Friday, January 13, 2017

Writing for Fun and Profit online course

I'm now offering this new online writing course that is based on successful classes run in the real world.

Who is it for?

This course is for anyone interested in telling stories. The aim is to provide a safe, constructive, encouraging environment in which you can get the best from your story, whatever it is.  

How does it work?

It consists of modules with exercises. Students proceed at their own pace although the recommendation is to complete one module per week. If this is done, it should take about six months. Once the exercises are returned you receive feedback and the next module.

We spend a lot of time at the start on character and structure development because this helps to focus on what is really important in the story and the possibilities for how it will unfold.

The principles of the course are applicable to all kinds of storytelling, since they cover plot, character, suspense, dialogue, structure, imagery, pacing, and so on. These universal rules and guidelines work whether you are doing oral storytelling, writing screenplays, novels, graphic novels, short stories or stage and radio plays.

The course is delivered by email and Skype. 

Course content

The modules are:
  1. Developing characters – since all stories begin with characters – and how characters develop storylines.
  2. The four basic plots and the four possible endings.
  3. Ideas and how to evaluate them.
  4. Structure I: the three act structure, and writing your story summary and logline. 
  5. Character design and the inner conflict. Attitude and style.
  6. Mapping all of your characters.
  7. Theme, moral and imagery.
  8. Using the 'story map' to generate and fix the story's details.
  9. Writing the detailed plot synopsis.
  10. The use of suspense. Storytelling and spell-weaving.
  11. The meaning of 'show don't tell'.
  12. First or third person?
  13. Prose style and the art of writing descriptive prose
  14. Writing convincing dialogue.
  15. Structure II: the monomyth, the cosmogonic cycle and the 12 stage story structure. 
  16. Opening lines.
  17. Beyond plot: slice of life, mood, etc., mosaic structure, allegory.
  18. Subplots and minor characters.
  19. Comic writing and satire (optional).
  20. Pacing (mood, time, transitions, flashbacks, framing devices)
  21. Genres and 'literature'.
  22. Endings. 
  23. Editing your work.
  24. Writing for radio, tv, film.
  25. Writing for magazines and websites.
  26. Having completed your work:
    • Finding an agent or editor
    • Finding markets for your work
    • Publishing and self-publishing
  27. Marketing yourself and your work, including the use of social media, book signings, etc.


The cost of the course is £260, which is £10 per module. Don't forget, this includes individual feedback on your exercises. 

The fee is payable up front. If at any point you decide not to proceed, you will receive a refund for the modules not taken.

 Alternately you can set up a direct debit of £44/month.


Comments from 'real world' students:
  • "I thoroughly enjoyed last week's session. I know I'm a professional in the script-writing field, but to be honest I think any writer no matter how much they've done can benefit from a 'reboot' as it were." Julian Dutton, professional tv/film comedy scriptwriter
  • "I lack confidence and belief in myself, you have no idea how much your support and guidance is appreciated." Jacquie Hyde, writer of Young Adult fiction
  • "Thank you so much for all your teaching, most enjoyable and I've learnt a lot." Joy Daniels, playwright 
  • "Your classes have provoked some great ideas." Sara Fox, writer of historical romances.


Send an email enquiry with some information about your writing interests.
You will hear back very shortly!

The tutor

David is a successful writer of fiction for adults, young adults and older children, who believes strongly that with imagination we can change the world.  He's the author of Hybrids, "a stunningly clever novel" – The Times – which won the UK HarperCollins-Saga Magazine 2006 Childrens Novelist competition.

He co-founded the London Screenwriters' Workshop and has written many short stories, TV scripts, comics and graphic novels, including for Marvel, HarperCollins, Titan Books and Macdonald-Futura.

He has also worked as a commissioning editor for various book publishers, plus as journalist and news editor, is the author of over ten non-fiction books and is a director of Cambria Publishing Co-operative.

He has a City and Guilds Further Education Teachers Certificate and has completed a City and Guilds course in Contracts and Rights.

He is a member of the Society of Authors and the Society of Childrens' Book Writers and Illustrators.

What children's books will help you survive the apocalypse?

What stories for children told today will still be around in 100 years? What qualities in these books will future generations find appealing?

What's got me wondering about this is that lately I've been looking at remarkable books still popular now that were written either in or about the 19th century.

Amongst these are Laura Ingalls Wilder's best-selling series of Little House books and Lucy Maud Montgomery's series beginning with Anne of Green Gables. Both are still in print.

