Authors & Events
Gifts & Deals
Jennifer Lee Carrell holds a PhD in English and American literature from Harvard University and is the author of The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox and the novel Interred with Their Bones. In addition to writing for Smithsonian magazine, Carrell has taught in the history and literature program at Harvard and has directed Shakespeare for Harvard’s Hyperion Theatre Company. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
One of the most intriguing things mentioned in your book is the surprising relationship between the writings of Shakespeare and pioneers of the American West. Can you tell your readers a little more about this? Why were cowboys so fascinated with the Bard?
In the nineteenth century American West, Shakespeare hadn’t yet become Literature with a capital, elitist “L.” He was simply the best storyteller out there. His popularity is actually less of an oddity than it might seem—it’s a holdover from earlier periods, all the way back to Shakespeare’s day, when his plays belonged to everyone, from the King down to the lowliest London apprentice ducking out of work to stand in the Yard of the Globe with his mates, gaping up at the shenanigans unfolding on the stage.
In the American West, Shakespeare’s stories tended to be heard, not read. If you’d had any schooling at all, you’d probably learned some long passages by heart, reciting them in front of everyone in the one-room schoolhouse—and listening to everyone else recite their passages. His language would not have seemed as foreign as it does now. If you’d ever been to church, you’d heard the rich poetic cadences of the King James bible, published in Shakespeare’s day, read aloud. Very likely, someone at home read long passages from the same Bible aloud in the evenings and on Sundays too. Just about everybody knew the sound and feel of Shakespearean language on their own tongues.
Of course it helps, too, that Shakespeare’s plays tend to be epic tales of love or war, their emotions sized XXL. Even his silliness tends to be outsized, sometimes literally, as in the comic character of jolly, rumbustious, drunken Sir John Falstaff. In thinking about Shakespeare’s popularity among cowboys in particular, it’s worth remembering that many of them were veterans of the Civil War. After the fighting stopped, they turned their backs on the cities and farms of their boyhood, choosing instead to wander professionally through vast, little-known, and often dangerous territory. (I sometimes wonder how many of them, brought forward in time, would be diagnosed with PTSD.) It’s my hunch that the grandness of Shakespeare’s stories—the cruelty, killing, laughter, and loving—just made sense to them. There’s a tale of a Montana rancher reading Julius Caesar to his cowboys in the 1880s. When he finished the “dogs of war” passage, one of the top farmhands shook his head and said, “That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what was fed on raw meat.”
In the Wild West, theater kept its sense of “play” longer than it did in the more sophisticated cities. Audiences felt free to cheer, boo, hiss, whistle, applaud, and throw anything from flowers to rotten eggs onto the stage during a performance. During the gold and silver rushes in California, Colorado, and Arizona, famous actors from New York and London would travel out to the roughest of boomtowns, because the enthusiastic miners paid well, often in gold: The actors could make as much in a week in the mining camps as they might make in a month in the cities. In the absence of professional actors, though, entertainment-starved people banded together for amateur performances. Thus in Texas, a young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant was drafted to play Desdemona in an Army production of Othello.
Failing the willing numbers for a performance, intrepid storytellers would take it on themselves to recount the plays as stories. After hearing from an Army officer that Shakespeare was the greatest author ever, in 1863 the mountain man Jim Bridger made his way to the Oregon Trail and found someone willing to trade a yoke of oxen for a volume of Shakespeare. As he was illiterate and had no interest in learning to read, he hired a boy to read the book to him. Thereafter, he became famous for entertaining fellow mountain men around campfires by reciting his favorite plays—especially Richard III—from beginning to end. Apparently, he liked to salt his Shakespeare with oaths of his own, just to see if anyone could tell which bits were Shakespeare and which were Bridger.
American pioneers liked Shakespeare because they liked his stories and they were comfortable with his language. Nobody had told them to sit still, be quiet, and show respect in the presence of the Bard. Nobody had held up Shakespeare under glass on a silver platter and said “Look, don’t touch.” Nobody had said, Must have college degree to appreciate, much less must have plummy upper-class English accent to speak aloud.
If anybody had said any of those things, they would likely have been chased out of town with a volley of rotten tomatoes.
Having invested so much time and research in Shakespearean conspiracy theories in order to lay the groundwork for Interred with Their Bones, is there any particular theory that you think might actually hold water? If so, why?
