The Perils and Pleasures of When Real and Imagined Characters Meet - Umberto Tosi

I remember having a heated discussion – okay, argument – with my historian friend, Dino Moro Sanchez, in Los Angeles back in the 1980s about Peter Shaffer‘s play, Amadeus, which I had seen in New York not long before the Oscar-winning Miloš Forman film came out. My erudite friend was of the scholarly opinion that Shaffer had pandered shamelessly to popular myths about Mozart – to wit: that rival Antonio Salieri had something to do with Mozart’s untimely death, and that Mozart wrote his exquisite compositions off the top of his head, penned onto paper perfectly every time. Historians have debunked both of those clichés, of course.

Much as I favor historical accuracy, however, I disagreed with my friend on grounds of poetic license. Shaffer’s play wasn’t supposed to be biographical, I argued. It examined the nature of envy and hypocritical ambivalence about genius. Fictional works should never be confused with history, I pontificated. They need only illuminate deeper truths to be valid – regardless of boring facts. In support, I cited Shakespeare – always a safe choice – who pshawed historical accuracy with aplomb in his historical plays.

So what if Richard III wasn’t a hunchback and probably didn’t have the wee Tower Princes murdered. Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story, as Mark Twain probably didn’t say, but well might have. I could have also argued that only plausibility matters in fiction, not truth, but that comes uncomfortably close to saying there’s no difference between a lying and writing, which Oscar Wilde didn’t say, but might have.

I had occasion to think a good bit about that long-ago, never-resolved debate with my scholarly friend last year, while writing Ophelia Rising, my novel about the “real life” of Shakespeare’s fair maiden before and after Hamlet. That’s because, while maintaining my position, I had to admit that he had a point. 

Having been a working journalist for many years, I valued accuracy and held popular myths in contempt – especially those regurgitated by fellow writers too lazy, naïve or timid to question assumptions. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction writers. Good fiction requires authenticity – or a sense of it – as much as it does compelling characters and narratives. At the same time, I knew that it’s common for nonfiction authors, though we loathe admitting it – to make educated guesses and bend the arc of what is known to fit into appealing narrative lines.

Add this: The truth of something – even if superficially mundane – usually turns out to be much more interesting than its meme. Mozart’s personal papers reveal reams of musical drafts scribbled with scratch-outs and revisions, by no means perfect on first pass. Apparently he had no superpower, no fiber-optic t-1 line to the Great Composer in the Sky. Mozart was human, imperfect, hard at work with quill and paper at his fortepiano trying to get it right. That connects us to him more powerfully, and makes the heart-rending humanity and transcendent genius of his music all the more fascinating and inspiring.

Back at my writing desk, I had no problem as long as Ophelia remained in the fictional context of Shakespeare’s play. But the premise of my novel, is that Ophelia didn’t drown after all, but fell from that tree into the real world of 16th century renaissance Europe in which the play is set. From there on, as she struggles to survive and find herself, she encounters a succession of historical characters who actually lived in those times. That was a challenge, considering the issue of historical accuracy versus narrative authenticity. Being as I wrote the novel as a faux history – in the tongue-in-cheek homage to Cervantes – I plotted, drafted and struggled to make Ophelia into a plausible historical figure among real contemporaries, who had to be compellingly rendered as well.

As faux history, Queen Gertrude’s elaborate description of Ophelia’s death in Act IV, scene 7 of Hamlet – strangely, once-removed off stage by Shakespeare – always seemed fishy to me, as it were. The queen takes great pains to make Ophelia’s “death” sound accidental, apparently so as not to cast further blame on the King or her son, the already unhinged prince. In my novel, Ophelia does fall from the bough of that tree into the brook, but she is swept downstream and rescued by that troupe of traveling players from the play, now hastening away from troubled Elsinore.

Complicating matters: Though fictional herself, Ophelia is as well-known as any historical personage. Trying to depict her authentically involved studying her “history” in much the same way I did with the real people in my novel – in her case, examining all the clues to her character and background that the Bard left in the play.

Just as with real historical figures, the myths diverged from actual details which prove tastier. Prevalent Ophelia mythology portrays her as an archetype of innocent feminine victimization. Victorian poets and artists – particularly the Pre-Raphaelites – portrayed her as the ultimate tragic damsel. Modern feminists framed her as oppressed by patriarchy, compelled to be obedient, though not necessarily of a compliant nature. Virginia Woolf, for example, said, with morbid irony, that “Ophelia’s death by water can be interpreted, like her madness, as an admirable assertion of identity.”

