Master Study: 5 Things I’ve Learned from Shakespeare

A Weird Circular Guest Post by David Hopkins

My wife is a classically trained artist. She’s devoted several years to perfecting her craft. She studied at an atelier, and she has one-on-one mentoring with a master painter. The level of commitment is intense. She’s an incredible artist. Lo and behold, the process works.

I’ve learned a lot from watching her process. She inspires me with how she studies master works, recreating them as a practice for honing her own skills. She deeply examines art from OGs like Caravaggio, Bouguereau, and Gérôme.

What would this look like for a writer? To stay true to the atelier approach, we’re not talking about contemporary masters—although I think there’s something to learn there as well—we need to go further back. Hence, Shakespeare. It’s hard to get past the Bard. To quote the man himself, “He bestrides the narrow world like a colossus.”

My first experience with Shakespeare was over 30 years ago. As a high school freshman, I was cast as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (True story: I snuck into Saturday detention to force myself to study the script.) From there, I discovered and fell in love with some of the film versions of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Zeffirelli’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, much later Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. As a high school English teacher, I taught Julius Caesar year after year. My poor students were at the mercy of my enthusiasm for the material. We spent more time on Caesar than almost anything else. I regret nothing. And then, last year, I put together a massive four-week seminar on Shakespeare for, which contains over 20 hours worth of lectures. That experience put me in contact with Emma Smith’s incredible book, This Is Shakespeare, and the podcast of her Oxford course. I probably know more about Shakespeare than any other topic. And yet, I feel like I’m just getting started with my scholarship.

Shakespeare is the master I’ve apprenticed myself to. He’s my Caravaggio, my Bouguereau. And he’s taught me more than anything I could hope to learn from an MFA or writing retreat. I strongly believe in the value of “master study.” Writers read. There’s no way around it. And more than the casual reader, we read with a notebook next to us and a pencil in hand.

The basics: What should a writer know about Shakespeare’s life?

Shakespeare was a real person who lived over 400 years ago. He was a consistent writer who produced roughly two plays a year for twenty years. At the beginning of his career, there’s evidence to suggest he was mentored by more experienced playwrights—and at the end of his career, in turn, he mentored new talent such as Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher. His plays were adapted from older works—historical accounts, myths, folklore, epic poems, and other plays. The exceptions are so rare, in those instances, some scholars wonder if we’ve simply lost those original works. Adaptations were the norm for playwrights at that time. It made commercial sense, and people enjoyed seeing how a theatre would rework and refresh another work. (For example, we know Shakespeare departed from the source material of King Lear to make it even sadder.) Shakespeare was an actor and part owner at the Globe, where he performed his plays. His more popular plays were performed several times, and Shakespeare would revise the work throughout his life. Sometimes, the work would be condensed for private performances for the nobility. Shakespeare was not necessarily the most popular or successful playwright during his life—but he was mostly respected among his peers.

Those are some of the basics about his life. What can we learn from Shakespeare’s work?

1. Two-dimensional characters are the goal.

Let’s start with one of the more controversial insights. When you read a character and think that they’re “so real” and “three dimensional,” much of that is you as the reader projecting onto the story. Your brain is the actor. The words on the page are the script and direction. Your brain is making it feel real. The reader’s contribution to the narrative process cannot be diminished. Likewise, when you see Hamlet on stage, that actor is bringing a lot to the experience that was never in the script. Not to mention, over 400 years worth of great actors developing the role.

I’ve written characters who were not that complicated. Two dimensional, at best. And readers have told me how I did such a great job bringing that character to life. Am I going to disagree with them? Hell no. But was it me or them that did the heavy lifting?

You can spend a lot of time developing a character, but at a certain point, the reader isn’t able to hold everything you’re giving them—so you need to focus on three key things instead: (1) an easily understood personality type, (2) conflicting desires, (3) something surprising later in the story that feels out-of-character. The reader’s brain will take all this good stuff, make interesting connections, and fill in the rest. I’m fairly sure this is more or less what Shakespeare did. And it works. You don’t need to overthink it. Throw in some great dialogue, and you’re really kicking ass. (I understand “throw in some great dialogue” is the hard part. It’s impossible to separate dialogue from character.)

Some examples: Han Solo is a great character, but is he really that complicated? He’s a smooth talker and a charmer. A rogue. But he’s conflicted between his desire to “take the money and run” vs. loyalty towards these new friends. The movie doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on it, but it’s all there. There’s a humorous, out-of-character moment when they sneak into the Deathstar. He fumbles through his lie: “Everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now. Thank you. How are you?” No longer the smooth talker, and we love him even more for it.

We can run the same exercise with almost all of Shakespeare’s major characters. Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a massive ego, and he’s delusional. True, he’s not conflicted about much. Except that he wants the performance to be perfect. He wants to be the star. And he’s thrown into a fantasy world where he is the pawn of forces much greater than him. A good actor might show that Nick’s not entirely unaware of his actual place in the world and that he’s compensating for his insecurities. His “most rare vision” monologue when he awakes from his time with Titania can be oddly moving and insightful. See Kevin Kline’s performance in the 1999 film for a great example.

2. Variation within a form should be the norm.

Possibly another controversial statement, but Freytag’s Pyramid (and most narrative models) are great as an analytical tool but terrible for guiding writers in the creation of a story. 19th century German novelist and critic Gustav Freytag first used his pyramid to explain the plot structure of Shakespeare’s work, specifically: Romeo and Juliet. But do you know who most strays from Freytag? Shakespeare!

The structure and plot elements of Shakespeare’s plays vary widely, usually suited to the needs of that particular story. Consistency is frequently an illusion created by the people who teach Shakespeare.

Fun fact: The act and scene breaks in Shakespeare’s plays were inserted after his death.

