I recently stumbled onto an online discussion about animated films, where somebody referred to The Lion King as having been inspired by Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet. That was news to me, and it made me think about other films that I had belatedly learned were inspired by Shakespeare plays, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) or My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV and Henry V).
This in turn got me thinking about how little I actually knew about Shakespeare. True confession: until about four months ago, my Shakespearian awareness was largely limited to a 1966 episode from season 3 of Gilligan’s Island, where the castaways perform a musical adaptation of Hamlet for a famous movie producer currently stranded on their island (hey, it could happen). Behold, in all its glory:
Boning up on the Bard
While I’ll admit that episode is fondly etched into my cultural DNA (yes, I’m deep), I realized I needed something more. After all, now that I am supposed to be a Serious Writer (said with the appropriately furrowed brow, and the sincere intent to someday purchase a tweed blazer with leather elbow patches), this scarcity of SSC (Shakespearian Street Cred) seemed inexcusable. So I took advantage of some recent time off from the DDG (dreaded day gig) to remedy this gap in my cultural literacy, and went off to my local library to load up on books and DVDs. I tend to be a total-immersion kind of guy when I develop a new interest, so the next several weeks were all Shakespeare, all the time. The results were illuminating. First, there was the fundamental question:
Just how big a deal is this guy?
Pretty darn big, as I was soon to learn. As literary critic and expert on all things Shakespearian Harold Bloom observes in the forward of Susannah Carson‘s book, Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, Shakespeare is “the most widely read author in English; his Complete Works are second in popularity only to the Bible.” (Take that, James Patterson! Suck it, Clive Cussler! But I digress…)
Okay, so the guy’s a best-seller. But Shakespeare’s impact is broader and more profound than the sheer size of his readership, as Bloom elaborates:
We live in Shakespeare’s world, which is to say that we live in a literary, theatrical, cultural, and even psychological world fine-tuned for us by Shakespeare. Had he never lived, we would have bumbled along well enough, but he did live, and he did write, and those works were printed, and read, and performed, and passed on, and read some more, and performed some more, and emulated, and assimilated, and quoted, and so on. So that now, four hundred years later, we continue to read and perform and emulate his work so thoroughly and passionately that it’s difficult to conceive who we would be – as a culture, as ourselves – had Shakespeare never existed.”
Those are some powerful claims, and worthy of further examination. Let’s first consider Shakespeare’s impact on the English language itself, which is considerable. This site postulates that Shakespeare contributed over 1,700 words to the English language. How? By “changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.” Some examples include frugal, moonbeam, zany, and puking.
Take a moment to absorb that: The dude gave us puking.
I mean, he could have quit right there and still made his mark on society, but no – he still had another 1,699 words left to regurgitate!
Probably even more memorable are the phrases and figures of speech that can be traced back to Shakespeare. This article in The Independent lists 50 of them, but I’m sure there are far more. Some of his greatest hits include the following:
- Wild goose chase
- Heart of gold
- With bated breath
- Knock knock! Who’s there?
Hang on – make sure you take this in: Not only did he give us puking; the dude gave us knock-knock jokes. As Keanu Reeves would say: Whoa.
In Isaac Asimov’s excellent book on the Bard, the author observes:
Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms.”
If, like me, your direct exposure to Shakespeare has been limited, when you first sit down to watch or read one of his plays, you may be surprised by just how familiar you already are with his language. So pervasive are so many of his phrases that they seem like they must simply be linguistic chestnuts the Bard borrowed from somebody else.
To illustrate that point, Asimov describes a woman who reads Hamlet for the first time and then complains, “I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.” I’ll confess to having a similar reaction the first time I watched one of the many excellent film versions of Hamlet. At first I thought something was rotten in Denmark (see what I did there?); then I realized I was hearing the source from which so many of these famous quotes and figures of speech came. Whoa indeed.
The first time you read or listen to Shakespeare, some words or phrases may seem old-fashioned and not very conversational, making his work feel somewhat inaccessible. If so, give it some time. Particularly as a listener, the rhythm and the logic of his language soon start feeling more and more familiar, and in my experience you’ll soon find yourself engrossed in the story, not just the language (although the language continues to thrill and delight).
When you think how much the language has evolved just within your own lifetime (OMG, like, for realz!), you have to wonder: why does this guy’s stuff still work so well, some four hundred years later? Author Ben Crystal takes a hard look at the supposed inaccessibility of Shakespeare’s language in his book, Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard. Crystal maintains that 95% of Shakespeare’s words are perfectly understandable to a modern audience.
95% is pretty darn good, if you ask me. I mean, I’ve got an MBA, yet I’ve sat in corporate meetings where I understood FAR less than 95% of what was being said. Well done, Bardster. Well done.
Okay, so the guy had some serious game when it comes to the languagey stuff (hey, it might be a word). But let’s take a look at some of the techniques Shakespeare used as a storyteller, starting with something I’ve noticed in every Shakespeare play I’ve studied so far:
In particular, the Shakespearian oeuvre (a word I have serious plans to learn how to pronounce correctly someday – but today is not that day) demonstrates a willingness – you could perhaps go so far as to call it a flat-out eagerness – to kill even the most major characters. Long before there was George R.R. Martin and his highly successful “Who’s Gonna Die Next?” book and TV series (also known as “Game of Thrones”), there was Billy “The Reaper” Shakespeare. Seriously, this guy will kill anybody.