Wilder based her books on her childhood which was in the northern Midwest US during the 1870s. She wrote eight titles which were published by Harper & Brothers from 1932 to 1943.

Of the Little House books I've been particularly entranced by the first, Little House in the Big Woods. It tells in extraordinary detail how her family – Caroline and Charles, elder daughter Mary Amelia, and herself, aged 6–7 – survived in the frozen woods of Wisconsin in an almost completely self-sufficient way of life.

Charmingly illustrated, it is almost a 'how-to' manual of survivalism, describing in some detail the making of clothes, gathering of wild honey, butchering of animals, how to birth a calf, how to make butter and cheese, and how to keep warm and travel on a sleigh in deep snow (put hot baked potatoes in your pockets and boots).

Most interestingly it describes the collection and refinement of maple syrup from the sap of the trees which is done with Grandpa and Grandma.

When Pa goes hunting he hauls back a deer and this is skinned, the leather cured and the meat smoked for the winter.

If I were ever on Desert Island Discs I think I'd choose this book to take with me to the desert island because it would be both helpful and entertaining!

For it's not all hard work. Most nights Pa tells the girls a story (which we hear too) with them sat on his knee and plays them a song on his fiddle.

Not only can Pa build a house, hunt and make furniture, he is musical!

Little House in the Big Woods was serialised in the BBC tv programme Jackanory in the 1960s.

Little House on the Prairie continues the story in the same style, describing how in 1869 the family moved via covered wagon from Wisconsin to Indian Territory on the prairie of Kansas. Then they had to build a whole new house.

Little House on the Prairie became an NBC network tv series that ran from 1974 to 1983 and revealed much about the pioneers and settlers and their relationship with the indigenous tribes.

Lucy Montgomery's Anne series is likewise a glimpse into a lost world. Although fictional it is strongly based on the real community of New London, Prince Edward Island in North East Canada.

A key moral message of the books is the need for self-improvement, and the civilising values of respect for others.

As a more sustainable version of Disneyland or Harry Potter World, the location for the story, Green Gables farm, became a visitor centre and the seed for the creation of a National Park.

Nowadays, adults probably read these books now more than children, but they may be reading them to their own children simply because they themselves read them when they were kids.

They are fascinating because they provide a window onto another way of life. There is a nostalgia or a longing for those simpler times and the simple morality they espouse. It seems a marvel that the ways of life described are only three or four generations ago.

And there's a feeling that perhaps, if the apocalypse comes, we or our children may have to learn to live that way again: close-knit, close to nature, relying on our wits, fitness, morality and skills. I think that's why I put some of these practical tips about survival in my own apocalyptic novel Stormteller.

Maybe in 100 years it will be these kind of books that will still be read. What do you think?

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Post-Brexit Britain is in crisis. But where is Captain Britain?

It's 40 years since Britain got its own Marvel superhero. To celebrate this anniversary Marvel has put out a new collection of stories, Captain Britain: Legacy Of A Legend. And guess who has written the introduction and some of the stories? 

This pick of stories from 1975-86 is a perfect introduction to the Union Jack-clad hero, and also strings together a virtually seamless single epic that launches the Brobdingnagian cast that has formed the bedrock of all his subsequent narratives.

But right now, Captain Britain does not have his own comic book, tv series, film or anything else except the odd appearance in other comics. There was talk of a tv series or a movie, but Marvel Studios has no plans for either (I asked them – even sent a script).

Is he having a mid-life crisis?

With a name like Captain Britain the character inevitably taps the many resonances of British culture. Different creators have picked up on different aspects: Spidey clone, Arthurian hero, secret agent, trans-dimensional warrior, Carrollian surrealist, and protector against the paranormal threats... 

Perhaps it's no coincidence that, right now, Britain itself is having a kind of identity crisis.

Since the 52%-48% vote to leave the European Union the country has been riven in a way not seen since the 1980s days of the miners' strike. Crimes of racism and homophobia have increased as queues at the food banks have lengthened and wage levels stagnated, and nobody knows where the country is heading. Political leadership is nowhere to be found and the country is stumbling to find its way in the world.

In the media, arguments rage over what it means to be British. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are frequently at odds with the English government. Post-Brexit, here we are in our time of need.

But where is Captain Britain? Could he save us?

The character has, in some writers' hands, sometimes strayed far from his own core identity. Perhaps that is why he has never been as successful as Captain America or Spider-Man. His very name is problematic: what is he a captain of? Unlike Captain America he was never in the armed forces.

