Women and Shakespeare

S2:E6: Mary Bly on Lizzie & Dante and Romeo & Juliet

July 23, 2021 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 2 Episode 6
Women and Shakespeare
S2:E6: Mary Bly on Lizzie & Dante and Romeo & Juliet
Show Notes Transcript
In this episode, we discuss Professor Mary Bly's novel,  Lizzie & Dante,  which is an intricate reworking of Romeo & Juliet.

For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com 

Interviewer & Producer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Professor Mary Bly
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Varsha:

Hello everyone. And welcome to Women & Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani, and today, I'm thinking about the ending lines of my favorite play, Romeo and Juliet: "for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo". It is clear from the phrase, "Juliet and her Romeo", that this story has been shaped by Juliet. The novel, Lizzy & Dante, a stunningly textured working off Romeo and Juliet also places the hero in center stage, right from its title. This is no surprise because its author has been described as the thinking woman's romance writer and has given us some powerful heroines in her novels, such as Pleasure for Pleasure and Taming of the Duke. If the titles sound Shakespearean, it is because the writer is the Shakespeare professor, Mary Bly. Under the name Eloisa James, she's the New York Times bestselling romance author.

Varsha:

And as Mary Bly, she's the chair of English at Fordham University. In Lizzie & Dante, which she has penned as Mary Bly, she brings the prowess of both the romance writer and the Shakespeare professor. And the result is something that not only breeds new life into Shakespeare's play, but is one of those books that becomes a part of you. So I very much hope that you read the novel and enjoy this conversation, with its wonderful author. Dear Mary, welcome to Women & Shakespeare. I'm so glad to have you here.

Mary:

Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure.

Varsha:

Okay. So let us begin by asking you a question that I ask all my guests. When did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what was the nature of that encounter?

Mary:

My earliest memories of Shakespeare come from my father, Robert Bly, who's a poet. And he was for a good chunk of my elementary school, obsessed by King Lear. And so at dinner, he would burst out with Lear's speeches on the heath. And then, I remember going to a poetry reading and he was reciting the Fool on the Heath. And I was mortified because it was an enormous auditorium full of people and he was howling at the wind and the snow. So my father saw Shakespeare as this wild wild poet who could create the wind and the snow by the sound of vowels. He was very interested in vowels.

Mary:

But my next most important experience of Shakespeare was when I went off, I grew up in a farm, right? And I went off to Harvard and the first semester of Shakespeare was an elderly gentleman who paced up and down and sort of recited things.

Mary:

And it was very easy. I skipped a lot of the classes and then I read all the plays really fast and I got an A. And the second semester, they had hired a new professor named Marge Garber. And Marge Garber, it was night and day from the man with his English accent. And the next thing I remember from her is she walked up and down the front of the classroom reciting Cleopatra's "O, O, O", as an orgasm. And I remember sitting there and thinking, "this is very like Lear, King Lear on the Heath, but now it's a woman and an orgasm and O, O, O. And it's all about vowels again". So those two things were the cornerstones of my very early experiences in Shakespeare.

Varsha:

Oh, I love it. I absolutely love it. And such different things as well. Yeah. Lear howling on the heath and Cleopatra orgasming. So that is amazing.

Varsha:

Okay. So let's ask you about your experience in the classroom. And of course, you are the chair of English at Fordham University and also the best-selling romance novelist, Eloisa James. So have these two identities been mutually enhancing, or have they mostly been clashing?

Mary:

No, they are very much enhancing, I think. On a brutal financial level, my first romance contract allowed me to pay off my student loans from a degree I got in England, actually at Oxford. But other than that, I think the thing I do best in the world is probably teach Shakespeare. I mean, I do that well, really well. But writing has taught me how to teach Shakespeare in a very different way than I was trained in my PhD. Just looking for example, at Othello, and the way he plays with time in Othello, you don't realize, or I hadn't realized how you bring something forward to hide from the reader, what you don't want them to see, or in his case, from the audience, what you don't want them to see so that you can surprise them later with something else. Of course, the time in Othello doesn't work at all, but he's so brilliant at bringing things forward.

