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Characters under study

What we know for certain about Shakespeare could be written on the proverbial postcard. Peter Whelan, a playwright who deals in 'the shreds and patches of history', speculates on the Bard's methods in the light of his own experience.

Did Shakespeare turn his family and prominent public figures into the people in his plays?

I was baffled when the head of a London primary school was reported as refusing to allow her children to see Romeo and Juliet - on the grounds that the story was unremittingly heterosexual. Yes, I realise that what she said was probably a sardonic joke used by the press against her, but the reason it took me by surprise was that I had become accustomed to think of this play as containing Shakepeare's most vivid portrait of a homosexual - Mercutio.

Now this isn't solely on the grounds that Mercutio never goes to the ball with any obvious intent to get himself a dance partner . . . that he spends the whole time strolling around with Benvolio, pouring scorn on heterosexual love . . . and he portrays Queen Mab as a rabid seducer of young girls . . . no, no, no! My reasons stem more from having become convinced that Mercutio is, in fact, a portrait of the Elizabethan playwright Kit Marlowe.

This connection has long been a received idea in the outer, twilight zones of Shakesperian commentary that I subscribe to. But, more than that, it became a godsend when I came to characterise Marlowe in my play about his life and violent death in Deptford, The School of Night.

The parallels with Kit Marlowe (sometimes nicknamed Merlin) are striking enough. Mercutio is very much the "Scoffing poet" as Marlowe was once called. He was a street fighter, as we know Marlowe was. In the duel with Tybalt (in which Romeo intervenes and Mercutio is killed by a sword thrust under his arm) Shakespeare seems to be alluding to an historic three-cornered swordfight that Marlowe got involved in. In that case, it was Kit who tried to come between his friend, the poet Watson, and an attacker.

What the parallel gave me, of course, was an extra "life-source" to draw upon in creating a character for Marlowe. At the same time it had me wondering: did Shakespeare often do it? Did he, quite straightforwardly, mix fact and fiction in the shaping of his characters? Playwrights throughout history have done it. Aristophanes certainly did it . . . and so do I. (Nice to slip myself in beside the greats. Working alongside Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company can give a playwright a complex. Bit like being in Madonna's chorus line).

So, who else might he have used? Well, from my sixth form work on Hamlet I'd received the view that Polonius was a satire on Lord Burghley. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's most trusted councillor, was a powerful, prime minister-like figure, politically astute and not above spying and subterfuge when it suited him. Polonius may be the butt of Hamlet's jokes, and ultimately his victim, but he is no fool at court. Claudius, the king, relies on him for advice.

Then, later, when reading about Love's Labours Lost, I discovered that Don Armado (Armada, get it?) is thought to be a skit on Walter Raleigh. (His Devon accent, it was argued, is hinted at in his use of "Chirrah" as a greeting instead of "Sirrah".) Somehow, I could never get inspired by this latter theory. It's no use being told that Shakespeare based a character on a particular person known to us . . . it has to feel right. So when it came to creating Raleigh in The School of Night, I looked elsewhere. But I was very stirred by the dark-haired Rosaline in Love's Labours Lost. For some reason or other all Elizabethan males found dark haired women a cause for side splitting merriment . . . and I noted the way the banter between the King and the Rosaline-fixated Berowne mirrored the way Shakespeare insults the Dark Lady in the sonnets.

Instantly, I was swept up into the theory that Rosaline might be the Dark Lady. She has the sharp wit . . . the troublesome nature . . . and the hair. I was cautious, however, in creating a "dark lady" character. A L Rowse, the Rottweiler of Shakesperian commentary had already told the world exactly who the Dark Lady was - a poet named Elizabeth Bassanio, the daughter of an Italian musician at the court of Henry VIII. I didn't want my literary legs bitten off, so I dropped a hint in the play that Rosalinda, my Dark Lady, was only the friend of his Dark Lady.

In April, I went to the writers' conference so brilliantly created each year by David Edgar, now professor of theatre studies at Birmingham. The theme was "Reality Time", a consideration of the way that fact balances imagination in the work of so many playwrights. I took part in the section where writers such as Christopher Hampton, John Mortimer and Sebastian Barry discussed the use of the writer's own family in the shaping of characters. It was a bit like a confessional.

In my case I own up to using several aunts and uncles, my mother, father . . . my wife, my wife's mother, my wife's father . . . even two of the family dogs in various plays. In Divine Right, my play about the future role of the monarchy at Birmingham Rep, there are scenes between an 18-year-old prince and his younger brother. I know I couldn't have written them in the form they took without bringing in a touch of the relationship my own brother and I had when we were kids.

The question is then: does Shakespeare use his family in this way?

It has often been said that Judith, his younger daughter, could have been the model for Miranda in the Tempest. She would have been in her early twenties when he wrote the play. Shakespeare the poet, writing his last play in 1611 before retiring to Stratford, has seemed to many to be drawing a parallel between the magician Prospero and himself, the word-conjuror. Perhaps Shakespeare deliberately laid aside his pen just as Prospero broke his magic staff. Miranda (only 15 in the play) embarks on adult life as she prepares to marry Ferdinand.

So when I came to write my latest play, The Herbal Bed, about Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, I found it impossible not to look for a model. The play is about Susanna's marriage to Doctor John Hall, a respected physician of Stratford, and how she was accused of committing adultery when the marriage was only five years old.

I had a strong clue as to Susanna's character from her epitaph in Holy Trinity church. She is described as "witty", meaning clever, and as a women who showed great sympathy and concern for those around her. She also made cordials to give to passers by, a kind of sharing in her husband's medicine.

Now . . . eureka . . . I remembered Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Not the wife of a doctor, but the daughter of one. Clever, generous, loving and strong. She uses one of the prescriptions her father left her to cure the King and, in doing so, she practically becomes the doctor (as Portia becomes the judge in Merchant of Venice).

Here was the "life" that I needed to help me, partly born out of a coincidence of clues, but also because it felt right. No one could convince me now that Helena is not Susanna.

What happens, though, if we play the game out to the end? If Helena is Susanna what of the woman who has adopted Helena, the Countess of Roussillon? Could she be Susanna's mother, Ann Hathaway-Shakespeare? Far from the bitter, badly-done-by Ann of my imagination, could she have been like this loving benign portrait of the patient and humorous Countess?

A leap too far? Well, my approach is always to follow that of the best Shakesperian scholars . . . that is to say, I make it all up as I go along.

Peter Whelan's latest play, The Herbal Bed, opened in repertoire at the Other Place in Stratford upon Avon this week

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