He is an orphan, a twin, from an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. He is a physicist who practices a form of magic. He is a liberal who wears the flag. He is the husband of a psychic half-fairy gypsy. He embodies, in other words, a mess of contradictions. Just like the United Kingdom.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about him. I've been trying out all kinds of storylines, including a reboot in the manner of Marvel's Ultimates series. I'm still thinking.

I have come to believe that key to his potential mass appeal is his ability to be a slate onto which others will project their hopes, wishes and fantasies about what he might be and what values he might represent. Yet he himself is his own man, picked for his heroic qualities by the wisdom of Merlyn and Roma, who back him up, and he is able to draw on the possibilities and lessons to be learned from the other versions of Britain in parallel dimensions, and on the legendary Celtic magic of Otherworld.

I believe a Captain Britain tv series should be made in Britain. In the context of Brexit and renewed soul-searching up and down the country about national identity, I think funnily enough that the country actually needs one. 

Just as, in his time, Captain America has been a prism through which writers have viewed the politics of their country, a national British superhero series could also act as a focus for our national hopes and anxieties to play themselves out. 

For example the tv series Sherlock and Dr Who both have a wit and dynamism that energises British themes and experiments imaginatively with quintessentially British icons. These echo throughout the world and are wildly successful.

With fantasy, it's possible to project and reflect different extensions of modern real-world trends without being didactic or partisan. That would never do.

Captain Britain is a cipher. A powerful vehicle for playing harmlessly but fruitfully with ideas about British culture now and in the past and even in the future. 

As for the man behind that mask.... what would he think of all this himself?

Now there is a good question....

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]

My writing course can be taken online. Contact me if interested.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

For the Greater Good

I wrote a short story for the Weatherfronts commission. The brief was to respond to the themes and the discussions arising from a two day Weatherfronts event that took place at the Free Word Centre earlier this year.

This event brought 50 writers/artists and 50 climate change scientists together to discuss creative ways to respond to climate change.

My 8000 word story was called For the Greater Good and I've just had feedback for it from the editors:

"We really enjoyed reading it! This was a great read. The human relationships here were very believable and there were some strong emotions conjured quickly, to pull the reader in to this new, alternate world. This was a great unpicking of the moral and societal dimensions that were raised at Weatherfronts, and it broached pertinent moral questions in a plausible and non-didactic way."

That's a relief!

The story will be published next month and there will be a launch event at the Free Word Centre on January 19. Maybe see you there?

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The 12 stages of the Hero's Journey – Are they real?

This month I thought I would publish the slides from a presentation I gave this week at my writing course.

I wanted to delve deeply into the idea of plot and structure and then test the popular technique writers are taught that quest, discovery or journey type stories all have 12 stages. I did this by analysing two recent films and book that are very different indeed: The Girl On A Train and Doctor Strange. If you haven't seen these: spoiler alert! Don't read the penultimate two slides!

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]
My (12-stage, of course!) writing course can also be taken online. Contact me if interested.

Friday, July 29, 2016

New course: Writing for Fun and Profit

You know what they say about those who teach? So I'm teaching a writing course again...

Wednesdays 7pm to 9pm, YMCA, Gerwyn House, 19 Market Square, Llandovery SA20 0AB. From September 7th.

I'll be running this course – which I've run before elsewhere and has proved very popular – from September 7th. It's for anybody with an interest in writing.

It will offer support and constructive feedback and aim to build an enthusiastic, supportive group, whatever type of writing you are passionate about.

For those who have an interest in being published there will be advice and pointers about the different kinds of markets.

All types of writing and genres will be covered, from children's and adult fiction to scriptwriting, online (e.g. blogging), interactive computer games, comics, journalism, non-fiction and specialist technical or business-to-business writing – except for poetry, as there is another group which specialises in poetry in Llandovery.

It will begin with a taster session on September 7th, price £3 to cover costs. After that it will be £5 per session, £4.50 concessions, or £42 (£38) for 10 sessions, on Wednesdays 7pm to 9pm.

I am a full-time professional writer and have taught hundreds of hours of creative and scriptwriting classes. I'm a novelist and winner of a HarperCollins contest to find a new children's writer with his young adults novel Hybrids.

I've also written, edited and commissioned many comics and graphic novels including for Marvel, and am a co-founder of the London Screenwriters Workshop.

On the non-fiction side I'm an author of thousands of journalistic articles on renewable energy and sustainable development and of over ten practical or technical/academic books on how to live more sustainably.

