fiction writing

Sex, Love, and Second Chances for the Eternal in Shakespeare

When Shakespeare’s friends and partners got together to assemble his plays for the first time, his great rival Ben Jonson wrote, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” High praise, to be sure, but maybe this was the original book quote, put on that First Folio simply to sell a few more copies.

No, no, let’s put that cynicism behind us. Four hundred years have passed since William Shakespeare penned his last play, and his language, imagery, plots, and (most important) characters are as alive today as they were when the plays were originally staged. Shakespeare’s plays have definitely survived the test of time. But why is that?

For us, those plays touch on timeless themes such as love, friendship, vengeance, honor, shame, and politics. They delve into human and social issues that have remained essentially unchanged over the years. This is the bottom line: the playwright’s work is still thriving today because of his characters. Whether we live in 1616 or 2016, as human beings we are the same. When we look at Shakespeare’s plays today, we recognize ourselves in his characters. They transcend time. Indeed, the man had an uncanny grasp of human psychology long before the term existed.

This guy from that little market town in England had such an amazing understanding of human desires and fears, aspirations and flaws that the people who populate his plays are alive for us today.

For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on his women. Shakespeare refused to place them on the sidelines, cheering on their men. In his stories, women play critical and often central roles. Whether we look at brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, indomitable Viola in Twelfth Night, infamous Lady Macbeth, stormy Kate in Taming of the Shrew, or wise and challenging Portia in Merchant of Venice (among so many others), these women LIVE. They have a voice.  The scholar Sidney Homan said Shakespeare’s characters have souls; they have lives that existed before the curtain opens and after the stage lights dim. So true about those women.

And where would we be without sex? In all of Shakespeare’s work—in his comedies and in his histories and even in his tragedies—sexuality drives and motivates his characters. When the French send a basket of tennis balls to the young King Henry V, the sexual taunt is not misunderstood, and he responds that his ‘balls’ will knock down the walls of French castles. When Lady Macbeth wants to spur her husband to act on his ambition, even to the point of murdering his king and kinsman, she knows which buttons to push regarding his manhood.

We have a debt to pay to Shakespeare. From our first novel to this one, we’ve always tried to make our characters come alive on the page and in the imaginations of our readers. When we began our new Scottish Relic Trilogy, we wanted to pay tribute to the Bard’s understanding of the human spirit. So, drawing very loosely on the great romantic comedy, Much Ado about Nothing, we created characters who reflected (in some way), Beatrice and Benedick.

In Shakespeare’s play, Beatrice wants to be respected and loved for her intelligence, her passion, and her independent spirit and demands equality in a society that scoffs at such a notion. What she needs is to overcome the fears that are tied to her self-confidence. Benedick wants the freedom of the bachelor life. What he needs is the love of a woman who matches his own wit and passion. The conflicts that arise as the two of them struggle toward an understanding of their true needs is what makes their story—what makes them—timeless and real.

And we set out to do much the same when we created Kenna and Alexander in our new novel Much Ado about Highlanders. There is a history between them that exists before the reader lays eyes on the first page. They were married but separated because Kenna, like Beatrice, wants and demands equality in their marriage. Once an unexpected kidnapping occurs, their battle of wits begins and rages until passion and love seals their marriage.  

As Kenna came alive for us, Beatrice’s desires became more and more relevant. Even after the passage of centuries, she shines as a role model. She is wise, witty, and wounded. She is fiercely devoted and a courageous risk-taker. More than any other character in Shakespeare’s plays, she defines his dramatic genius. As her story develops, Beatrice comes to realize she wants not just more, she wants it all. As a woman, she lacks power in her male-dominated Elizabethan society and struggles against it. And so does Kenna in her sixteenth century Scottish Highlands. And why shouldn’t they have it? Why shouldn’t we all have it?

Women feel the same wants and needs that Beatrice and Kenna feel, and continue to struggle today. What’s fascinating is that Shakespeare felt it and understood the value of that struggle. This is even evident in the fact that so many of his great heroines dress as young men to overcome the obstacles that fate and society lay before them. He weaves our sexuality (and our shared humanity) into every play.

In his Much Ado, Shakespeare introduced Benedict; in ours, we brought to life Alexander Macpherson. A witty know-it-all, he is a confident alpha male who is striving to bring some order back to his chaotic life and marriage. As our story opens, he simply doesn’t know how to make that happen. Tracy, a reviewer on GoodReads, writes, “What ensues is a fast-paced, steamy, delightful story of true love conquering all, along with a lot of action, adventure, a bit of paranormal/magic and some truly cringe worthy villains.” And Alexander is a man who needs Kenna MacKay.

As dreamers, we aspire to be remembered 400 years from now. As hardworking writers, we can only apply ourselves (as Shakespeare did) to making characters who capture the heart of our human experience.