Variations on a Theme by Will Shakespeare

Theme and variation. Take a musical line — your own or someone else’s — and explore variations on it.  Change the harmonies, add voices, make it faster and brighter or slower and sadder. Embellish the musical line or strip it down to its barest essentials.  Mozart wrote a great number of variations on themes, and one of the most justifiably famous of J. S. Bach’s works is the Goldberg Variations, a series of thirty variations on an aria which is stated at the beginning of the piece and restated at the end.

Theme and variation exists in the visual arts — think Warhol’s soup cans or found object art — but it’s never gotten a lot of traction in literature except, oddly enough, within fandom where the form  “(x-number) things that never happened to (character)” is popular.  For example: “Three Things That Never Happened to Ironman” might be a trio of stories about 1) How Tony Stark actually died in that cave and all his subsequent adventures happened in his head in the few seconds before his death. 2) How Tony Stark and Bruce Banner went from bromance to romance. 3) How Tony Stark learned humility.  The beauty of the “never happened” part is that while the reader knows this isn’t canon, it can be a compelling and believable variation on canon.

I love this form and one of the stories I wrote in it — Five Things That Never Happened to Ennis Del Mar — is, I believe, some of my best work.  Lately I’ve been working on a novel-length X-things about a character from Dickens.  And I was mightily tempted by the possibilities inherent in the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or, more specifically, Romeo and Mercutio, the brilliant, charismatic character who very nearly steals the entire play away from R&J.  If you squint just a bit, you may just see Mercutio as Romeo’s true love.

As I read it, the text of the play can support the interpretation that Mercutio is in love with Romeo and that he resents Romeo’s amours. Mercutio is good at sniping and sarcasm, and he constantly aims it at Romeo and his love for Rosaline and Juliet. Interestingly at one point, Romeo observes “He jests at scars that never felt a wound,” suggesting that Romeo thinks Mercutio has never been in love.  I think he’s dead wrong.  I think Mercutio is one big, ragged wound.

With this in mind, I wrote a series of four short stories that have been collected under the title of “Call Me But Love” from the line in the play: “Call me but love and I’ll be new baptized. Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”  I chose it because it spoke to my belief that no one can have an honest life if they’re forced to deny who they love.  Each story takes us a few steps further along the social continuum towards an acceptance of same-sex love from Renaissance Verona, through Victorian England and post-WWII America, to contemporary Los Angeles.

Tomorrow I’m guest blogging about Call Me But Love with P. D. Singer, and will talk more about my inspirations for the story.  Please join me.  (Link will work on Tuesday, 8/27/13)  You can pre-order CMBL at Dreamspinner Press or buy it outright on Wednesday, August 28th.

Until then, here’s my favorite example of the musical form: Thomas Tallis’ Why Fum’th in Fight, and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ variations of that tune, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis>.  Enjoy!

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