Mary:

And if you're writing genre fiction, which is what I do. And he wrote very much in genres, as well. You have to constantly be thinking, all right, the reader knows exactly how this is going to end. So how am I going to pull something forward and something back in order to surprise them? Because no matter what genre fiction you're writing, mystery, it's the dream of perfect justice, or romance is a thoughtful, respectful central relationship. You have to make them believe it's not going to happen.

Mary:

And so you need those techniques. Many of which I learned from Shakespeare because I actually never took any creative writing classes. So he was my creative writing class and working things out in the classroom, teaching Romeo and Juliet semester after semester, led to things like Once Upon a Tower, which is my version of Romeo and Juliet, which answers a question that many of my students, a point they've made over and over again, which is that if Romeo and Juliet hadn't died, they have hated each other within a few months because they're just so different. So yeah, many of my books are founded either on a Shakespeare play, or on things I love.

Varsha:

I agree with you. I often tell my students that if you are going to be a creative writer steal from Shakespeare, he has some great patterning techniques. And I'm also glad that you brought up the financial aspect of being able to write books that have general readerships as well and earning money that way because academics, especially at the beginning stages, or while doing a PhD, are financially quite strapped, I would say, especially in this climate.

Varsha:

So talking about it, most graduate students are given guidance, I think, on writing journal articles or getting academic books published. But it's very rare to get advice on how to get into creative writing or even how to write for a bigger audience in the form of trade books. Would you recommend that grad students try and broaden their audience in this manner? And if so, could you give our listeners a quick overview of how to go about it?

Mary:

I would absolutely recommend it. I think it's made me a much better teacher, not just because I have money on the side, but because it takes weeks to write an article and four people in the world read it. And my scholarship is sort of between 1,600 -1610. It's incredibly small, but there aren't too many people reading it. But then you write a piece of fiction and literature of course is a whole different story. But for me writing a piece of genre fiction, you send it out in the world and you get a ton of letters saying, "oh, that was so great. My mother was in hospice and you made her laugh". Those are invaluable experiences creatively, to keep it going in the classroom during difficult moments. I would say, I think, and I don't know for sure, but I think the scholarship is changing. And the way in which I was trained was very, very theoretical.

Mary:

I got my PhD from Yale and it was, are you nimble in all these different dialects? I really think that is going the way of the west. And my strong advice for every graduate student right now is to read series, avidly read, and take a look at how those scholars are writing about things like David Bowie, for example, or there's a great book by Jordan Stein called Theory, which is his relationship to theory. I think that theory, or literary theory, is moving towards a much more personal and a much more readable voice that we spent years sort of saying, "oh, if you're not smart enough to understand deconstruction in this article, then you're not me". Right? But I think that we are in a new place now where not, and not an exclusion are not going to be successful. So my advice is read those books, read the people who are writing in a different way.

Mary:

Going back to scholarship after many years, I think I'm going to try write something on Shakespeare and pop culture, which I've been teaching. And I love, and I'm trying to work out that voice now. So I don't think I can give you a perfect bullet, how to do this. It has to be your voice. But what I can say is, you do have a voice, and you can develop it in class, and you can develop it in your own scholarship. And you do not have to borrow the vocabulary of a given theory and simply apply it to a book.

Varsha:

I'm so glad. And I think our listeners will be very glad to hear this, especially coming from you because so many of us become scholars or want to become scholars because we want people to read our work or our work to make a difference. And so opening it out to readers rather than, as you said, having a book that maybe four people read, or even more problematically, only ten people in the world can afford is not the way to go anymore. It is one way to go, but not the only way to go.

Varsha:

Okay. So let us talk about Lizzie & Dante. And you have published it as Mary Bly, and it reworks Romeo and Juliet in so many interesting ways. Taking cue from your title in which the heroine gets top billing. I like that it is Lizzie and Dante. I want to ask you about Lizzy, who is a Shakespeare professor in your novel, and she's also a Juliet figure. And one of her arresting qualities is that she is a remarkable singer in your novel. I think this is an absolute stroke of genius, but I want to know from you, why you decided to make her such a beautiful singer in the book?