On the question of Shakespeare’s identity, I’d say that I’m happily agnostic: I like the mystery. The writer of the plays was probably William Shakespeare of Stratford, but there are enough gaps in the evidence that it only seems responsible to admit that we don’t know “who did it” with certainty. To put it in legal terms, by the standards of a civil trial (“preponderance of evidence”), I would cast my vote to convict the actor from Stratford. By the much more demanding standards of a criminal trial, however (“beyond a reasonable doubt”), I could not, because to my mind somebody else might well be the guilty party.
That said, most of the commonly proposed alternates have serious problems. For example, Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, died in 1604—although new Shakespearean plays look to have gone on premiering until about 1613.
The alternate who most intrigues me at the moment is William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby. Unlike Oxford, he had the right life span, which makes Derby possible as a candidate. But he’s also seductively plausible.
Derby is known, for instance, to have written plays (though none survive), and he was a fine musician (at least one of his compositions, a pavane, does survive). He also knew all the right things: He was well educated (including a stint of legal training at the Inns of Court) and widely traveled, and seems to have enjoyed such aristocratic pastimes as hunting and hawking (he certainly indulged in them). His family was (and is) famous for horsemanship, horse breeding, and horse racing (from their title comes the noun derby, meaning “horse race”). He grew up in a household widely acknowledged to be England’s grandest, outside the queen’s. Theater was literally in the house—his father and elder brother, Lord Strange, were two of the theater’s greatest patrons. Both the Earl of Derby’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men seem to have performed some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, before he became the queen’s playwright (as part of the Chamberlain’s Men—essentially the queen’s company).
From infancy, Derby knew court, courtiers, grand living, and political infighting, but he never expected to be a peer himself—he was a younger son. In fact, he seems to have been something of a wild child for much of his youth, pulling himself back to the straight and narrow only when his elder brother died unexpectedly in 1594, leaving him the burden of one of England’s most powerful earldoms.
He seems to have been properly Church of England, at least on the surface, but he grew up in Lancashire, a stronghold of Roman Catholicism and of Catholic discontent—at a time when that roused suspicions of treason. His father routinely shielded Catholics from the full brunt of the increasingly ferocious laws aimed at crushing them—while managing to keep the queen’s trust. So Derby grew up surrounded by Catholic sensibilities (as well as a sense of protective duplicity), familiar—as was the writer of the plays—with such notions as confession and purgatory, with figures of friars and nuns, and with the folklore of ghosts and fairies that seems to have survived much longer in the conservative Catholic countryside than in urban Puritan neighborhoods.
Through their mother, Derby and his brother had royal blood—they were great-great-grandsons of King Henry VII through his daughter Mary Tudor (King Henry VIII’s younger sister and Queen Elizabeth’s aunt). Both brothers thus spent their lives aware of being carefully, even anxiously watched by the government, by would-be Catholic plotters, and by all those with a dangerous taste for speculating on who might succeed Queen Elizabeth. (For a sense of how solid his royal claim seemed at the time, the man who eventually became Elizabeth’s heir, King James, also claimed the English throne by virtue of being the great-great-grandson of King Henry VII—through the elder daughter, Margaret. Though Derby’s claim came through the younger daughter, he was preferred to James in some quarters because he was English, while James, as King of Scotland, was a foreigner.) Derby was, for all that, one of the Queen’s few male relations on the royal Tudor side to survive into old age without losing his head or even doing a stint in the Tower. That in itself suggests a man of no mean political and diplomatic savvy, as well as an insider’s understanding of the lures and perils of great power.
If there is a quintessentially Shakespearean topic, it is surely the tangled and twisting lures, responsibilities, and perils of power.
Derby has links to specific plays as well. The Stanleys had helped to put King Henry VII on throne, at the end of the Wars of the Roses, and Shakespeare’s history plays highlight the role of the house of Stanley. Derby also has intriguing links to Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest. His turbulent relationship with his wife, Elizabeth de Vere (eldest daughter of the earl of Oxford)—which seems to have included meddling deceit on the part of a trusted lieutenant—bears at least a passing resemblance to the plot of Othello.
Derby’s status—first as the cadet of a major aristocratic dynasty, and later as the earl of Derby and head of the family—would explain why, if indeed he had a hand in composing Shakespeare’s plays, he hid his identity behind a pseudonym. Writing for the public stage would have been almost immeasurably beneath his family’s dignity. On the other hand, his exalted status would explain why Shakespeare seems to have waltzed unscathed through crises and scandals that would have landed other playwrights in scalding water—such as the playing of Richard II, with its touchy subject of deposing a monarch, on the eve of the Essex rebellion.