I'm also also a director of Cambria Publishing Co-operative and a member of the Society of Authors.

If you want to find out more before coming along, phone me on 07901 925671 or 01550 721476.

Here's a Facebook event link to share.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why have linguistic standards slipped in books for older children?

One of the most successful novels ever written for older children is perhaps Anne of Green Gables. Written in 1908 by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery for all ages, it has been considered a children's novel since the mid-twentieth century.

I have been reading it to my mother, now 93 and in a care home, because she read it as a child – and several times since – and she loves it.

The novel recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley, an orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who had intended to adopt a boy to help them on their farm in Prince Edward Island. She starts the novel aged 11 and ends it at 16, when she leaves school.

Anne of Green Gables has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 20 languages. The book is taught to students around the world.

Why do I mention it? Because I was struck strongly by the difference in language level in this book and that of books published nowadays for similar age levels.

Here are two samples. Firstly, the opening:
"Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof."

And from a little further in:
"Anne started off irreproachable, arrayed in the stiff black-and-white sateen, which, while decent as regards length and certainly not open to the charge of skimpiness, contrived to emphasize every corner and angle of her thin figure. Her hat was a little, flat, glossy, new sailor, the extreme plainness of which had likewise much disappointed Anne, who had permitted herself secret visions of ribbon and flowers. The latter, however, were supplied before Anne reached the main road, for being confronted halfway down the lane with a golden frenzy of wind-stirred buttercups and a glory of wild roses, Anne promptly and liberally garlanded her hat with a heavy wreath of them. Whatever other people might have thought of the result it satisfied Anne, and she tripped gaily down the road, holding her ruddy head with its decoration of pink and yellow very proudly."
Nowadays, writers for children are offered a number of pieces of advice: 'show don't tell', 'keep the language simple' and so on. These texts break all of these rules, containing 'difficult' words, extended subordinate clauses, use of the passive tense, and more.

The opening does not feature the main protagonist, nor a dramatic or emotional hook.

Let's choose a modern book to contrast with this, also aimed at girls of a similar age, Shannon Hale's The Princess Academy. It opens like this:

"Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house’s stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day."
This does start with the protagonist, and contains no words longer than three syllables, and only one inverted sentence structure, with no other subordinate clauses.

There is nothing linguistically unusual about this passage either in relation to the rest of this book, nor to dozens of others published in recent decades and marketed to the same age bracket. None have anything approaching the complexity and subtlety of language which has helped make Anne of Green Gables such a success.

But I bet you anything that if this title were to be sent anonymously to modern editors or agents it wouldn't stand a chance of publication.

So my question to you is: why? What has happened in the intervening 108 years? Have the reading powers of 13 year olds worsened while their numbers have mushroomed? Have educational standards lapsed? Have editors deadened the stylistic inventiveness of writers?

Because whatever else you may say, the uncompromising linguistic complexity of Montgomery's work did nothing to dull its popularity – even if it may not be amongst the top ten books for contemporary young girls. And my mother, despite her dementia, can still follow raptly its complicated sub-clauses.

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When William Shakespeare met the Gunpowder Plotters

As a contribution to the commemorations of the fourth centenary of the Bard's death, here are some facts and idle speculations, plus an imagined conversation...

Several of the conspirators in the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Protestant English Houses of Parliament in 1605 not only came from the Midlands, where Shakespeare and his Catholic family lived, but were related to the playwright – many of them his cousins.

So how much might Shakespeare have known of the plot?

Shakespeare's Catholic family

Robert Catesby, born in 1572, was the lead conspirator of the plot. He was William's cousin through his mother, Mary Arden. Mary was the daughter of Sir Thomas Tresham, and came from a well-known Roman Catholic family. She was second cousin to the father, William Arden, of Edward Arden, who in 1583 was sentenced for his part in another Catholic plot against Elizabeth I.

Edward was uncle to Catesby and Francis Tresham, another Gunpowder Plotter; both these plotters shared Catesby grandparents, Francis on the maternal side.

Robert Catesby recruited more of his cousins: Robert Wintour (born 1568), his brother Thomas (born three years later) and their half brother John. De facto, they were, too, cousins of William Shakespeare.

Robert Catesby was married to a niece of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, whom many biographers believe was William Shakespeare's first aristocratic patron.

His next patron, Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton, was arrested in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 (of which more below) along with co-plotters Catesby and Tresham.

It gets thicker, and the likelihood that the conspirators and Shakespeare knew each other greater.

