What a fabulously audacious statement. Who dares to write “I am Shakespeare?” What does it mean, and why should anyone believe it?

I saw that phrase on the cover of a published play, one of a few items for sale at a Broadway’s Belasco Theater’s “gifts” counter. The show I had come to see (in 2014) was Mark Rylance in Richard III (and the next day: Twelfth Night, both in repertory). The play I held was written by that same brilliant, renowned actor of both stage and screen. Of the few people (living) who had the “street cred” to write a play titled I Am Shakespeare, Rylance certainly was one. After all, for several years he also had served Shakespeare’s Globe (theater) as its first artistic director.

How could I not buy Mark Rylance’s play? I was feeling a bit audacious myself, as an American woman writing a debut historical novel (A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions) based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and narrated in a first-person male voice.

During intermission I read the introduction and parts of the play I had bought. It was a modern-day script that pressed the continuing debate about Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him. How could I resist asking Mr. Rylance about I Am Shakespeare after that evening’s performance?

Mark Rylance’s published play I Am Shakespeare and Rylance in costume as Richard III

Outside the theater Rylance signed playbills and chatted with student actors. He was personable and gracious to all. When my turn came, he signed my copy of I Am Shakespeare and I asked him questions about what it was like to put-on the play while the script was still unfinished, whether the play ended up being what he had hoped when he began writing it. After we talked about that, I asked what he hoped people would think of the play.

“That it’s fun,” he said.

Rylance’s point about entertainment was a crucial reminder. We writers try so hard to craft something “right,” we can forget to let the process or the drafts amuse us. Simply, isn’t joy the root of “enjoyment?” And isn’t that a seedling from the tree of life?

Of course, there is more than fun in I Am Shakespeare. There is encouragement. For all artists wondering if we have what it takes, if our hope that someone will care about what we “say” through our creations will be in vain, Mark Rylance sets aside the critic’s voice and gently suggests that everyone has the right to try. We should not be afraid to swim in the creative wake of “the greats.”

The phrase “Who’s there?”—often repeated throughout I Am Shakespeare—hints that if we take the question seriously, we may be surprised that the answer may not be “Shakespeare” but rather someone else—ourselves, perhaps—who surprises and entertains us. Better, if we hear the joke implied in the question, our relaxing laughter may rattle our inner critic and ease open creative force locked within our DNA. We might even give other human beings such as our super-successful YouTube and streaming media stars, and even Shakespeare (or the Earl of Oxford, Walter Raleigh, Emilia Lanier, or whoever wrote The Bard’s plays and sonnets) a run for their money.

If you need help to take that first creative step, look for your nearest community. (For writers in the Washington, DC area, check out the Writer’s Center, and if near Richmond, VA see James River Writers.) You have nothing to lose in starting and staging your performance even while revising and honing your script. Isn’t that what we do every day in life?

2 Comments

  1. Declan McHugh on March 27, 2020 at 6:38 am

    It might just have been someone called William Shakespeare, deliriously good writer from Stratford-upon-Avon. An unpopular view, I know, but one I subscribe to…I’ve seen Rylance on stage. As an actor he has genius that few others possess. When he talks about Shakespeare, however, he sprouts long hairy ears, and an Ass’s head….

    • J. A. Nelson on March 27, 2020 at 7:10 am

      The authorship debate continues, most certainly. If one pictures Rylance as such, then the same ears and head are worn by Derek Jacobi and others….

      Shakespeare’s talent seems to be the crux of the argument most often. However, I wonder about something else that I haven’t yet seen or heard anyone discuss. Time–not in years but the number of hours for a talented writer and businessman, who had to be out and about: influencing his patrons, visiting bankers and lawyers, overseeing his theater, traveling, in addition to writing, etc. How was there enough time in each day for all of this conducted by one man?

      There appears to be proof that creative collaboration in playwriting at the time was common. In my opinion, Shakespeare must have had apprentices and many colleagues and people riding his shirt tails, trading their time to be part of his “brand”–if we also believe that human nature and what we do hasn’t changed much over millenia. Perhaps he was head writer? Or is that idea too modern to apply?

      Your thoughts?

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