Stratford Boys

Stratford Boys was a novel for teenagers published by Hodder Children’s Books in 2003. Adèle Geras offered a glowing review in the Guardian:

‘Readers who know Jan Mark as a reviewer on this page should be aware that she’s one of those writers who (like Shakespeare) can turn her hand to anything. In Stratford Boys she’s in what the Bard would call ‘comical-historical’ mode, for this is nothing less than her take on how it all started.

‘The first sentence of the novel, The Shakespeares had the builders in again, is perfect. It disarms anyone who might be feeling nervous of reading anything even vaguely Shakespearean, and shows them that the giant of English Literature was once a 16-year-old lad with parents, siblings and a gang of chums. His dad, John Shakespeare, is a glover. He has brothers and a sister. Another sister has died and Mrs Shakespeare is heavily pregnant. The glove trade isn’t booming and there’s a very funny subplot about a customer ordering a pair of chicken-skin gloves for his betrothed.

‘Easily the most important strand of the plot concerns the plan hatched by Will and Adrian, his best mate, to put on a play for Whitsun. The Feast of Corpus Christi, when the Medieval Mystery plays were traditionally performed, has been abolished by the Protestant authorities, but John Shakespeare happens to have a copy of the Glovers’ Guild play, which is called ‘The Slaying of Abel’. This sounds good to the boys. As Will puts it: Everyone enjoys a slaying if it’s well done, with plenty of blood. Unfortunately, the mice have nibbled the book, and even God’s part has been eaten away. Adrian persuades Will to try to make up what’s missing.

‘Matters then take a hilarious course, which involves all sorts of elements: a travelling Welsh harpist and his companion, who was once a fool in a great house, Will’s friends, his brothers, his sister Joan and her hens, and Wat the plasterer who ends up taking the part of … no, it would be wrong to give away more.

‘What Mark does so well in this novel is the dialogue. The talk fairly rattles along. You’re right there in the middle of it and it turns out to be a version of today’s teenage chat. The sarcasm, the affectionate digs, the name-calling, the network of allegiances and irritations are completely familiar and very funny.

‘What’s also there is a perfectly rational account of a great playwright’s beginnings. The way the creative process works is beautifully laid out: how the play proceeds from a private dream and has to bend to meet the demands of the staging, the availability of the performers and the need to be understood. Most especially, Mark emphasizes the need for motivation. As Will says, ‘Simple to write instructions for his characters’ conduct; the problem was to explain why they behaved as they did.’

‘Am-dram frustrations and mishaps abound, but you never forget how magical the theatre can be. For anyone who does know their Shakespeare, echoes from the plays are scattered everywhere. Anyone who doesn’t couldn’t wish for a better way to get acquainted with young Will. This is a hugely enjoyable and dazzlingly clever novel.’

Jan gave a lecture to her students in Flanders who had studied the novel – here’s a link to the video. Below, I’ve tried to give a flavour of the talk and the insights it offered into the creation of the novel.

‘As long as I give people a story, I can enjoy myself in any way I want,’ she declared. Further, ‘I’ve never written a book I didn’t want to. I can usually persuade my publishers to let me write what I like. But sometimes I have great difficulty in persuading a publisher that a book will be of any interest. Stratford Boys was one of them.’

The problem was Shakespeare – would the novel be dull and academic? After it was delivered and gleefully accepted, the concern persisted, when the cover roughs came in and the novel resembled a textbook. It was Jan who suggested commissioning a cartoonist – Andy Watt, whose work she admired in the Guardian – ‘So nobody looking at it could possibly think it was serious. Now, of course, it is serious. I have got something to say in this book, that’s why I wrote it. But it’s also a comedy.’

It isn’t about Shakespeare himself. Mostly, she agreed with the great Shakespearean scholar, Samuel Schoenbaum, who said it was dangerous to read Shakespeare’s plays as keys to his life. ‘If you read them all many times you begin to get some idea of his outlook but you don’t find him. But just occasionally you think, he must have based that character on someone real. You can’t make that kind of thing up!’

Jan was particularly interested in the workmen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play she loved and knew well. She appreciated the affection with which Shakespeare depicted them as highly skilled craftsmen – a weaver, carpenter, tailor, joiner – and railed against the way they were usually portrayed as being rather stupid, sneered at by the aristocrats and the faeries alike – on the strength (Jan believed) of one line.

‘Quince is giving out the parts. The guy who is going to play the Lion is Snug the joiner. He says to Quince, If you’ve got my part written down, let me have it now because I am slow of study. This is a theatrical term – actors still use it – it means you take a long time to learn your lines. Many great actors are famously slow to learn their lines. But everyone thinks he must be slow; he isn’t. It’s just that they’ve only got four days to rehearse the play.’

Shakespeare certainly isn’t laughing at him. ‘The joke is the next line, when Quince says to him, Well, your part isn’t written down – you can make it up as you go along – it’s nothing but roaring.’

Shakespeare’s interest is why the play they put on doesn’t work – ‘why the illusion doesn’t work. The reason is because they take absolutely everything literally. They love the idea of plays  but they can’t believe that when they do it, anyone will believe the illusion.’

She went on to say, ‘[Shakespeare is] very specific about the mistakes they make which makes me think he actually knew them. He belonged to the finest company of actors in London. He would never have been acting of the quality of Snug and Quince on the London stage – so where did he see it? I have no proof – I might be wrong – but I think I what he was used to seeing at home, in Stratford.’

Jan offered a spirited defence of Shakespeare against the claims that sprang up in the last couple of centuries that he did not write his own plays. People said, ‘How could he have written them? He was a nobody from nowhere. He was a glover’s son. He didn’t have a university education.’ True enough – but as she pointed out, university only suited if you planned to enter the law or church or take up medicine. ‘But he had as good an education as anyone in England would have got, at the local grammar school.’

Jan suspects Shakespeare didn’t much enjoy school – he isn’t complimentary about teachers – but it was the perfect place for a writer to be. ‘Most writers start off as no one in particular; generals, aristocrats, royalty are usually too busy doing something else to write.’ As an aside she added, ‘I would never put anyone off going to university but for God’s sake if you want to be a writer, go out and get a proper job – meet real people! People who go to university write books about people who go to university.’ Jan often mentioned she was ultimately glad she attended art school and not university herself.

Cover illustration by Andy Watt