William Shakespeare
Fortunately, stereotypes aside, Shakespeare made Ophelia a vividly complex character to start with. Though nominally dutiful to father, brother and crown in the play, she gives as good as she gets. She calls her brother Laertes a hypocrite for lecturing her on chastity. She tells Hamlet he’s being a cad, and hands his gifts back to him. Under cover of madness, she tells King Claudius, with flowers and in so many words at great risk, that he is an evil, faithless liar with much to rue. At the same time, the Bard left a lot out, especially given that Ophelia is not the main character. Shakespeare, therefore, gives permission to create a rich narrative of Ophelia’s life both prior to and – re-imagined – after the action on stage.

That brings us back to the reality-based characters encountered by Ophelia Rising’s protagonist – don’t forget: a cultured, palace raised young woman, after all. They are all real to her, but as many are drawn from real life as from Shakespeare’s and my own imagination.

This literary device, of course, is nothing new. Dante filled hell, purgatory and heaven with famous contemporaries in his Divine Comedy, seven hundred years ago. Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, Emma Goldman, Joan of Arc, JFK, Chaplin, Hitler, Napoleon, The Borgias, Queen Elizabeth I, Jesus, Moses, Billy the Kid – the list of famous people we encounter in novels of all genres goes on endlessly. Some are clearly caricatures – like “Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” – some surreal, but often they are meticulously researched – to me the ones most convincing. Still, we tire of these  ubiquitous historical icons. To wit: recently, Analee Newitz’s ran an amusing page called “Six Historic Characters We’re Sick of Seeing in Science Fiction.” See if you can guess who they are.

I used none of the above for Ophelia Rising. In fact, with a couple of exceptions (not on Ms. Newitz’s list), I avoided famous historical figures in favor of significant but unsung people from the past –- late renaissance characters that Ophelia encounters in the course of her journey. Fortunately I found a wealth of research about such people amid the history books and papers I read in researching the novel.

Using famous figures gives writers a shortcut to already established impressions off which to play, accurate or not. Everyone has a picture of Abe Lincoln and an opinion about Marilyn Monroe. History's more obscure supporting actors appealed to me, however, for the flip side of that. None of them are memes. I could establish and play with lessor-known figures, the same as with any fictional characters, plus they real ones have always seemed juicier to me than anything I could invent.

Famous or obscure, I discovered that the same rules apply. 1.) A character has to fit. I found it best to incorporate real people where they made sense in the narrative, just as I would imaginary characters. 2.) In both cases, the context has to be as authentic to the late sixteenth-century story as the characters to give the reader a sense of what it’s like for a protagonist living in those times. Researching these settings, I found no lack of real, fascinating characters, many of whom were well known in their time, but are nearly forgotten now.

Isabella Andreini
Take, for example, Isabella Andreini – on whom I modeled the co-director of the troupe that provides Ophelia refuge. The real Isabella was Venetian poet, playwright and actress, celebrated in her day – contemporaneous with Shakespeare but largely forgotten now. The Bard may have even seen her perform during is so-called “lost years” before the Globe. She and her husband directed a troupe – I Gelosi – that performed in much of Europe. There’s nothing either way about her troupe having  performed in Denmark specifically, but it’s entirely plausible. Women weren’t allowed on stage in Elizabethan England, you say? Not so, on much of the continent during Shakespeare’s time, when Isabella Andreini was but one of many popular Italian female players and playwrights that included Vittoria Colonna, Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella to name but a few, this, even in an age when “learned women” remained a novelty.
Vittoria Colonna

It was an age of bloody religious repression and extended wars, and one of discovery in art, science and philosophy. Printers cranked out thousands of the new, “portable” books, spreading styles, screeds, ideas and information. Northern Europe’s biggest printing house was run by another now forgotten woman – Volcxken Diercx – who also happens to be a character Ophelia encounters and befriends. Diercx – whom the characters in Ophelia Rising nickname “Vola” – co-founded Four Winds Press in Antwerp with her husband Hieronymus Cőck and continued its successful operation for thirty years after his death and 1570, publishing works by many of the most famous writers and artists of the day. Among other real life characters in the novel: Princess Charlotte de Bourbon (wife of William the Silent and an important figure in the Dutch independence war against imperial Spain) printer and humanist writer Christophe Plantin, Flemish mannerist painter Bartholomeus Spranger and – more remembered than the rest – the great Danish astronomer – he of the artificial metallic nose – Tycho Brahe. To say more risks novel spoilage.
Volcxken Diercx

