said they were ‘fair flummoxed’ as to how they’d got there. They admitted that they weren’t especial devotees of the Bard, but on a Friday night once the pubs were shut they’d serve kebabs to drunken actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. “We support the arts,” they said.
There was a mad scrabble to get the plays before the paying public. Both the National Theatre and the RSC scrapped an entire year’s worth of programming to push the new Shakespeare texts into rehearsal. But a small theatre in Southend pipped them to the post, cutting back on set, lighting, and actors, and presenting their production as raw as it could be. The world’s critics traipsed on down to the seaside to judge it; they bought their ice creams, sat in their seats, and waited impatiently for the lights to go down. And maybe the simplicity of the production actually helped – they saw the play in its purest form, uncompromised by interpretation or directorial dickering. The play that had been chosen was ‘Whate’er You Want, My Mad Masters’, and at first glance it seemed to be a rather unpromising piece about starcross’d lovers, identical triplets, mistaken identities and poisoned handkerchiefs. The uncut text ran at a full four and a half hours, and at the curtain call there was a long silence, and for a while the management worried they might have a flop on their hands; and then, as one, the audience rose to their feet and applauded; there were tears of joy rolling down the cheeks of hardened journalists who had doubted they’d see a play that could move them again, that anything in life could ever move them; strangers were turning to each other and hugging and kissing, united in perfect camaraderie, because they had shared this moment, they were part of something magical and it could never be taken from them; the standing ovation was like a cry against the dark, against an uncertain future, and whatever the world might have in store for us, whatever the fates may bring, it is all right, it’ll be all right, we have this, we have this; people fell in love that night, friendships were restored, hearts mended, lives changed.
No one had expected the plays to be any good. Even the most optimistic of academics had already drafted theses referring to the missing texts as necessarily minor works: they had been written, and then discarded, maybe; they had failed to shape our understanding of art and thought the way Shakespeare’s other plays had, they had made no impact. In 1613 Shakespeare had retired, and it was supposed that these discovered manuscripts were the jottings of an old man who had got bored with nothing to do in the afternoons. What was realised instead was that this was a Shakespeare who was no longer worried about audience reaction, or critics, or box office, or marketing, or the painstaking niceties of getting a play into production, of actors’ egos and keeping stage management happy and making sure the boyfriend of the sponsor got enough lines. This was a Shakespeare who was having fun. These new plays were just plain better: his kings were more kingly, his lovers more loving, his evil tyrants more evilly tyrannical; the very rhythm of his iambic pentameter bristled with a punchy verve no one had ever heard before; even his comedies had a few funny jokes in them. ‘Fortinbras, His Life and Times’ was a sequel to ‘Hamlet’ that not only gave the original play a new perspective, but, as the Sunday Times said, ‘pissed all over it and made it redundant’.
And England was happy. Because what was more quintessentially English than William Shakespeare? The country basked in patriotic fervour. At the general election the Government swept through to victory, even though under his term the Prime Minister had slashed arts funding by forty per cent, even though, privately, the PM admitted he wasn’t too sure about this Shakespeare chap: how English could a man really be, if he kept writing about Danish kings and Roman wars and merchants who came from Venice?
One morning the entire second act of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ went missing. This included the somewhat overwritten exchange between Ajax and Thersites, in which Thersites insults Ajax, and Ajax beats him up. It vanished from every single edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, the Cambridge editions, the Oxford editions, the cheery children’s editions that had on the cover a grinning Shakespeare wearing a funny ruff. No one much noticed; for the first time in a hundred years there was no production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in rehearsal. By the end of the week, though, the rot had spread, and it claimed the whole of ‘Troilus’, and into the bargain substantial parts of ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘Henry VI Part Three’. Some academics were upset, in principle – but for all their combined intellectual efforts none of them could quite remember what the affected plays had been about. There were attempts to make copies of other Shakespeare texts they felt might be endangered – ‘Pericles’, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, any in which a clown popped up during the proceedings to sing about the weather – but it was to no avail, their words faded from the scribbled pages just as surely as they did from the printed texts.
But in truth, no one much minds. We have seventeen plays to enjoy that are better than those dry, old-fashioned ones. We don’t need any of them. Within a month they had all gone. People have vague memories of them: ‘Macbeth’, wasn’t there something about a dagger? ‘The Tempest’, something about a storm? And some of the phrases survive: ‘break the ice’, ‘in a pickle’, ‘dead as a doornail’ – what does it matter what they had once referred to, who cares which pickle, which doornail? The universe has given, the universe has taken away. And when what’s been given is so rich, and what we’ve lost something we’d grown used to and taken for granted and forgotten, shouldn’t we be happy? Aren’t we happy? We put up with it. It’s all right. We put up with it, we let it happen, and there were no complaints, the earth did not crack, we did not shake our gory locks at it, the deed was done and every dog had its day, and the rest, so inevitably, so thuddingly, was silence. Just silence.
