Let me come right out and say it: Shakespeare was a fantasy writer!
(Yes, yes, he was also an historical writer, and was also a comedic writer, and was also a romantic writer and so on – but today we’re talking about Shakespeare the fantasy writer!). Some of his plays were clearly more fantastical than others of course – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – but others more subtly as well. His great skill was in taking existing histories and folk tales and re-imagining them, adding world-building and deeper characterisation and intricacy of plot.
So why not do the same to Shakespeare’s plays themselves?
When I came to writing The Floating City, I was drawn to use several of Shakespeare’s stories as a scaffold for the novel. In part this was because many readers found Romeo and Juliet references throughout the first book – The Shadow Master – but in fact the story was scaffolded on a classic of Italian literature, The Betrothed (Il Promessi Sposi), written by Alessandro Manzoni in 1827. It’s quite an interesting book set during the plague years in northern Italy if you ever get the chance to read it. There are also two star-crossed lovers in the story, so the Romeo and Juliet comparison is easy to make.
In writing The Floating City I looked for those plays of Shakespeare that were set in Venice, or nearby, as the book is set in a Venice-like city – besieged by magic wraths in the waters of the canals, assassinating the Seers whose magic keeps the city afloat. However, in researching the plays Romeo and Juliet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, I was drawn to the original Italian folk tales that Shakespeare based his plays upon.
The original stories are worth checking out if you’re interested in seeing the way that Shakespeare built upon them and changed them in his own world-building: Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo of 1530, Ser Giovanni’s Il Pecorone (The Dunce) of 1558, and Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi of 1565.
So my next challenge was to weave the three strong women’s ‘origin stories’ together – Giulietta, Disdemona and Isabella – into a single plot line. And towards that I found myself looking again at Shakespeare – what he had done with the original tales to turn them into his plays, adding deeper characterisation and nuance to the stories.
And I found something quite fascinating about Shakespeare: his characters are so strong that they can live lives beyond his plays, without suffering the fish-out-of-water problems that occur to many characters that are lifted from literature or history for new purposes. As much as the characters are defined by the circumstances and relations with others, they can actually step off the pages and fly free, right into the hands of an author to use.
So I found I was trying to do the same to the characters I was creating (or recreating), basing them more on the Italian folk tales, but also giving them that depth that would allow them to live together with each other within a new story. That was a second level of complexity needed – making the three women sisters so that they could live in each other’s stories without diminishing or compromising their own story. And around them building a fantasy world of magic and assassins and the ever-mysterious Shadow Master that they could all inhabit.
By the end of the second or third re-write I felt I had the balance about right and had strong characters in the book that were clearly based on those three women we have come to know through Shakespeare’s plays, but had morphed into something new. Romeo and Juliet are spoilt rich brats. Disdemona’s love for her husband Otello makes her blind to his encroaching madness as he is poisoned by a jealous underling. And Isabella seeks to control her own destiny in world controlled by men.
The challenge for the reader will be to go with the story, and see the three women as a little distinct from the Shakespeare characters – as the downside of blending Shakespeare is that his characters and plots tend to dominate readers’ perceptions of them, and you are always judged in comparison to them.
As to how well I’ve succeeded in this – well, let’s quote the Bard himself on that, from Romeo and Juliet: “buy the book” (or was that “by the book”?).
The Floating City is published on July 2nd by Angry Robot Books