Mary:

Well, there's a Shakespearian answer and there's another answer. Lizzie is facing a really difficult decision in her life because she's trying to decide whether to not go forward with a really rigorous treatment for cancer when she goes to Elba, which this island off the shore of Italy, where I've gone every summer for years.

Mary:

So there's a poem at the heart of that book, which is written by James Wright, who's actually my godfather. And a line in that poem says, "There's a chicken Hawk that circles looking for home." Right? And I did bring it into a paper that Dante's daughter, Etta, writes, but some birds don't sing on the wing. They only sing when they settle on a branch. And that Lizzie who's giving away all her books, she's circling, looking for home, since she stopped singing quite a while ago. And she goes there, she meets Dante and she begins to sing again.

Mary:

So when she sings for Dante for the first time, she is deciding to live in the world again. And she is meeting, not just Dante she's creating a family. She is no longer circling looking for home. She is creating the home now. So I would say that is the non-Shakespearean answer that the birds go all the way through.

Mary:

And then on the Shakespeare side, I'm always fascinated by the fact that Romeo is so Petrarchan in his language. I always begin by teaching Petrarchan verse. And then Juliet, of course, is the opposite. She's just sort of, earthy, "what are you doing here? Oh, let's get married. Oh, I don't even trust you. I'll send someone to your house." She is about the body. And so her great epithalamium is about the body and she takes this genre of the epithalamium and then she turns it into something else.

Mary:

And so I had Lizzie take the genre of Episcopal hymns and turn them into something else. So when she's singing these hymns, a lot of the lines that are in there are something that hopefully do double duty in the novel. So even when she's singing Monty Python about sacred sperm, it's also about the church, and at the same time about what life is, right, where life is.

Varsha:

Oh, I love that Monty Python, the sacred sperm song. I love how absurd it is and how emotional it gets. What you've said is something really refreshing about Juliet because I have never read anything. Or even in years of teaching thought about Juliet as remaking genres of poetry and you're right, she absolutely does. Romeo stays within the courtly fashion and sonnet fashion, but she takes a genre and transforms it to her own use. I think that is just a marvelous way of looking at Juliet.

Varsha:

And on that subject, in the West, and in the East and in Bollywood, it's different, but in the West, Juliet is very much depicted as very angelic and very virginal, very naive and sort of helpless creature, but in Shakespeare's play, and in your novel, she really isn't, is she?

Mary:

No, because she really isn't. She is not. She's the first woman to propose marriage on English stage. And she also in the play she talks about two maidenheads that are going to be lost. So she not only is ready to lose hers, but she's also aware that Romeo has no sexual experience either. And so in Lizzie and Dante, I had not only Lizzie but also Etta, because Etta is a 12-year-old young woman who's had to study Romeo and Juliet in high school. I mean, she's not quite in high school yet, but she has some strong feelings about it, which I shared when I had to read it back then. And young women of 12 are on the edge of everything. And yet we depict them as angelic, but they're not, and thirteen-year-old Juliet was not, she was as observant as Etta is.

Mary:

And Etta learns a tremendous amount about the world in the space of this brief novel, just the space of those weeks, that they're together on Elba. And so that's why at the end, she is one of the people who's able to say, "no, no, no. Boys are like this. And girls are like that. And that's why Juliet's like that." That's because she's been watching everyone. And Juliet was a watcher. She was observant. Romeo is not observant. He's like, oh, there's a pretty girl. I'm in love with her. I'll just spin out some extremely non-observant, Petrarchan language that has no reference. Right? You know, "She's beauty too dear for use" blah, blah, blah, apropos to anyone, but Juliet is the opposite.

Varsha:

I agree. And she's so philosophical when she says, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," or even when she explains her reasoning to us all the time, she's saying to us, "oh, I'm not choosing Romeo just because I think he is cute, but I think we should value people for who they are, their innate qualities". So she's a very smart woman, I think. And I was so happy to see it in your novel as well.

Varsha:

We've already talked about Etta, but let's also talk about Ruby, who I thought was some sort of parallel for Juliet's nurse in this novel. Why were the bonds between these women Etta, Ruby, and Lizzie so important for you?