Shakespeare usually opens the play with a scene featuring minor characters who introduce the major characters. But in Richard III, it opens with a monologue from the man himself. Henry V has a Greek-style chorus, which we don’t see in any of his other plays. Taming of the Shrew has an utterly baffling prologue setting up a framework for the telling of the story to Christopher Sly. It’s all part of an elaborate practical joke. But the play never returns to the Sly storyline. In many of his plays, we see parallel storylines, time jumps, and flashbacks, but not all.

While the turning point in the middle is one of the more essential parts of a Shakespearean story, big moments can happen at any point. In Hamlet, the king is assassinated before the play starts. In Macbeth, it’s Act Two. In Julius Caesar, it’s act three. In Richard II, it’s act five. (Proving that there’s never a wrong time to kill the king in your story.)

Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare seems obsessed with mixing and blurring genres: Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, and let’s not forget the hot mess that is The Tempest. I love that play, but dude, pick a lane. Or what about the ending of Henry V, which featured all the elements of a comedy marriage.

What’s the takeaway for authors? Suit the action to the word. In this context, let the story decide your structure. If you want to insert a seemingly unnecessary flashback into the middle of your novel that only has a thematic connection to the larger story, go for it. If Shakespeare did it, they’d call him a genius for it. If you want the genre of your story to shift suddenly from comedy into tragedy, you do you. If you want to create a character whose only purpose is to be murdered in the streets of Rome over a case of mistaken identity as a way to show the mob mentality and because it’s kind of funny (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 3), knock yourself out. It’s your damn story. Do what you need to do. And you’re under no obligation to explain your motivations.

3. Poetic devices belong in all types of writing.

Allegedly, Shakespeare was better known as a poet in his lifetime. Or at least his erotic poem, Venus and Adonis, was his best-selling work in print. I say “allegedly” because steamy romance and erotica always sells well. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how people knew him best. Sure, everyone might have a copy of that poem hidden away in their house—but there’s no way to easily gauge the public perceptions of that time.

Regardless, Shakespeare was a poet. He appears to have been a prolific, published, and well-paid poet. And you can see that poetic impulse in his plays as well. He used a variety of poetic devices in his work.

I’m not saying you need to write a novella entirely in blank verse—although, don’t threaten me with a good time, I’m strongly considering it. But as writers, we cannot ignore the need for our words to sound good and have a flow. Like it or not, on our best days, we’re poets, too. Not only does it improve the aesthetic quality of our work, but it can better aid understanding and impact. So, don’t shy away from alliteration. Sneak in that rhyming couplet at the end. Extend that metaphor.

4. The characters must experience meaningful consequences.

I’m certain Shakespeare never worried about how he was going to “save” a particular character from a tricky situation. In such instances, they died. I know people accuse George R.R. Martin of being too brutal, but are you familiar with Titus Andronicus or Macbeth? Shakespeare was absolutely savage. But I prefer to think of it this way: Shakespeare strongly believed in meaningful consequences for his characters. Even if we move to his comedies, Malvolio in Twelfth Night is destroyed for his attempt to rise above his class. When I think of Malvolio, that Simpsons meme comes to mind: “Stop! Stop! He’s dead already!”

Sometimes we’re too precious with our characters and too resistant to tragic endings. Why? Perhaps we think that in a world of trigger and content warnings, where cozy romances rule the bestseller charts, that people only want the happily ever after—but I don’t think that’s true. Someone’s yuck is another person’s yum. One person’s “no thank you” is another’s “yes please.” As a writer, it’s okay to destroy someone on a deep emotional level. That’s part of the timeless appeal of Romeo and Juliet.

Also, Juliet is one of the few female Shakespeare characters in Shakespeare’s work who gets interiority (more on that soon). Many teenage girls could see themselves in the Capulet daughter. She is treasured, but ignored. Privileged, but all agency is taken from her. Madly in love, but suffering. The consequences are sobering. I’d list her as one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, along with Hamlet, John Falstaff, and Iago. Also, let’s not forget the bear in The Winter’s Tale.

We’ve heard the hackneyed writing advice to “kill your darlings.” Perhaps we need to think of it this way: Love your darlings enough to give them the story they truly deserve.

5. Interiority matters.

And finally, Shakespeare worked hard to let us know what the main characters were thinking through the liberal use of soliloquy and asides. The characters often shared their thoughts with the audience, letting us in on their deepest hopes and fears. Yes, we can reveal a character through their actions, but having Hamlet mope about isn’t the same as hearing his haunting soliloquy, which begins with “to be or not to be.”

It’s important to let your audience know what your characters are thinking. It’s a powerful tool, and I’m surprised how often authors will leave us in the dark. Let us in!

Master study can take you in some surprising directions.

The great thing about master study is that two people can study the same author and walk away with different insights. Most often, they will get what they most need. These are my observations of Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean this is all he has to offer. And depending on where you are in your craft, the lessons might be less obvious. The important part is that we approach great work with a curious mind and a willingness to leave our cynicism behind.

Boom. Rhyming couplet.

About the Author

David Hopkins is a fantasy novelist with an interest in Shakespeare (I mean, did you read the blog post?), medieval history, fairy tales, and myth. He is the author of The Dryad’s Crown, a story set in the vast world of Efre Ousel. BookLife described book one of The Dryad's Crown as "a welcome, inventive, humane fantasy, set at the scale of a single fascinating life." David has been a regular contributor to D Magazine, Smart Pop Books, and Fanboy Radio. He has written op-eds for the Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune, comic books and graphic novels in a variety of genres, and even a few D&D adventures. David is married to artist and designer April Hopkins. They have two daughters, Kennedy and Greta, and a dog named Moose.

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