Or so we thought.
Greg Miller had only been to see a Shakespeare the once. When he was eleven years old his English teacher had suggested she take the class to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and his parents, who were always supportive of any extracurricular school activities, coughed up the money for the ticket. Greg had remembered very little of the evening, even before the old plays had faded from the world, but burned upon his brain forever was a group of fat middle-aged men dancing about dressed as fairies, and he’d never before known you could be both so bored and so terrified at exactly the same time. That night, when he got home, his mother had asked him whether he’d enjoyed it – Greg was always a polite boy, and knew that the expedition had not been a cheap one, and had cost more than his parents could easily afford – but he was so frightened that if he gave even the slightest impression the experience had not been an awful one then he might at some point be forced to see the fairies again. He told her it was a ‘bloody bugger’, and his mother said she’d never heard such language, and smacked him, and sent him straight to bed. But it worked. He was never sent to a Shakespeare again.
He’d met Moira via a dating agency. He’d met lots of women at the dating agency. And some time, usually around date three or four, the women would suggest that next time they should go to the theatre together. At that point Greg would make an excuse, tell them he was sick, anything, tell them that he’d be in touch – and he would never call again. He knew logically that not all theatre was Shakespeare, and not all Shakespeare had fat fairies in it, but why take the chance? On his third date with Moira he waited all evening for the inevitable theatre proposal; they were eating at the local Italian, and the prospect quite put him off his lasagne. He eventually got so tired of the suspense he put himself out of his misery, he jumped in with it, cut across the conversation, he asked her: “Do you want to do some theatre?” And Moira had looked down at her pasta, and suggested instead they just go back to hers for sex. She said it very politely too. And they’d gone back, they’d had the sex, and Moira was very good at it, and Greg wasn’t too bad either. And then he’d married her, and together they embarked on many years of domestic bliss, and funnily enough, they’d somehow managed to bypass the whole theatre date altogether.
One night Greg stirred in bed. A couple of hours before he’d had some of that sex that Moira was so good at, and he’d felt warm and safe. But now he was cold. He couldn’t work out why, had they left a window open somewhere? He snuggled against Moira’s back, and she grunted happily in her sleep, turned, put her arms around him. But still he was cold, it was bitterly cold, and now he felt too a wave of nausea pass right through him, it made him shudder, and for an awful moment he thought he might actually throw up. He panted for breath, the nausea steadied, that sickness still clung to him, he could feel it tight within his chest – and all the time still so cold, his skin pricking with goosebumps, and there was a nameless dread to it. And then it wasn’t nameless any more. Then he found the words.
He climbed out of Moira’s arms, out of bed. He went to the bathroom. Took a swig of tap water. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and he seemed suddenly so old and frightened – frightened, and cold, bitter cold, and sick at heart.
He went down to the kitchen, and wrote down the words. He didn’t stop to think about what they meant. They flowed out of him, and then they stopped, just suddenly stopped – and he felt so much better, the sickness had gone, he’d got rid of some poison. Better out than in, he thought, the same way he felt about bad fruit and shellfish. He went back to bed. Moira hadn’t noticed he’d gone.
The next morning he felt lighter, happier. He didn’t even think about the sadness of the night, it was as if he’d dreamed the whole thing. He ate his breakfast, chattered with Moira – she was off to her job at the supermarket, he was off to drive his bus. “I’ll pick up some shopping,” she said, and he agreed; she picked up the little notebook on which she wrote her shopping lists, looked at it, and frowned. She handed it to her husband.
He read. And as he did so a memory stirred, and so did that rush of nausea, and of that cold all over his skin – he felt it as the words came back to him, the words he could barely understand.
This is what he’d written:
Who’s there? Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself. Long live the King! Bernardo? He. You come most carefully upon your hour. Tis now stuck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco. For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.
“But what does it mean?” Moira said.
Greg had no idea. He thought about the words all day as he drove the bus. That evening, when he got home, he went to find the notebook, and he read them again. Who were Bernardo and Francisco? He’d known a Bernard once, he’d been laid off from work after he’d made a pass at a ticket inspector. He’d never met a Francisco.
That night Moira and he had sex again, and the sex made him drowsy, and he fell asleep easily.
But after it had struck twelve, he felt it again – yes – and it was as if a wind was blowing through the room, a harsh wind that blasted every inch of his body and crept into every crevice and made him hurt. Although the windows were shut. Although the radiator was on. Although the curtains were still, and Moira beside him slept warm and happy.
He got up, wrote again. Wrote out these new words for a full hour.
When he returned to bed, Moira was awake, concerned. “What’s the matter?” she said.