Mary:

Well, I usually write romance, and historical romance is very much about the journey of two people. To write Lizzie & Dante, I wasn't interested in writing just, it is a love story, but it's a story of how a family comes together. It's a story of love in a family, and Ruby is an intrinsic part of that. And You're right. That I sometimes played a little bit with the nurse in the hair scene.

Mary:

For example, I just toyed with it a tiny bit, but basically Ruby also has her own story. And so one thing I was able to do in this, because of the shape of a novel is so much freer than a historical romance, Ruby has a story which involves her own creativity and ends up in a very different place. And Gray and Rohan had their own stories. And that allowed me to do more in a way, than Shakespeare did in Romeo and Juliet, which is a love story about those two. So no one else really has a story and Mercutio is the closest you get, but it's chopped off.

Mary:

So I didn't have to do that. So I left a little tidbit here and there of the nurse, but in reality, it's a story of a family coming together. And in a true family, everyone is more themselves in each other's presence. So Ruby sort of checks off what her mother wanted and she will become, I imagine her as one of the brands in Sephora so very, very rich. And important.

Varsha:

I enjoyed that very much that you showed bonds between others as well and how they function.

Varsha:

Okay. So in contrast to Shakespeare's violent Verona, the setting for your novel is gorgeous Elba. And I really appreciated it because I was reading this book during lockdown, in my little studio flat. And I lived vicariously through these characters, feeling the sun, the coast, eating absolutely delicious food, which was described in great sensory detail. Could you tell us a little bit more about your love for Italy?

Mary:

A lot of this book does come out of my life. I was diagnosed with cancer and beat it. I married an Italian, and his family went to Elba every summer as children. And so we took our children to Elba every summer. And so, it's an island that I really love. It's somewhere where a lot of Florentines go. And if you think of islands in Italy, you usually think of Capri. Very fancy. Jackie O used to go to Capri all the time. It's expensive, yachts pull up there. So some yachts occasionally come to Elba, but basically, it's not an expensive island. It's a place where people go day tripping a lot. You bring your children there. A lot of the beaches are rocky or they're black. Some of them are sandy. It's not a fancy place. It's a place where people go and come back to and come back to and come back to.

Mary:

And they just come back because they love it exactly as it is. With the little jellyfish swimming up that some years they come and they'll sting you as you go in the water. And sometimes they don't, you never know what's going to happen. Styrofoam washes up. It's not a fancy island, but the food is amazing because Italians really don't put up with anything less. And so years ago, I walked into one of these weather-beaten restaurants on Elba, it actually had horoscopes painted. It was started in the 1960s clearly. And it was all outside, because most of the restaurants are only seasonal. And it was run by a fellow who was raising his child and had a Russian mother who was not on the scene. And I remember looking at him and thinking this would be an amazing romance, but I don't write contemporary romance, right?

Mary:

Years later, when I wanted to write something that made Elba a character, because I wanted Lizzie to learn the things that I've learned by virtue of marrying an Italian. I'm from a workaholic family. I live in a workaholic country, and Italians, especially Italians on vacation, they just wake up, buy the food that day, cook it that day, have a sermolina on the beach, and then they go out to dinner and they have this amazing food, but it's very simple. And it's all exactly the same. No one really messes around the way Dante's messing around. So part of the way he's changes from being the Michelin star chef, to being the person who has the restaurant is that he starts cooking Elba food, as opposed to bringing his food to Elba.

Varsha:

The food. Honestly, this was such a sensory novel. So for all food lovers, I'm recommending it. I never thought I'd recommend a Romeo and Juliet adaptation for food, but I am, for all the foodies out there, check it out.

Varsha:

So in the novel Rohan and Lizzie and Grey, they are involved in writing a new script of Romeo and Juliet in which Rohan, the Hollywood star, keeps saying that he wants the film to be about manhood and modern masculinity. And what I found very interesting was that this is a very different image to that in the West. In India, Romeo is about being a womanizer, or somebody who is popular with the ladies. At one point in India, they were anti-Romeo squads and they were against eve-teasers because this is the popular cultural image of Romeo in India. But of course, the image of Romeo in the West is quite different. We are thinking, much more Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet. So my question is, what do you think about Romeo and his relationship to masculinity?