William Shakespeare's daughter Judith married, and her brother-in-law Adrian Quiney was himself married to Eleanor Bushell, whose aunt Elizabeth Winter was the aunt of the three Winter brothers.

Furthermore, their sister Dorothea was married to another plotter, John Grant, who was the grandson of William Shakespeare's father John's business partner Edward Grant.

Lord Monteagle
Still with me? Now, the man credited with betraying the gunpowder conspiracy was another cousin. He was William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (born 1575, right), commonly known as Lord Monteagle. His wife Elizabeth was Francis' sister, the daughter of Sir Thomas Tresham and Muriel Throckmorton. They were of a wealthy Catholic family from Coughton Court in Warwickshire; Tresham had been Sir Robert's ward. He helped to organise Thomas Winter's mission to Spain in 1602, to win support from the Spanish crown for the plot.

Monteagle was 'turned' by Robert Cecil, the King's (and Queen Elizabeth's before him) head of security as Secretary of State, and was rewarded handsomely for his troubles. There is strong evidence for suspecting that Monteagle was not just a double agent, pretending to be a member of the conspirators while relaying everything back to Cecil so he could coordinate the sitting of Parliament and the 'discovery' of the plot to maximum effect, but also an agent provocateur who helped to buy the conspirators time when it took longer than expected to dig the tunnel, and obtain the gunpowder, which would have been very difficult to do otherwise since all gunpowder (a rare commodity) was held under licence by the government, and then get hold of the keys to the cellar beneath the Parliament hall when the plan to build the tunnel failed.

The context for the plot

Robert Cecil
The Gunpowder Plot was the most famous in a line of Catholic plots against the government, the most famous of which prior to that was the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Just as now, with Islamic terror, and during the IRA mainland bombing campaign of the 1970s-80s, the state was on high alert for plots.

Sir Francis Walsingham was made responsible by Queen Elizabeth for setting up the first Secret Service and a network of paid informers, who would regularly inform upon one another. His agents tortured victims and suspects, and brought him notice of suspected Catholic plots. He was succeeded in 1590 by Robert Cecil, who became the first Earl of Salisbury, and the most powerful man in England when he was appointed the leading minister in 1598. After Elizabeth's death he went on to serve King James, the Catholic in whom the conspirators put so much faith that was not rewarded – quite the opposite.

What happened to the gunpowder?

Have you ever asked yourself why the gunpowder was not exhibited at the trial of the conspirators as evidence?

There was a minimum of 36 barrels, weighing 3,600 pounds or 1633kg – not a small amount. My theory is that it was because the government, which had a monopoly on gunpowder for its arsenal, had already had this precious commodity transported to Ireland to support their colonial programme.

The man who led this subjugation of Ireland was Sir Henry Bouncker, Monteagle's brother-in-law, followed by Henry's son and Monteagle's nephew – William.

The discovery of the plot occasioned a massive clampdown on Catholics everywhere, including seizure of their property, which enriched Cecil and his colleagues. Did you think it would be distributed to the poor?

Was Shakespeare aware of the plot?

Of course, the population was not great at that time, families contained many children, and it would be common for somebody to have many cousins. So it would not be statistically unusual for Shakespeare to be related to many people in his same social class, in the same geographical area. But would he have known the conspirators? And if he did, would he have been sympathetic?

William's father was a Catholic recusant who paid a huge amount in fines. He kept a priest hidden in a bolthole in his home to take confession. His sister married Thomas Habington, also a Roman Catholic. Most of Shakespeare's family were Catholic, and William himself was brought up a Catholic.

There has been much discussion about whether Shakespeare himself continued to be a Catholic throughout his life. His father's gardener in Stratford was a priest, and Shakespeare himself never wrote a good Protestant churchman in any of his plays, while his Jesuit priests are upstanding citizens. There is also no record of Shakespeare attending a Protestant communion service if he could help it.

Clopton House was the seat of the gunpowder conspiracy. Adjoining it was the Welcombe land where Shakespeare had acquired a freehold estate. Sir Hugh Clopton built New Place – bought by William Shakespeare in 1597 and the grandest house in town at the time. It was situated opposite the Catholic Guild Hall. It is easy to imagine, given this, that Shakespeare could have met at least some of the conspirators.

Three years before the plot was 'discovered', Shakespeare was involved obliquely in the Earl of Essex Affair, a Catholic uprising. The writer himself played John of Gaunt in a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre, mocking the Queen's rule by implication.

