‘There’s a naked boy on the playing fields.’

This is Gillian’s introduction to her Romeo; together, they form the star-crossed lovers in ‘Cold Fire’, a dramatic YA novel which not only revisits Shakespeare’s famous lovers, but introduces us to Shakespeare himself…

Today I am privileged to have James Hartley visiting BuriedUnderBooks to discuss his second novel in his Shakespeare’s Moon series. Over to him:

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From the start, the whole idea of the Shakespeare´s Moon books was not to retell Shakespeare´s plays but to provide a context whereby readers, and I was chiefly thinking of young teenagers who´d been set the plays in English, could enter the worlds of the plays and see them from the inside.

I knew the texts, the actual words of the plays, could be daunting. Sometimes students didn´t get beyond knowing what they had to know, quotes and factoids, and never saw or experienced the play in their imaginations. I wanted to provide another option. To let students see and experience the worlds of the plays for themselves and then see why the words fitted and mattered.

For the first book, The Invisible Hand, I took the readers back to medieval Scotland to visit the Macbeths. I set the book, and series, in a boarding school not because I was jumping on the Harry Potter bandwagon but because I´d been sent to a boarding school as a teenager – after a ‘normal’ upbringing near Liverpool – and wanted to write about the experience. In the second book, Cold Fire, based on Romeo and Juliet, a certain Will Shakespeare turns up to teach at the school, while the main plot focuses on the relationship between Gillian, a girl at the school, and Romeo, a boy who turns up naked on the playing fields one morning.

I´d been sent to a boarding school as a teenager and wanted to write about the experience.

Romeo and Juliet is a play that everyone thinks they know but which looks strange under the microscope. It´s a byword for love and lovers, of course, yet the bald facts about the play make it sound like something else altogether. Imagine a modern-day pitch?

“Yeah, it´s about two young lovers – she´s thirteen, he´s a bit older but about the same age – who meet at a dance (he´s looking for his then girlfriend). They run away, get married and make love, all within twenty-four hours. Back in town, he murders her cousin and gets sent away, so, heartbroken, she goes to sleep after getting some drugs from a priest but when he comes back he thinks she´s killed herself and kills himself but then she wakes up, because she was only sleeping, right, and sees he´s killed himself so she kills herself for real. Oh, and all this happens in a week.”

Interestingly the balcony scene, which we all know about (and which I kept in Cold Fire, of course!) probably didn’t take place in Shakespeare´s day. And Juliet´s plaintive “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” doesn´t mean ‘where are you?’ but ‘oh, why did you have to be called Romeo?’.

the balcony scene probably didn’t take place in Shakespeare´s day.

So what is the play about? Well, love, plain and simple. Love in all its aspects, particularly hot, vital, true love. It´s this vision of searing love which makes the play popular, which captures our imaginations, which keeps it alive and which connects it – and Shakespeare, Verona, Juliet and Romeo – to us, the reader or audience-goer.

Thinking about writing Cold Fire I asked myself if I really believed in passionate, romantic love. Yes I do, I answered. I love my wife; I´ve loved her from the moment I first saw her. But I also had to admit that I knew this was something engineered. Something genetic. Something human which had evolved for various reasons over time to help our species survive and thrive. But even taking apart and explaining the rainbow (I put a scene in Cold Fire discussing all this), love remained. And, yes, I believed in it, I decided.

And what about Romeo and Juliet? Were they in love?

And what about Romeo and Juliet? Were they in love?

Romeo is a toughie. When we meet him he´s in love with Rosaline of course – passionately in love – yet she´s out of the window the minute he sets eyes on Juliet. Is this really true love? Or just darting passion? My reading was that he thought he was in love with Rosaline – if nothing else, he´s in love with the idea of being in love – but when he meets Juliet she blows everything and everyone else out of the water.

Juliet´s attraction to Romeo is also questionable. She kisses him quickly (after only fourteen lines) but her main motivation seems to be getting away from her parents. She intimates that she can control Romeo and, until their love deepens and blossoms, the biggest thing she sees in him is an escape route from what she sees as a dull, planned marriage (to the handsome Paris) and the constraints of family.

If it´s lust and utility which brings them together, it’s a mutual love which quickly binds them. And it’s this love – the main character of the story, as far as I´m concerned – which is the basis of the play and which I felt I had to make the basis of Cold Fire. Because nobody, surely, reads or watches the play to watch two young people commit suicide? Surely the pain and joy of the play is to watch and feel the pain and joy of love, here magnified and dramatized and glorified and sacrificed before our eyes. The pain and pleasure of the story, like any good story, is vicarious.

Any teenage reader has felt love.

Any teenage reader, no matter how cool or distant or not into books or plays or Shakespeare, has felt love. Chances are they are feeling it stronger than their teachers or family, for love mutates and changes over time: you could say it mellows. First love is brutal and shocking. Romeo and Juliet is about that first real exposure to the power of love, that sparking moment where a connection is forged between eyes and souls, and it is about teenagers for a reason, because teenagers suffer and experience that like nobody else. Love scalds the soul at that age. Sometimes it melds people together but it can also scar them for life.

My job, as I saw it, in Cold Fire, was to capture that moment when two souls fuse. My Juliet, called Gillian in the book, is suffering with life and family. “Moods are the weather of the soul,” she laments, fighting with her mind, with the weather, with her own moods, with school and with life.

My job was to capture that moment when two souls fuse.

My Romeo, imaginatively called Romeo – he can´t remember his name and they call him this as a joke, and because he´s Italian – is blinded by Gillian. When he comes to and can see again he is in love with her and obsessed with her.

We all know what happens at the end of the play. Shakespeare´s gift, as always, is giving us words and action which, even as we watch and read, transforms itself into our own personal take on what is happening. We see the story of the lovers and think of our own loves and life. That, in the end, is what I wanted to do with Cold Fire. I wanted to bring the readers in and ask them what they would do in this situation. In my book there is magic: people and things may or may not be real. Love too.

In the end, as those great believers in love, The Beatles said, ‘the love you make is equal to the love you take’. You get out what you put in. You feel if you believe. In love as in life. In the play as in our own relationships.

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Thank you James Hartley for your thoughtful examination of the relationships between Romeo and Rosaline, Romeo and Juliet, and the events of ‘Cold Fire’. I enjoyed reading about Gillian’s adventures at the intriguing St Francis’ school and will post a review soon.

James Hartley writes a series of books based on Shakespeare´s plays for teenagers. The books are all set in the same school. The Invisible Hand, based on Macbeth, was published by Lodestone Books in 2017. Cold Fire, based on Romeo and Juliet, was published last year. The Unexpected, based on Julius Caesar, will be published later this year. You can read more about the books at James´ website, JamesHartleyBooks.com.