I can just see the Bard pitching his latest play to investors. “It’s called Romeo and Juliet. It’s a love story for the ages. Oh, but here’s the thing. Um, they both die. But seriously, it’s a love story for the ages – trust me! Wait – I’ve got another one you’ll love – it’s called Hamlet. Um, but here’s the thing. He dies, too. Oh, and so does his mom. And – okay, also his girlfriend. Aaaaaaaannnnnd his girlfriend’s dad. And his best friend. And a couple of other friends. And his dad, but that happens before the play starts, and it gives us an awesome ghost-story angle. Oh, and his stepfather, but that guy was a major jerk – he totally had it coming. But wait – there’s also a guy talking to a skull, and this really cool sword fight…”
The body count in a Shakespeare play can get pretty high, as illustrated in this handy infographic. But I think the lesson here is not that the Bard was into making thinly disguised snuff plays, but rather that actions have consequences – sometimes life-changing (or life-ending) ones. That’s a lesson that I think we can all use to inform and enrich our work. Got a story that’s light on conflict? Take a lesson from Shakespeare, and kill somebody.
A mixture of tragic and comic
Shakespeare’s plays are often divided into three main categories: tragedies (not surprisingly, Hamlet falls here), comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an example), and histories (basically all the ones named after dead kings). Yet you will find elements of comedy in his tragedies, and vice versa. For example, there’s the wonderfully bumbling (and eminently quotable) blowhard Polonius, who brings some comedic touches to the otherwise angst-ridden bloodbath that is Hamlet.
The light-hearted Much Ado About Nothing features a mean and manipulative twist when an act of infidelity is faked in order to sour the groom on his bride-to-be, who reacts to this humiliation by faking her own death, thus putting a bit of a damper on the planned wedding festivities. Bottom line: a Shakespeare play is going to give you some serious highs and lows. You know, kind of like real life.
The not-so-foolish fool
Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature some sort of “fool” character. In the case of the delightful As You Like It (I’m a big fan of this live version filmed in the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed), the fool is an actual professional fool – i.e., a court jester – named Touchstone.
Although Touchstone is one of the funniest characters in the play, he’s also probably the smartest, as demonstrated by the way he casually dispenses incisive and irreverent insights and observations. A fast-thinking, nimble-tongued trickster who jokes and riffs like some 16th-century Robin Williams, this joker is clearly nobody’s fool.
It’s interesting that Shakespeare sometimes likes to give the clearest, most insightful perspectives to characters who outwardly might not elicit much respect – people who likely would be dismissed as fools. One suspects the playwright might have walked some miles in those curly-toed shoes himself, and perhaps this also helped his work resonate with the less privileged – and the less educated – among his audiences. This leads me to my next observation about El Bardo:
Shakespeare didn’t dumb things down – nor did he need to.
The second part of this statement is key: He gives the audience credit for being able to follow his plot and his language. And he shows characters of various levels of intellect, and lets the audience figure out who’s smart and who’s not – and this is often NOT related to that character’s social class or profession. Again, kinda like real life.
Caveat! (Pro tip: Try singing “caveat” to the melody of “Camelot.” Okay, now try to get that out of your head. You’re welcome.)
Okay, back to the actual caveat, which is this: Sadly, I worry that this lesson may not be as applicable to modern writers – particularly those writing for a U.S. audience. I know I’m not alone in noticing a growing trend of anti-intellectualism here in ‘Murica, and there’s a sizable segment of the U.S. population that seems to be alienated and/or turned off by overt displays of logic, wit or intellectual prowess. And when I think about the never-ending wave of dumb-and-dumber movies that keep getting made (I’m looking at you, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Hangover Part III), it makes me wonder whether the Bardinator could even score a development deal in Tinseltown these days.
Truly timeless stories
With all the books, plays and movies that have been inspired by the works of Shakespeare, four centuries later it’s safe to say his work has stood the test of time, with stories that are equally at home in the 16th or 21st centuries – or beyond. That’s why many of his plays have successfully been adapted nearly verbatim to a wide range of times and settings. For example, I’ve watched versions of Hamlet set in its original time, in war-torn Denmark during World War II, and in present-day Manhattan. Each time, it has definitely worked – sometimes surprisingly effectively.
And when you get into the “inspired by” stories that do not adhere to the original text of Shakespeare’s plays, the opportunities can take you as far as outer space (with killer robots and lasers!), as with the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet, a story based on The Tempest, which features what is possibly the Best. Movie. Poster. Ever.
With or without killer robots, for me the biggest takeaway from my study of Shakespeare is this: he truly was a universal storyteller. And that’s something I think we all can learn from.
How about you?
Are you a fan of the Bard? Or does Shakespeare intimidate you (or simply leave you cold)? What lessons have you taken away from his work? How do you think his stories have stood up – or not – to the test of time? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
Forbidden Planet posters available here.
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