My take-away from all this: Giving my historian friend his due helped make me conscientious about portraying these real people, and made my writing experience the richer for it. I hope it proves the same for Ophelia Rising’s readers. 

Umberto Tosi's latest novel is “Ophelia Rising.” He has been author, journalist and editor of many books, stories and journals and presently is contributing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review


Penny Dolan said…
Excellent post on the inclusion of historic characters! Thanks, and good luck to Ophelia Rising - a much more happy thought than the doomed maiden.
Dennis Hamley said…
Umberto, what an absorbing, fascinating and thought-provoking post. Thank you. 'Ophelia Rising' sounds exactly my sort of book and it will be in my possession before the end of the day! I've already blogged at some length on my obsession with 'Possession', if you see what I mean. Such post-modernist transference of other literature into one's own authorly level of actuality is something endlessly fascinating to me. I tried it in 'Spirit of the Place' and am now grappling (endlessly) with it in my still unfinished novel about the son Coleridge never knew he had back in Sicily coming to England to meet him (working title 'The Second Man from Porlock').
Like you - and Sue, as she wrote in a recent blog - I believe that authenticity in novels is not the same as the accuracy of the professional historical monograph and the minimal aim of research for novels is to be not actually proved wrong! Narrative authenticity always - within reason - trumps historical accuracy. 'The art of the novelist is to appear to know a lot more than you actually do,' as Martin Amis probably nearly said. Your premiss about Ophelia's survival is exactly the sort of 'what if' which such books thrive on. I can't wait to read 'Ophelia Rising'.
Bill Kirton said…
What an absorbing post. Thanks, Umberto. You conjure up a wonderful vision of a creative world in which fiction and reality have equal status and credibility. I've always felt that Shakespeare short-changed Ophelia. As you say, she's clearly very intelligent, a subtle thinker and far 'wiser' than her prince. It's good to think you're allowing her to be who she was.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes a fascinating and scholarly post Umberto, and your Ophelia sounds a great character. I'm a big fan of speaking up for the sidelined characters, or letting them speak for themselves, as I've done with my own Lydia Bennet book. However I do agree with your friend, I do think it matters what we write about real people - it does matter whether Richard III killed the princes or not (I"m a Ricardian btw!). I write plays about real people in history and would not assign to them acts or attitudes there is no evidence they ever committed or held, and I don't like it when this happens in books, plays and films - viz the recent film about Allan Turing, supposedly to help rescue him from slander, which managed to suggest that he was a traitor to his country just so they could spice up the script a bit with a totally fictitious sexual blackmail plot - as if the real story wasn't exciting enough! I think we are entitled to speculate about unknown periods in people's lives, and as we now have the established genre of the 'timeslip' or 'alternative history', we can write anything we like about real people by creating that setting first.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you Penny, Dennis, Bill and Lydia for your high praise and thought-provoking comments. I'm happy that you enjoyed my post and find my Ophelia Rising intriguing. I am equally intrigued and enlightened by the blogs and works you cited, and look forward to poring over what is presented. - Best to all, Umberto
Umberto Tosi said…
@Lydia Bennet: The kind of cheap-shot distortions evident in the Turing biopic annoy me as well. I concur that it is not kosher for novelists to deliberately project unfounded acts or attitudes onto real people whom they appropriate into their stories, particularly just to amp things up. I certainly approached the historical characters in "Ophelia Rising" with due diligence. I looked at their biographies and beyond them, at the cultural currents of their times to determine not only what was known, but what would be plausibly authentic and respectful of history. Of course, histories are periodically revised as new information is unearthed and perspectives change. Shakespeare probably referred to the historians of his own time who, we now know, distorted and vilified Richard III probably for political reasons. How was the Bard to know this? Still, it is best to dig deep, as I can see you have done in creating your works as well.

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