Celia Rees tells us about the inspiration for The Fool's Girl

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Celia Rees tells us about the inspiration for The Fool's Girl

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Summary: The Fool's Girl is a truly enjoyable mix of Shakespearean characters and historical people and a novel for teens and adults to savour. Here, Celia Rees tells us all about how she came to write it.
Date: 1 April 2011

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External links: Author's website



The Fool's Girl is a truly enjoyable mix of Shakespearean characters and historical people and a novel for teens and adults to savour. Here, Celia Rees tells us all about how she came to write it.

The Fool’s Girl...

...wasn’t always called that. For a long time it was called Illyria.

I was watching a performance of Twelfth Night in Stratford. Not in the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre, but on an open air stage set up by the river, on a very hot day in June. My presence was purely serendipitous. I live near Stratford. I go there some Saturdays to the Farmer’s Market. As mundane and ordinary as that. A student theatre company were giving an outdoor performance, barking up their play, giving out flyers. The stage was made from boards set up on poles, the amphitheatre a natural dell, the backdrop was the Avon, the changing rooms a couple of bushes. It was only a hundred yards from the RSC, but nearer by far to the original Elizabethan touring companies, than that grand theatre could ever be. The play was Twelfth Night. Another reason why I sat down to watch. Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespearean comedy. It is short, laugh out loud funny and impossibly romantic, but it is the element of disguise that I’ve always loved. The heroine, Viola, is a girl who is really a boy who is pretending to be a girl who is pretending to be a boy. This ambiguity gives the play a powerful sexual charge and frisson.

While I was watching, I began to wonder: What happens next? What happens after the end of the play? The play walks a knife edge between tragedy and comedy. It is perfectly balanced, but one false move and it could all go horribly wrong. The play ends, as all comedies should, with disguises removed, couples united, but I’ve always had the feeling that they are slightly uncomfortable with each other. Not only that, but characters stomp off swearing revenge, are sent away and banished, so as not to disrupt the happiness and harmony. What if the couples are not entirely satisfied with each other? What if the troublesome characters come back? What if… My mind was busy while the actors ran on and off the stage and changed behind bushes. By the time they linked hands to take their final bow, I had an idea for a book.

What country, friends, is this?

Viola says at the beginning of the play. What country indeed? That’s what I wanted to discover. I decided to begin some time after Shakespeare ends his play and I immediately broke two of my own rules: not to write about real historical characters (especially not famous ones); not to set a book in Elizabethan England. Rules are made to be broken, so I decided that Shakespeare would be a character in the book.

There are hundreds of books written about him, thousands, whole libraries, but there are surprisingly few indisputable facts. This gave me a way into the man and his life. He would be Will Shakespeare from Warwickshire (my own county, so I feel a kind of kinship): actor, playmaker, theatre manager; not impossibly famous William Shakespeare, Bard, Swan of Avon, home a heritage centre and mecca for tourists from all over the world. He would be Shakespeare before he knew he was Shakespeare. If he ever did. I wanted to make him real, sexy, More Shakespeare in Love, than the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio.

He would be a jobbing writer with inky fingers, trying to make a living, juggling his life in London with his life at home in Stratford, trying to survive, keep his nose clean, in the dangerous, violent, difficult and volatile world at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. Hard at work, trying to keep his Company going, writing and re-writing, always on the look out for stories to keep up with the need for plays and more plays. When he happens upon two street performers, a Fool and his beautiful young girl assistant, he finds one. He meets Feste the clown and Viola’s daughter, Violetta, survivors from the wreck of Illyria, but they bring with them more than just their story and Will Shakespeare’s life is about to get a whole lot more complicated.