His cousin Robert Catesby was so inspired by this that the following day he led the revolt in the Strand. William would have been heard to utter:
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committest thy anointed body to the cure
Of those ‘physicians’ that first wounded thee.
Given what had happened to the members of his family, Shakespeare, a political animal to the last drop of his blood, would know better than most that it would be necessary, if he wanted to be successful at his prime passion, to conceal his Catholic leanings.

After the Essex affair he was very careful to do so, while his contemporary rival, Ben Jonson, became a Catholic and consorted with the plotters. Theatre was, after all, traditionally Catholic with its mystery and morality plays, and the Puritans hated theatre, calling it "the chapel of Satan". The pressure to be seen to conform could hardly have been higher.

Robert Southwell, the poet, martyr and another cousin of Shakespeare's, urged Shakespeare to use his talents to good ends: "In fables are often figured moral truths that covertly uttered are to the common good which, without masks, would not find so free a passage."

If Catesby met Shakespeare

I have made several attempts to turn the above research into a play or script. A play of mine with a title Plot! was performed by an amateur dramatic society in my then hometown of Machynlleth. This version interweaved the above story alongside another, of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, all set up by agents provocateurs, Catholics falsely imprisoned on terrorist charges. History repeats itself.

I still haven't arrived at a satisfactory draft, but in all versions I imagine a scene, perhaps on the border of the Welcombe and Clopton estates, in which Robert Catesby tries to persuade William Shakespeare to join their cause because he is aware of the power of theatre to motivate the crowds onto the conspirators' side, and because of Shakespeare's fame and influence.

In my imaginary conversation both Catesby and Shakespeare make their arguments for and against the plot using quotes from Shakespeare's own plays.

If such a conversation ever took place, William would have been far too canny to sympathise with Catesby's arguments. He knew the direction in which history was travelling, and he knew on which side his bread was buttered.

He might have responded to Catesby as follows:

SHAKESPEARE (as the Duke in Measure for Measure):
Thou knowest not what thou speak’st
Or else thou art suborn’d against his honour
In hateful practice...
  ...Someone hath set you on.

CATESBY: (Measure For Measure)
Be not so hot!
My business in this state 
Made me a looker-on here in ... London ...
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’errun the stew...

Your words fly up, your thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go!

CATESBY: (becoming angry: also Hamlet)
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action -

SHAKESPEARE: (triumphantly)
 - with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature!

CATESBY: (from MacBeth, which Shakespeare actually wrote just after the plot was discovered) 
Screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

SHAKESPEARE: (MacBeth too) 
The attempt, and not the deed...
will confound the land...

CATESBY: (mocking; back to Hamlet) 
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their actions turn awry
And lose the name of action.

SHAKESPEARE: (sadly remembering his own father, whom this line is said to be about:)
...His beard was grizzled, no?
(answering self)
It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silvered.

CATESBY: (seeking to capitalise on the emotion: Hamlet still)
Ay, murder most foul was it...
(not quoting)
Your very father, - for his Faith... as mine -
(quoting again)
That you, with wings as swift
As meditation, or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to his revenge.

Pause, while SHAKESPEARE recovers his wits.

SHAKESPEARE: (Softly: Merchant of Venice)
Mercy is above the sceptred sway...
It is an attribute of God himself
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

CATESBY: (contemptuously, last attempt: (Hamlet)
What a falling off is there!
             What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?
...A thought which, quartered, hath but one part 
And ever three parts coward ...
Witness this army of such mass and charge 
ranked now with us -

SHAKESPEARE: (Closing the discussion: Measure For Measure)
Might but my bending down
Reprieve us from our fate, it should proceed.
I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;
No word to save thee.

SHAKESPEARE walks sadly off. CATESBY watches him go.


My sources for all of this are many and varied. I spent some time in the British Library researching. Chief amongst the books are: The Gunpowder Plot by Hugh Ross Williamson, published by Faber in 1951; Shakespeare and Catholicism by H Matschumann and K Wentersdorf (NY, 1952). I know there have been more recent scholarly studies; a more recent one is The Heart of His Mystery: Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith in England by John Waterfield (2009). Here is a reasonable online deconstruction of the official story of the Gunpowder Plot, although it stops short of the conclusion to which it points, that Monteagle was an agent provocateur/double agent. Hugh Ross Williamson also dramatised the events above (minus Shakespeare) from a Catholic perspective in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, his 1951 play. I have it in an edition published in that year by Elek Books.

David Thorpe is the writer of the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.