An Interview with Mark Evan Chimsky
In an interview with literary analyst Kimberly Gladman Jackson, Mark Evan Chimsky, the author of the book and lyrics to Swagger, explains the genesis of his bold idea, and what he wants audiences to know about the real William Shakespeare.
On Shakespeare the man
KG: Shakespeare is an icon; everyone has heard of him. But what does he mean to you on a personal level?
MEC: In Swagger I want to show Will as the man he really was. As he says at the beginning, “past all the legends, past all the lies/past all of those who would mythologize my history.” People think of him as this icon, as “the greatest writer in the English language.” Because he is like no other man, he’s taken on this larger than life stature that I don’t think is fair to him, though I understand that’s how we want to view him. But, in fact, I’m saying, he was a human being just like the rest of us—with foibles and frailties just like the rest of us.
KG: One of the human qualities you bring out in him is a kind of cockiness.
MEC: Yes, he was the smartest man in the room (after all, everyone around him says he is) and when he says his play is brilliant, part of it is his own outsized ego but part of it is his own honest, cut-through-the-bullshit assessment of his own talent. He buys into his own myth (“No one can top me,” he sings) but he also knows it’s rooted in truth.
KG: At the same time, your Will is troubled. . .
MEC: He knows he hasn’t lived as he wants to have lived (“Who have I cared about besides myself?” he says. “Who have I loved deeply? In a way that tears down all the walls and exposes the heart?”). He understands why he’s a legend, but at the beginning of the musical, he’s begun to chafe at his own public image. He’s searching for the truth behind that. As he says, “After 400 years I’m coming out of hiding to tell you the truth.”
KG: Your prologue imagines Will as an eternal spirit who’s decided to come to speak to us, in our time, about who he really was.
MEC: Yes, Swagger is a journey of the myth becoming the man. Through the course of the musical, Will gets in touch with his own humanity, allows himself to cry and to love deeply. His journey will hopefully mirror the journey the audience will take as they discover Shakespeare the man.
On the genesis of Swagger
KG: Tell us about the provocative premise that lies at the heart of Swagger.
MEC: The premise is that at age thirty-six, William Shakespeare found his soul mate in a loving but forbidden relationship with an outsider, the forty-two-year-old Muslim Ambassador from Morocco, Abdul Guahid.
KG: How did you land on this idea?
MEC: I was intrigued by a fact I read in Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful biography Will of the World: that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he used nearly 600 words that he had never used in any of his previous plays. These are not words Shakespeare coined, but words that were existent at the time (scholars refer to them as “fresh words). That’s extraordinary. It’s almost unheard of for someone’s vocabulary to explode so exponentially from one play to the next. Astonishing, really. I asked myself, how does that happen, or more importantly, why?
KG: Who first discovered this increase in Shakespeare’s vocabulary?
MEC: The first person to actually research this increase in language was Alfred Hart (1870-1950), a rather reclusive scholar living in Melbourne who painstakingly mapped out all the words Shakespeare used for the first time in Hamlet. Hart’s landmark essay, “The Growth of Shakespeare’s Vocabulary,” was published in 1942 and while it reveals his findings, it does not contain the actual fresh words that appear in Hamlet. I researched the Internet but never found a complete list of the words.
KG: How annoying! What did you do next?
MEC: My brother Rob, a successful businessman and history buff, took up the challenge. Using his own methodology, he meticulously researched every word in Hamlet and compiled a list of fresh words that almost perfectly matches the number Hart came up with. It’s an illuminating list, and will be a boon to Shakespeare scholarship and the public at large. Rob provided me with the list of words and showed me how they were grouped throughout the play, who said them, and how they could be grouped according to themes. It was amazing to have these words available to me as I worked on the musical. Rob plans to publish his extraordinary scholarship, which became so vital to the development of Swagger.
KG: Speaking of scholarship, how do Shakespeare scholars deal with this explosion of vocabulary?
MEC: They all agree that something earth-shattering happened to Shakespeare right before he wrote Hamlet, but no one knows what that was. No documentary evidence provides clarity. What life-altering event led to such an unprecedented use of language and caused him to revolutionize the very nature of drama? I couldn’t resist finding an answer.
KG: It sounds as though you approached the story like a literary detective.
MEC: Absolutely. I was convinced that Will was changed by an intimate relationship with another person. So I began researching events that occurred in the year 1600, the year he would have begun writing Hamlet. Who would he have met that could have had such a major impact on his life? As I did research, there were blind alleys, for sure, and then one day I found an article about one of the first Muslims ever to meet Queen Elizabeth I, the dashing and enigmatic Ambassador from Morocco, Abdul Guahid. He arrived on a secret mission to convince the Queen to have England join Morocco in a military alliance against Spain. The arrival of the Ambassador and his entourage was big news; they were paraded through the streets of London, greeted with cheers, suspicion, and derision. That’s when I thought: of course, Will would have fallen in love with someone larger than life, someone different enough from himself to make him question all the rules—about life and art in ways he had never done before.
