Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What do these two actors have in common, besides both being very funny? They’re both personalities I borrowed from to bring my version of William Shakespeare to life.
To me, An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason has three main characters: Katherine Arundell, a vengeful Catholic involved in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I; Toby Ellis, a spy who is tasked with finding the queen’s would-be assassin; and Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play that pulls the two together, apart, and together again. It only made sense, then, to make the man who wrote the play be a character—not just a cutout, background character—but a character.
In his time, Shakespeare was a massive success. His plays packed in the crowds: 3,000 spectators per show, two times a day, six times a week; people from all walks of life, from nobles who sat in the boxes to peasants who stood in the yard. He needed to entertain his audience, to please both the highly educated and the illiterate. What better way to find common ground than by throwing in a dirty joke or two (or ten? We haven’t evolved that much.)? I think the real Shakespeare would be a lot closer to Willy Wonka and Starina: bawdy, dramatic, and a bit hysterical, in both senses of the word—than the staid, pretentious poet he’s often portrayed to be.