Mary:

So I just have to clarify one thing in terms of that very interesting insight into what Romeo and Juliet is in India. Rohan really is from the UK. He grew up and then he moved to Hollywood as a young boy. And then he's in an early boyhood television show in which he plays a member of the gang. So his view really is American. And I will say that I stole it directly from my father, because my father wrote this book, Iron John, and he started a men's movement in America. And I still remember my father at dinner again saying, well, Romeo and Juliet, y'know Juliet is there but really it's all about men. It's about Romeo and Mercutio and the way in which old men are killing young men. And at the end, you have nothing but young male bodies. I did point out, Juliet was also there dead.

Mary:

But I always remember that, because for my father who had seen the Vietnam War, this was a play that spoke to older men involving a whole generation of men in a war, which they had no interest in. And then they all ended up dead. So for him, it had that, it was that, and it needed to be that. But for Rohan, creating Disney's new version of Romeo and Juliet for this generation, it couldn't be that, it had to be one that spoke to what Etta saw in that play. And then also what Lizzie saw in it. We're in a 'Me Too' world. We're not in an Iron John world. I think that the play can be what you need it to be. It's so brilliantly written that if you are interested in toxic masculinity, it's there. If you were interested in homoeroticism, suppressed by culture, it's there. If you want to talk about women who have desire, as Etta does, it's there, it's there.

Varsha:

Talking about homoeroticism, the other couples in this book, there's Rohan and Grey. And then there is Dante and Lizzie, and then there is Grey and Lizzie, a very different sort of way as well. And it kept reminding me of Twelfth Night as well, especially because they are on an island, just like they were in an island in Twelfth Night. Was this play on your mind, too?

Mary:

No, it wasn't not my mind to be honest. I loved it when you mentioned that to me, I thought that was very creative and wonderful, but no, it never occurred to me.

Mary:

I wanted to have these intricate relationships between Grey and Rohan, and then Grey and Lizzie, because again, I wanted a wider canvas than a love story of two. And Grey loves Lizzie with all his heart. And he loves Rohan with all of his heart. And I think that's entirely possible and happens around us all the time. So I wanted that to be central to the idea of family that I was creating by the end of the book.

Mary:

And I think it worked. I would say that with both Ruby and Grey and Rohan, I was lucky enough to have a lot of sensitivity reads, so-called. Some paid for by myself, and then my publisher paid for another round. So just to make sure, I don't want to claim that I was able to do this because I created it, but then I took direction from people who had a much greater understanding of homophobia, internal homophobia, of racism. So I just want to say that I had a lot of help with the portrayals of those characters.

Varsha:

That's such a great example to set as well. I think lots of other authors should do that, get input from others. It's great that it's all in there because I think we never get to see Juliet's relationship with Tybalt right? If we get to see that, it might have a very different impact on us when she has to decide whether to forgive Romeo for it. So I think it's important to see other relationships in that play.

Varsha:

And let's talk about the dizzying range of references as well. And Etta has a quote on her bedroom door and that keeps changing and so on. In fact, there's a dizzying range of even popular culture references. There's Dylan on the one hand, Project Runway on the other, Lolita, Dr. Seuss, Flowers in the Attic, Titanic. So there's a very heady mixing. Despite all of these courses on Shakespeare in popular culture, and I'm glad to hear that a book is forthcoming or in the works on that subject, but do you think people are still purists when it comes to Shakespeare? Or do you think audience and readers are actually excited about these heady mixes of so-called highbrow and lowbrow elements?

Mary:

I definitely think that audiences are excited. And I think that the highbrow movement, I mean, obviously here I am, I'm a romance writer, right? I've never agreed with the hierarchies that we put in literature. I think there are very good romance writers and they're very terrible ones. And romance, unfortunately, is always judged by the worst in the genre rather than the best. And literature is always just judged by the best.

