My Pre-1900 Formative Influence: Shakespeare

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For my Creative Writing senior capstone seminar we had an assignment to write a short piece about one of our formative influences who was writing before the 20th century. I chose Shakespeare and the following piece came out:

When you’re directing a Shakespeare play, you find out two things very quickly:

  1. Everybody knows Shakespeare
  2. Nobody knows Shakespeare

By this I mean 99.999% of everyone I meet has heard of Shakespeare. Whether they know anything besides “to be or not to be,” or if they know that “wherefore art thou Romeo” actually means “why are you Romeo” and not “where are you, Romeo,” is actually quite rare in the general population. And then it selects from there into smaller and smaller groups until you’re left with those who would attend a Shakespeare play and then those who would act in one. Then you’ve got me—I chose to direct Macbeth this quarter and am slowly and happily losing my mind as I grapple with making these centuries-old words pithier and more relevant to my actors and my future imaginary audience.

The third thing you come to understand when directing Shakespeare is that there is very little beyond the character names and the text that is objectively known or that you can take for granted. You can be working on a scene for days and then suddenly it clicks—Macbeth is trying to have a soliloquy, not a conversation. Hamlet fades in and out of real and postural madness. The kids in Midsummer might be smarter than they seem. Maybe Romeo and Juliet’s story does condemn young love at the same time as romanticizing it. Shakespeare’s plays have lasted not just because they’re quite good—they tug at the heart, they manipulate language—but because of this elusiveness. Because we can spend centuries reproducing the same play and it means something new each time it’s onstage. And then it’s gone again—never letting us slacken our thirst for reinterpretation.

So, if you’re writing in the current vein of realist prose, how do you lift the effective stuff out of Shakespeare for re-appropriation in your own writing? Chasing that elusiveness, for me, is something to keep in mind in my editing. I’m an over-elaborator—it speaks to my anxiety about whether the reader gets where I’m going. If my writing weakness were personified it would be the guy ending every sentence with “you know what I mean?” So when I edit, I remember that Shakespeare left few answers on the page. Part of this, of course, is medium, but there’s no reason not to make a short story or novel a little more like a play. Allow your characters to speak for themselves. Allow for sparser descriptions of their interiors. Reveal their interiors through action and occasional spoken admission. Furthermore, allow a story to suggest multiple meanings. This of course can look like it’s reaching when applied to young writing, but it’s always my goal to have a story tight enough that ambiguity looks intentional rather than like a mistake.

Another vital lesson to take away not so much from Shakespeare’s text itself but from its many stagings is that it doesn’t hurt to tread lightly when it comes to symbolism. Shakespeare left many similes about ill-fitting clothing in Macbeth, and early in our production process we were trying to decide whether we should dress Macbeth himself in baggy robes. I think this is a fairly common human preclusion to say: “I understand these subtle diction strategies, so let’s blow out these symbols so everybody can see them!” There are ways to make symbols work for you, but if you’re an amateur at whatever you’re trying, be it being on a production team for a play or writing a story, it’s much more important to look closely and skeptically at how symbols don’t work than trying to pepper your work with symbols and motifs to find out which ones do. This might just be a matter of personal opinion, but I think my job as a young writer is to hang back and take close notes on what works and what doesn’t. Shakespeare’s comparison of Macbeth’s possession of the kingship to a man in baggy robes—fantastic, pithy. Casting a slight-built actor as Macbeth and putting him in a lumpy cape—not so much. The same rings true for amateur writing. It reminds me of a scene in 30 Rock when Liz, feeling outdated and looking for a writing job, meets Aaron Sorkin in a waiting room.

He says of writers: “We’re horse-and-buggies and the first Model T just rolled into town.”

“We’re dinosaurs,” she agrees.

“We don’t need two metaphors,” he snaps. “That’s just bad writing.”

The same is true of motif. Layering multiple motifs and corresponding symbols and flowery language onto a five-page short story is a recipe for chaos unless that’s your specialty and you know what you’re doing (and you’ve been writing for 30 years).

In that case, I’m looking at my stories as testing grounds for these two things I’m stealing from Shakespeare: elusiveness and effective symbols. I’m always asking when it’s ok to hang back, and how to explicate more efficiently and seamlessly. The next question is: would this story benefit from a consistent thread of symbols? I tried that out in the story I submitted as an example of my work for this class (which I’ll post on this blog sooner or later). The boar at the end of the story got a perfectly split response from my peers in the workshop. Some thought it was campy, others didn’t get it, some loved it and cornered me after class to insist I keep it in.

That’s the problem of course with effectiveness. Is it effective if it’s effective to me, or if everyone loves it? Not everybody loves Shakespeare, but some adore him. Maybe being dead or pretending to be dead to reader response is a good selective tactic to learn from the guy, too.