Given all of the circumstantial evidence, I have no idea why Derby has always been such a dark horse candidate. But he’s never had the cachet of Bacon or Oxford or even Marlowe. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t leave a body of writing behind—though to my mind, that’s perversely in his favor, since to my ears the writings of Bacon, Oxford, and Marlowe don’t sound anything like Shakespeare’s work.
Unfortunately, the Derby seat of Lathom House, for centuries one of England’s largest and finest castles, was razed to the ground by Cromwell’s army during the Civil War, with such savage finality that it no longer seems to be quite clear exactly where it stood. Any papers that might have clarified Derby’s relationship to a certain player from Stratford were likely burned then (just a few years after Derby’s death), if they had not already been destroyed. The other main palace of the earls of Derby, Knowsley Hall, still exists as one of the great stately homes of England—but since the sixth earl’s time it has been rebuilt, enlarged, and refurbished out of all recognition. However suggestive Derby’s life, learning, and character may be, real links between him and Shakespeare remain elusive; the closer you look, the more they dissolve, like the remnants of a dream.
In the end, the lack of irrefutable evidence linking anyone—including the front-runner William Shakespeare of Stratford—to the writing of the plays keeps me in the agnostic category. It’s still a mystery, and I like it that way.
But history is full of quirks. It’s always possible that something has survived and will eventually come to light.
You’ve directed Shakespeare for the stage; in writing this book, did you develop a different kind of relationship with the works of Shakespeare than you’d had as a director?
Thinking about whether writing Interred with Their Bones gave me a different relationship with the works of Shakespeare than directing them did—I think I’d have to turn that question inside out. Writing the novel didn’t rearrange my experience of the plays so much as directing the plays taught me how to write a novel.
As a director, it’s your job to find the “through-story” of the play at hand—the story that you want your production to tell, the linear path down which you’re going to lead your audience. With Shakespeare, that’s a harder task than with many other playwrights—but also more exhilarating. Shakespeare is one of the most generous storytellers I’ve ever run across, in that he doesn’t try to ride herd on his readers’, actors’, and directors’ imaginations. He gives almost no stage directions, and his indications of setting are brief to the point of near-blankness. Compare Beckett or Shaw or O’Neill, for example—wonderful storytellers all—but their stage directions tend to be controlling and insistent. Shaw and O’Neill can go on for what seems like pages. Beckett’s estate still famously refuses to license productions that do not adhere to the particulars of his stage directions.
By comparison, a Shakespearean play seems lush, loose, almost wanton with possibilities. Each of his plays can be tailored to tell a number of very different stories. In fact, many of his plays need streamlining in order to run in anything approaching the two hours’ time that seems to have been the usual allotment for plays in Shakespeare’s day as well as in ours. This very richness is one reason Shakespeare is hard to read: He makes his readers do a lot more imaginative work than most other authors do. In the theater, the job of meeting him halfway goes to the director. As director, you have to pick one main story that will make sense and develop it, distilling it out to clarity as you go.
Together with your actors, you have to figure out why each character must say these words, and not any other words, at just this point in time. How are they said? To whom? Why? And, once said, what effect do they have on the world of the play? When you, as a company, get it right, you know it: The words begin to conjure up a believable world, which in turn supports the words. It’s this give-and-take—this resonating feedback—between words and the world in which they’re said that makes them, in the end, so very powerful.
In a way, directing a Shakespearean play is a piece of detective work: piecing together evidence—each piece building on the next—to make, in the end, a story so plausible, so compelling, that the audience members will lose themselves in your fictional world, at least for a little while. By intuition and hard work, you have to figure out what’s necessary to that story, and have the courage and conviction to pare away what’s not—whether that’s your own pet interpretation or an arcane phrase, confusing subplot, or out-of-date joke of the playwright’s. It’s this behind-the-scenes work—the investigative rehearsals leading up to performance—that are part of what I love most about theater. No doubt that’s one reason I’m a director/writer rather than a performer!