Greg just hoped that Bernardo and Francisco would get off the battlements soon, it was perishing cold up there.
This was a Tuesday. On Thursday the word ‘Denmark’ was first revealed. It wasn’t until Friday that Horatio mentioned the name of Hamlet. And by this time there was a ghost, and talk of an invading army, and Greg was hooked.
He’d take pen and paper with him to bed for when inspiration struck. By the end of the week Moira had stopped making love to him. By the end of the next, she had moved to the spare room.
So, there was this guy called Hamlet, and he was a prince, but he was also a student, and that made sense, he was always talking to himself and trying to be too clever, just like the students Greg saw on the buses. Anyway, this Hamlet was depressed, and it wasn’t too hard to see why. His dad was dead, and his mum had shacked up with his uncle, and the ghost of his dad was walking about and saying that it was the uncle who had killed him, and asking Hamlet what he was going to do about it. And Greg felt sorry for Hamlet, felt sort of a connection to him – though, really, that was rubbish, they had nothing in common, Greg’s dad was still alive and well, and Greg’s mum hadn’t run off with his uncle, she’d run off with a steelworker named Ken.
He worked on the story each night, and it often ended on an almighty cliffhanger. Hamlet preparing to kill Claudius at prayer. The stabbing of Polonius behind the arras. Greg would hurtle the buses fast around the town, living only for the time he could get back to his pen and paper and find out what would happen next. He sometimes missed out entire bus stops; passengers complained.
And this was his story, and he didn’t know where it came from, and he didn’t want to question it too much. By day he felt himself to be ordinary, just ordinary, nothing special, nothing worthwhile – not a bad man by any means, but he’d never known what Moira had seen in him, why had she married him when there were so many better men out there? But by night inspiration soared, words flowed, ‘Hamlet’ poured out. Some mornings he would look back upon the poetry he had written, and he would literally gasp at its beauty. Some mornings he’d need to use a dictionary to find out what the poetry meant, but he was always impressed.
And it was a curse, too, all those words in his head, fighting for space, fighting to be let out. He could think of nothing else, Hamlet would chatter at him all day long, and Gertrude too, and poor Ophelia, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though Greg couldn’t tell them apart). It was a curse, the words spilling out, and he couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard he might try – and he did try, he’d promise himself, he’d promise Moira, no more, not tonight, I’ll watch the telly, I’ll relax, I’ll sleep – and then the headaches would start, and the ice chill ran over his body, and the sickness swelled his heart, and he felt that certainty, that sure certainty, that if he didn’t write right now the words would be lost forever. It was a curse. But if it were a curse it was the one thing that gave his day meaning. And sometimes he would actually cry in gratitude for it.
One night, three in the morning, maybe four, Moira came to find him, and said, “I can’t cope with this, I’m leaving you, I’m going to my mother’s.” And Greg was at a really tricky part of the iambic pentameter, and the interruption was the last thing he needed, and he turned to her, and he snarled. He didn’t actually say, “Get thee to a nunnery,” what would Moira want with a nunnery? But for once he didn’t actually need to let the words out, they were written plain to see on his face. And Moira went.
The play was ending, it was obvious, the cast were dropping like flies. Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes. And still, Gary hoped that he might be able to turn it around, maybe Prince Hamlet would live happily ever after. It looked increasingly unlikely.
And then Hamlet died, and gave a pretty little speech that made Greg feel both sad and elated at the same time, and he was a simple man, he wasn’t used to such contradictory feelings, and he had to stand, and hold the back of the chair, and grip it tight so he wouldn’t fall over. Horatio grieved. Ambassadors appeared. Fortinbras took the throne.
There were no more words. Greg waited for some to appear, he even tapped at the side of his head to dislodge any that had got stuck, something, anything. Nothing.
He’d finished. He stacked all the sheets of paper, his handwriting growing more excitable and confident as the play had gone on, he enjoyed the weight of the script, he let all those pages ripple through his fingers. And then he went to bed. He slept properly for the first time in months. He slept through the entire day, and most of the next, and it wasn’t until it was dark that hunger forced him to get up and go down to the kitchen in search of food.
He put some bread into the toaster. He got out the margarine from the fridge, looked for a knife to spread it with, found a dirty one, rinsed it. He went to look at his play again, the manuscript still stacked proudly on the table.
The pages were blank.
The toast got burned.
It wasn’t that the paper was pristine. You could tell that it had been used, once; not for writing, perhaps, because there were no words on it, were there? But it had been used, yes, definitely – someone had worked hard on all these pages, you could see where they’d been scuffed beneath someone’s elbows, you could see the pressure made by, what, a pen, a pencil? – but there couldn’t have been a pen, because if so there’d be words, wouldn’t there, where are the words then, where are the words? – there are no words, no words at all, not a single word, not even a little one.
