Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Othello and Hamlet on Hayling Island by Miriam Halahmy

 I must admit when I started to write my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island ( off the south coast of England), Hidden, Illegal, Stuffed - I didn’t give a thought to Shakespeare, but somehow the Bard has presented himself on the Island in more ways than one. As a natural fan I have embraced it with open arms.

Hamlet appeared first. Perhaps I should say here that apart from being one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, as far as I’m concerned Hamlet is a teenager, about to be sent over to school in England and this is why he never really takes the plunge and avenges his father’s murder. When writing, Illegal, with the main character Lindy Bellows as a vulnerable lonely girl from a dysfunctional family, I decided that Hamlet is the play she’s studying in school. At the back of my mind I had a quote from an article written at the time Paul Schofield died, which described Hamlet as a ‘spiritual fugitive.’ But that altered in my mind to ‘spiritual refugee’ and my image was born. Lindy starts to think of herself as a spiritual refugee in the first chapter and this image continues throughout the book. When she teams up with fellow misfit Karl, who has been mute for two years, she tells him he’s also a spiritual refugee.

However, I am not keen on books which take  well known plays or books and put them centre stage. I kept a firm grip on the role of Hamlet  in Illegal. Lindy is not about to turn into a literary boffin. My point was that even the most unlikely of students can be captured by the greatest literature and find something which is significant to their own lives. This is what happens to Lindy. She doesn’t suddenly become an expert on Shakespeare, but throughout the novel there is a strand which moves to the foreground from time to time because Lindy has identified with this particular Shakespeare character in her own way.

Moving on and just as Illegal is published I am invited to come and speak to A Level students at the Haringey Sixth Form Centre for World Book Day 2012. They want me to talk about immigration, Othello and Hidden.
Yikes! I know almost nothing about Othello and have never given it a thought when writing Hidden, a novel about human rights, asylum seekers and immigration. I rush for Wikipedia and start to mug up some facts.
But in the end it worked out ok because of course Hidden deals with the Outsider in our society.  And you couldn’t get much more of an Outsider than Othello, a black man in seventeenth century Italy.

This what the English teacher, Krysta, gave me as feedback after the session.

It was wonderful to have Miriam in our A2 English Literature class to discuss themes in ‘Hidden’. We are studying Othello and talking to Miriam helped the class to explore the decisions the writer made in constructing the text. Students discussed why a writer might be interested in exploring the theme of immigration and a range of very different responses to this voiced by different characters. One student raised a question about whether genuine communication between two very different cultures was possible. Learning about the setting of ‘Hidden’ also helped students to re-evaluate the use of an island as a setting in ‘Othello’. The class explored different ways the writers had written about war and the difficulty of addressing such a complex subject in fiction. Students without a doubt benefited from having had contact with a writer who so bravely addresses a range of difficult issues young people of today experience.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we have to be prepared for just about anything on school visits – and Wikipedia might be part of the prep!
I have to say that I am very pleased that not one but two of Shakespeare’s plays have found a place in my Hayling cycle. But I do feel I need to get to a production of Othello a.s.a.p – just to be ready in case this comes up again!


Leslie Wilson said...

So glad you want to go to a performance - I agree, Shakespeare needs to be SEEN! And I am currently reading Hidden and find the Hamlet leitmotif skilfully and convincingly done - and I'm spellbound. So, you Dad's murderer moves in with your Mum. What do you do? Shakespeare was written for ordinary people, after all. Congrats on handling the Othello - sounds like a very challenging assignment very well done!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks Leslie - but I think you mean Ilegal - that's the one with the Hamlet theme. Glad you felt it was handled well, tricky one to take on.