KG: Once you had your aha! moment —that Shakespeare might have fallen in love with the Moroccan Ambassador—how did you flesh out the story?
MEC: Once I came up with the idea of this relationship, that was really just the beginning of the work. What followed were months and months of digging deep into documentary sources and every book about Shakespeare I could get my hands on. I was a regular customer at my wonderful local bookstore, The Green Hand (which, by coincidence, is on the corner of Avon Street in my neighborhood!). I was a man obsessed. As I did more research, I began to connect the dots: Abdul Guahid actually saw William Shakespeare in As You Like It at Court, so there would have been a real opportunity for them to meet.
KG: It’s an incredible story. How much of this is real and how much is your imagination?
MEC: Almost all the historical details in Swagger, with the exception of the love story at its center, are historically documented. There actually exists a remarkable portrait of Ambassador Abdul Guahid painted during his visit, though the painter and person who commissioned it are lost to history. This portrait figures prominently in the musical. As I studied it, one shocking thing stood out to me. Look at it and you will see that Abdul Guahid’s left hand points downward. This gesture often means “sudden death” when it’s used on tombstones. It’s a strange element of the painting, and I couldn’t help but wonder, Was someone planting a foreboding clue or warning about Abdul Guahid’s fate? If Secretary of State Robert Cecil had commissioned the painting and found out about Will’s secret affair with the Ambassador, was this his way of letting both men know that harm would come to Abdul Guahid if they did not sever their relationship?
KG: The racial politics involved are also fascinating from a modern perspective.
MEC: It’s very timely. The visit of the Muslim delegation from Morocco led to a rise of xenophobia in Elizabethan England. In fact, soon after they left, it appears that Secretary of State Robert Cecil created a draft proclamation (which may have never been officially distributed) to deport “Blackamoors” (as Muslims were then referred to) from the country. Given the debate over deportation of Muslim that currently rages in the United States, Swagger speaks to our own times.
KG: Is there anything that might confirm your theory that Shakespeare and Abdul Guahid were lovers?
MEC: There’s no evidence that absolutely confirms it, which is to be expected since it was a forbidden affair, but nothing refutes it either. I did learn that the portrait of Abdul Guahid now hangs in the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I find wonderfully fitting. It’s there because scholars speculate that the Ambassador was the model for Othello, but the British scholar Dr. Sophie Bostock has persuasively disputed that theory in an excellent video. Nevertheless, I believe it’s lovely that Abdul Guahid’s portrait resides in Shakespeare’s hometown, and so they have found a way to be joined together.
KG: It was interesting to me that many of the new words in Hamlet were not used again.
MEC: That’s right, of the nearly 600 “fresh words” that Shakespeare used in Hamlet, almost 400 of them were never used in another one of his plays. Why would an author increase his vocabulary, only to abandon so many of those words in his future plays? My theory is that the words had some emotional associations that made it painful for Will to use them again, especially if they were a reminder of his loss of Abdul Guahid. Also, according to my brother’s research,
Shakespeare was constantly searching for new words to use in his plays—he had a boundless, restless curiosity so it would have been natural for him to let go of some words in his quest for others that he had never used.
On wrestling with grief
KG: So, what does all this imply about the importance of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s life?
MEC: He was not only searching for richer, more expansive language but a deeper, more psychologically and emotionally complex way of depicting human nature. We see it as a major turning point in English drama, but for Shakespeare this was all extremely personal. It was a way to finally wrestle with the grief he felt about losing his son, Hamnet (who died at eleven years old) and his father’s impending death What’s striking is that the turmoil of loss and grief is played out before our eyes…Shakespeare used writing to come to terms with his own feelings.
KG: Can you speak about how grief informs both Swagger and Hamlet?
MEC: I was influenced by an insightful New York Review of Books essay by Stephen Greenblatt about the link between the death of Shakespeare’s son in 1596, and the writing of Hamlet in 1600. In the Elizabethan period, the names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” would have been considered interchangeable. Greenblatt brilliantly explores how Shakespeare dealt with the untimely death of his son – throwing himself into writing histories and some of his “sunniest comedies.” The only hint we can find of Shakespeare’s own feelings at the time is a short verse from King John, one of the history plays:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”
We can feel from this verse the pain of a parent who has lost his son, but then it’s as if all these feelings get locked up. They don’t emerge until four years later, when, upon hearing that his father is ill, the full force of Shakespeare’s grief finds expression in Hamlet. This arc became central to Will’s journey in Swagger; grief-stricken, he decides to stop writing, paralyzed by emotional pain; it is only his love for Abdul Guahid that brings him back to life.
So, I began developing Swagger with the idea that Hamlet was a vehicle for Shakespeare’s grief and the subject was never far from my thoughts during the writing of the musical. I recently saw a marvelous video of Peter O’Toole discussing Hamlet with Orson Welles, and when I heard him say that it is a play about grief, I felt I was on the right track.
KG: The question of mourning—when it’s enough, when it’s too much—is central to Hamlet.
MEC: Will’s love for Abdul makes it safe (or I should say, necessary?) for him to put his grief into words. Will is ready to write a character who is in mourning, who grieves for the loss of his father, also named Hamlet. And what’s fascinating is everyone at court wants Prince Hamlet to move on, to give up not only his outward “show” of bereavement (the black clothing, the brooding) but the inward feelings as well. Hamlet refuses; it’s hugely subversive in the world of the play; he defies the king’s wishes and stays in black, stays grief-stricken, to hell with what others want. It’s as if Will is finally able to say: “You all may have wanted me to move on— I wanted me to move on—when my son died, but that abnegation of feelings came at a terrible cost to me. So now, in my play, I’m going to root my character in his grief.”
But Hamlet’s sorrow is not shown as cathartic—that’s where Will does not do the expected thing—instead, he shows how grief, when given free reign, can haunt, confuse, and drive a man to the edge of madness (though I firmly believe Hamlet never goes mad—he is too self-aware, too
conscious, and even calculated throughout). So as much as Will gives Hamlet (and himself) the right to his grief, he also shows how grief unleashed can play out and take a terrible toll. It’s as if Will wants to present this emotion in all its aspects, to argue for its necessity and the burden it places on one’s soul.
KG: So, Swagger gives us a different way of looking at one of the most famous plays in the world, and how it relates to its author’s life?
MEC: I wanted to explore the intersection of life and art and I like to believe that we see Shakespeare the man as he writes his way into understanding mortality, of how we let go and what we remember. One of the most poignant scenes in the play is when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father bids his son goodbye: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.” (Will must have been aware of the line from Luke in the Bible, “…remember me when you come into My kingdom.”)
The phrase “remember me” becomes a leitmotif throughout Swagger: it is said at the very beginning of the musical by Will’s son Hamnet. It is said by Burbage, reciting the ghost’s speech from Hamlet; it is repeated by Will’s archenemy Robert Cecil, who mocks him with the words, to indicate he has stolen a look at the play without Will’s permission, then it is said by Abdul Guahid, when he bids Will farewell, and finally it is said by Will at the very end of Swagger, when he is performing as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. It is not only the ghost’s admonition to his son, but Will’s exhortation to the audience, for he has become a ghost as well. He seems to be saying: “Remember me as I really was…when you think of me from now on, don’t think of me as “William Shakespeare,” but as Will, a man who pushed away feelings and then learned to let them in, even if it meant letting my heart break again.
My brother’s research into the almost 600 fresh words reveals that a group of them occur in the Ghost’s speech leading up to his line “Remember me,” as if Will was reaching for something bolder, more meaningful, more profound to precede those two haunting, resonant words.
On what Swagger hopes to say to its audience
KG: There’s a lot of emphasis in the musical about searching for the truth. Was this a major theme for you?
MEC: Yes, the musical is about tearing down the walls we build up around ourselves—either to hide our true selves (as in the case of Will, Abdul Guahid, and Queen Elizabeth) or to keep others out (as exemplified by the hostility of the Londoners and Robert Cecil toward the Moroccans). I see Will’s trajectory as stripping away falsehoods, myths, and his own defenses; this is in stark contrast is the Queen’s creation of illusion to hide the truth of who she has become: as she paints her withered, pock-mocked skin and covers her balding head with her red wig and magnificent crown she defies time and becomes the people’s “Gloriana,” the young Elizabeth she once was, or at least she thinks she does. As she sings, “Truth is an art” she creates the truth she wants her people to believe, and that she wants to believe. She contemplates the toll of wearing a mask, of never revealing her true feelings: and in a chilling moment of self-awareness, she wonders if she feels anything at all.
Swagger is about breaking out of the prisons we create for ourselves, and how our greatest playwright is also a man we don’t really know at all. It is a musical about removing the masks, the falsehoods, and allowing ourselves to be seen as we really are. Abdul Guahid risks losing his honor and his faith by casting aside the mask he has worn all his life; until meeting Will, he has denied the truth of his own sexuality. The “fortress of words” Will has built to shut out his own grief becomes a prison: in order to feel – and to love – he must tear it down (“word by word, the fortress falls” he sings at the end). And while breaking free can mean feeling love more deeply, it can also mean feeling pain (as Will sings, “Sometimes the open heart gets broken”).
KG: What would you like audiences to take away from Swagger?
MEC: Ultimately, what I want to show is: Will is us. That’s how I see him and that’s how I want an audience to see him. I want to overturn all their perceived/received notions of “the bard of Avon” and to have them forget the merchandised version of Shakespeare that they see in the opening projections (Shakespeare on mugs, T-shirts, etc.). My feeling is that we truly love someone when we see them truly, not in some idealized way, but in all their complicated, contradictory, messy humanity. If an audience emerges from the theater with a new connection to Will, I will be happy.