With the novel, I started with a basic idea: a deadly treasure hunt that would lead to a lost play, and a letter that might—or might not—reveal the “real” identity of the playwright. Very early on, a clear vision of the ending—the cave, the flash flood, the final death—just appeared in my imagination. Some time after that, I just “saw” the beginning: Kate sitting on a hill with the golden box on her knees. I didn’t know what was in the box, or what she was doing there. But I knew the Globe was burning below. (What was going to end in water, somehow needed to begin with fire.) To write the novel, I had to find a “through-story” that would link this beginning with the ending, somehow picking up lots of odd Shakespearean clues and theories along the way. As I worked, the process of plotting and writing the novel came to seem very similar to the process of directing—only I was alarmingly alone, without a script for guidance.
So, I wouldn’t say that writing the novel made me think about Shakespeare in a new light because it’s about Shakespeare. I’d say the novel gave me the chance to put into practice lessons I’d learned from Shakespeare in the theater about how to tell a story, how to make a world with words. The experience of storytelling “from scratch,” as it were, embarking on making a story without a script as guide, has only deepened my awe for him as a supremely gifted teller of tales.
Were you given access to one of the First Folios during your research?
While researching this book, I needed to look at the First Folio time and again. Fortunately, I did not need to handle an actual First Folio—and doubly fortunately, good facsimile copies are not hard to come by. That’s what I used when I needed to see what particular pages looked like, or get the wording (and spelling) of particular phrases. There’s also a superb “library” of early Shakespeare editions, including the First Folio, online at Internet Shakespeare Editions (internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/index.html).
In my work as a scholar, I have handled many books from Shakespeare’s era, so I know the marvelous feel and smell of books like the Folio . . . and the visceral horror at the thought of their desecration.
When I taught at Harvard, I used to have my students go look at the First Folio on display in Widener Library—both to see what the actual book looks like, and to think about the implications of the way in which the University displays it—along with a Gutenberg Bible, as it happens, in a case that looks a little like an altar, in a room that looks a lot like a shrine. Many of them would come back calling the place “The Church of Shakespeare”!
Giving myself a similar assignment, while researching the book I also visited displays of First Folios at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the British Library in London, and displays of fine facsimiles at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and in Nash’s House (next to New Place) in Stratford-upon-Avon.
While plotting the novel, I very much wanted to have a First Folio found at the library of the Royal English College in Valladolid, though I knew they did not have one. I consoled myself, however, with the idea that it made plausible sense, historically, that one might have found its way there. Then, during a marvelous private tour of the college, I learned from the librarian that they had indeed once possessed a First Folio, but had sold it off many years ago…. Sometimes fiction has a sly way of sidling up to fact!
Why do you believe that the works of Shakespeare still hold such relevance in these modern times?
Shakespeare wrote about the fundamental experiences of life: love, hate, greed, jealousy, laughter, death. He could focus intensely on one aspect of such an experience—say, first love in Romeo and Juliet—without getting stuck there, so that his plays about love grow and change as he did, moving from first love, to middle-aged passion, to the love of aged fathers for their daughters. He could write equally well—often in the same play—about the murderous drive to revenge and the mischievous delight in laughter. And he had a special affinity for the showing the soul tangled in the lures and perils of power. Furthermore, he wrote about all these subjects with startling clarity and sometimes almost unbearable beauty, all the while keeping sentimentality at bay with a sharp, skeptical edge of irony.
All that is just to say that he was a great writer, who knew the human soul well and could show us ourselves—or who we might turn out to be, in extreme circumstances. But there are other writers who have done all these things. What sets Shakespeare apart even from other great writers is, as I’ve said above, his imaginative generosity. He does not insist that this story be told in such-and-such a way, in any particular setting, with any particular ulterior motive or political message. He does not insist on his interpretation.
Which means that his stories—as tied as they are to the core of what it is to live a human life—have a remarkable elasticity that allows them not only to change and grow with one reader across a single lifetime, but also to make sense in widely different times and places. Hamlet is the quintessential tale of English aristocratic angst; it has also been enjoyed in the East African bush as a tale of witchcraft and proper punishment. Coriolanus has been produced as a Communist play; it has also been produced as a Fascist play. Lear and Macbeth make sense in Japanese as samurai films. Henry V has been produced as an adventure glorifying the heroics of war, and as a tragedy lamenting the waste of war.
Shakespeare is great because he wrote beautifully and powerfully about the most fundamental of subjects. He is still relevant, after four hundred years, because he not only allows but requires his readers to remake his stories into tales that make sense for them.
Visit other sites in the Penguin Random House Network
Stay in Touch