Greg went to the sink and threw up. He thought of Hamlet, of Osric the gadfly, of the comical gravedigger, loyal Horatio, the Player King, all lost, all gone. And threw up once more.
He wanted to call Moira, but he didn’t know what he could say.
He shivered, his stomach lurched again.
It was bitter cold, and he was sick at heart.
The words hadn’t gone. They were in his head, all of them, rattling around in his head.
He raced back to the empty sheets, picked up his pen. He had to set the words back down on the paper before he forgot them. But he wasn’t going to forget them, was he, they were there, they were part of him, they burned inside him, they weren’t going to let him go until he’d set them free.
Who’s there? Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself. Long live the King!
He took the week off work, called in sick. If he only took a few hours’ nap, and barely paused for eating, he could write the whole of ‘Hamlet’ out again by the weekend.
He finished on Saturday afternoon, and no sooner were the final words down, than the entire text faded from the pages once more.
Greg refused to be beaten. The following week he wrote it out again, more forcefully, angrily even, using a thicker pen and blacker ink, underlining key speeches as if to give them protection.
Exhausted, he killed off his sweet prince. Exhausted, he watched as the dead prince dissolved into thin air.
He didn’t write it out again. It was in his head. That would have to be enough.
He first decided to find some actors. Not professional ones, he couldn’t afford them, but there was an amateur dramatics group that met on Thursdays. He met with them, told them he had an exciting new play, full of ghosts and swordfights and bucketloads of dead bodies. They asked to see the script, and he tapped at his head: “It’s in here.” He proposed to recite the lines for them, over and over until they had them memorised. They showed him the door.
So he’d have to perform it himself. He wasn’t an ideal choice. He was shy, and he muttered, and his voice was nasal, and his face went red every time he thought people were looking at him. Still, it couldn’t be helped.
He wrote to the National Theatre and the RSC, asking whether he could perform his play for them. When they didn’t reply, he wrote to all the other theatres he found listed in the phone book. At last he was told he could rent the village hall for five hundred pounds a night. He gave it some thought. Decided it only needed one night.
For a costume, he took from his wardrobe his smartest suit. It was navy blue, and came with a matching tie; he’d last worn it at his wedding, and as he put it on he felt a pang for something lost. It didn’t fit properly any more, his belly rolled awkwardly over the trousers.
He advertised his show in the local paper; he left leaflets in the libraries and upon the bus seats; he flyposted telegraph poles and phone boxes.
The audience came. It was free, after all. Greg didn’t want to make any money from this.
He went out on to the stage, shyly thanked them all for coming, cleared his throat, and let Hamlet out on an unsuspecting world.
From the very beginning the audience was confused. Which one was Francisco, which one was the ghost? Bernardo, was he anything to do with that bloke who’d been sacked from the bus garage?
By the time Hamlet made his first appearance, the back rows had already fled.
Greg had hoped that Hamlet’s soliloquy about suicide would move the crowd. “To be or not to be,” he asked them. Some cried out, “Be!”, others voted for “Not to be!” Greg heard the vicar in the second row waspishly say to his wife that if Hamlet didn’t know what was going on, why the hell should he?
And somehow it didn’t matter. As Greg heard the words out loud for the first time he realised this wasn’t just a bunch of Danes chatting, there was genius to this, and the power of it made him cry – there he was on stage, his face burning with embarrassment, and talking of hawks and handsaws, and there were tears streaming down his face – and up to that moment he’d liked to pretend this play had something to do with him, that he’d written it, that these words were his – and he realised that they weren’t his, they were everybody’s, they belonged to the whole world.
He dragged Hamlet on to his death. And, at last, he paused for air.
It was dark out there in the audience. With the lights on his face, he couldn’t see a thing.
And then, the applause. One person clapping. Just one, a woman, getting to her feet, and cheering him on. The one person left in the auditorium, giving him the standing ovation he deserved.
He stepped off the stage, and went to Moira.
“Was it all right?” he asked her.
“It was beautiful,” she told him.
“Is it over now?”
“It’s over,” he said. He thought hard, and there wasn’t a single word left in his brain. Not a word that wasn’t about Moira, and how he’d missed her, and how sorry he was.
“Good,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
They talked that night, and he apologised, and she forgave him, and they made love, and it was sweet and comforting.
In the night Greg felt the coldness again, and he sat up, and there were words now, words he didn’t understand, the beginning of something new. “Now, fair Hippolyta,” he whispered to himself, “our nuptial hours grow apace.” And he shivered, and there was a presentiment of fairies he hadn’t felt since he’d been a little boy.
“Let it go,” he heard Moira say. “Just let it go.” And so he lay back, closed his eyes, and he did.