Shakespeare in the park . . . or on the stage. In ruined buildings . . . or across the grounds of Alcatraz. With a sci-fi twist . . . or in the Wild West. In Elizabethan costume, modern dress, or just with plain cast t-shirts.
Feeling a little like Sam-I-Am? Much like green eggs and ham, Shakespeare’s plays work anywhere and everywhere, with new twists and angles, with a lavish backdrop or minimalist staging. But why is that?
In this week’s Toolbox we’ll celebrate William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday by looking at why his writing has endured so long—and how modern writers can apply his genius to their own work.
Sex, love, and lies
Part of the power of Shakespearean drama is its universality. Ambition, sex, love, lust, lies, loneliness, envy, manipulation, power—these have motivated human relations for centuries and transcended class, race, gender, and wealth. That’s why putting The Merry Wives of Windsor in a ’70s/disco setting or transposing Twelfth Night to the world of the wealthy in Titanic-era England work; the peculiarities of the plot and setting are trumped by the timelessness of the themes.
It’s also why there have been so many unique and successful screenplay adaptations of Shakespeare. You’re probably aware that West Side Story (1961) is a musical based on Romeo and Juliet, but there are countless others. She’s the Man (1999) brings Twelfth Night to the campus. 10 Things I Hate About You is a teen coming-of-age drama based on The Taming of the Shrew. Forbidden Planet (1956) marries ’50s-era sci-fi with The Tempest. Most recently, Joss Whedon’s clever version of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) has Shakespeare’s original verses spoken by modern-day characters, whose interactions with the themes of the story are as current as any modern reality TV.
The take-home lesson for writers? The intricacies of plot, setting, and character are vital to a good story, but It’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. When crafting your work, think thematically; consider the emotions that have motivated people for millennia, and how they might intersect with your own plot and characters.
All in character
Another reason for Shakespeare’s literary staying power is the way he created memorable characters through almost entirely dialogue alone.
The plays’ minimal stage directions have given artists and directors a lot of freedom of interpretation (for example, Macbeth‘s three witches have been portrayed as everything from shriveled old hags to seductive sirens). But Shakespeare’s reliance on the characters’ speech to tell the story also has made his work a stellar model for writers wanting to deepen their characters without resorting to an overabundance of narrative description.
When you’re writing a novel it’s hard to convey what’s in your head, and there can be a temptation to tell more than show—to explain a character’s emotions or motivations rather than letting them shine through in the way that character speaks and acts. Skim some of Shakespeare’s plays and notice how he used monologue and dialogue to create character imagery That’s still being dissected by English students over four hundred years later. And even if your writing project is one that requires lavish description, remember that, as Shakespeare himself wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sometimes a little can go very far.
This year, in honour of the Bard’s 450th birthday, take some time to leaf through a play or two (or better yet, find time to take in a production—whether onstage or off). Think about how easily the themes and personalities are transposed to modern times. Observe the way the characters interact and how much story, mood, and characterization are conveyed through dialogue alone. Whether you’re writing thrillers, romances, or genre-bending literary fiction, you’re sure to find inspiration in the work of one of history’s greatest writers.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2. Or visit her website.