Mary:

And when we think about Shakespeare now, I think we need to think of his work as something that is useful for the next generation, because otherwise, he will be on the scrap heap because it would be very easy for us to simply drop Shakespeare off a cliff. And that would be such an enormous loss for the generation that's being taught in college now, and for those below.

Mary:

So we need to stop saying this has to be so difficult and this has to be so purist and everyone has to understand every word and I have to give out quizzes on iambic pentameter. You have to say, these are some of the most wonderful stories. How can you use them? How are they meaningful for you? What is in there for you?

Varsha:

I agree completely with this that we don't need, I mean, we do, but we don't really need Shakespeare. We can very easily leave him behind, but I think Shakespeare needs us for doing this kind of labor, taking Shakespeare with us.

Varsha:

Now, we won't talk about the ending of the novel because for that, our listeners should read this beautiful novel, but let's talk about the ending of the play. And I find the ending of this play absolutely devastating, but also the most hopeful of any of Shakespeare's tragedies, or even comedies. But I know you think slightly differently.

Mary:

I just want to say that there's no death scene in my book for people who might be afraid of that. I mean, she chooses to go back and have treatment, which allows her to go back to Elba the next year, and the year after, and so on. Because I don't like the ending Romeo and Juliet, and it's not merely because you've got a couple of kids committing suicide because Lord knows, we can see that all around us. You know, you don't have a developed frontal lobe, it's very easy to make a stupid mistake. But what I don't like, but I entirely respect Shakespeare for his point, is that I think when Romeo and Juliet are lying there and they've been made into gold statues, right? Which are infertile. I think you go back to Romeo's Petrarchan language, which has nothing to do with the actual woman. It's much more about eulogizing of the self and the figure.

Mary:

And there's nothing fertile about it. There's nothing creative about it, that Romeo and Juliet at the end, when they're there in their cold, metallic bodies with no children and no future and nothing but capitalism keeping them there, implicit tourism, right. I think it's a really dark look at the outcome or the future of that kind of language that Romeo tosses around so wildly.

Mary:

And I would point out, for people who just aren't thinking of all this, by 1595, Petrarch's language has had a huge surge in England but it is already out of date. So from the 1580s and so on, everyone has to talk like this. So Shakespeare was really looking at it at a out of date, poetic language and saying, hey, that's seriously dangerous. So that's where I am with that, the end of Romeo and Juliet. I do love teaching it because it's fun to pull the threads and then have the students figure that out.

Varsha:

I totally see. And I love your reading of it, in terms of talking about language and dead language and as well in the sense, I think I can't bear it. And that's why I've made it more hopeful for me, that change did happen, that the families did reconcile that their sacrifice, well, not sacrifice, but their tragedy did not go in vain. So I think I can't bear what you're saying. So I think I've invented this hopeful future for myself.

Mary:

You have to remember that I was brought up by my father and his view, by the time I was growing up with the Vietnam War, was that all these young men sacrificed their life and nothing changed. And he called me weeping on the phone the first time, in the first American Iraq War. I mean, we didn't learn anything from Vietnam that is manifest to anyone who knows anything about America. So I see it from that lens.

Varsha:

But thankfully the novel is very, very generative. So it's just to put it out there that it left me very uplifted by the end.

Mary:

Thank you. That's great. That was what I was hoping for.

Varsha:

Fantastic. It's been such a pleasure talking to you about one of these amazingly popular play, Romeo and Juliet, but you have managed to show it to us from very different angles. And so thank you so much for this conversation.

Mary:

Thank You. No, it was absolutely lovely talking to you and I'm so honored that you liked Lizzie & Dante and got so much out of it. What a pleasure. Thank you.

Varsha:

That was professor Mary Bly talking about Romeo and Juliet, Lizzy & Dante, romance writing, and Shakespeare teaching. With this episode, we close series two. But this parting is definitely a sweet sorrow because we will meet again. There is a series three and watch this space because very soon, I will be revealing some stunning guests who we have been recording for the upcoming series, which will be launched on 23rd of November, 2021. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to Women & Shakespeare streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and www.womenandshakespeare.com where you will find full transcripts for all the episodes. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy.