What Can We Learn from Reading William Shakespeare?

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What can you learn about writing by studying the works of William Shakespeare? Well, quite a bit actually. It’s not really an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare is the most influential English writer of all time. He is the earliest known source for over 1,700 words, he pioneered techniques of drama and poetry that still remain popular after four centuries, and his works have direct influence on everything from Death of a Salesman to The Lion King. With a record like that, it’s safe to say that any writer could stand to learn a few things by studying his work and that’s why today we’ll be looking at some important lessons writers can take away from the works of William Shakespeare.

1) Language is just as important as content.

Shakespeare wrote some great stories, but most of them were derivations of stories that were very popular at the time. The magical sex comedy of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the revenge-tragedy of Hamlet, and the epic historiography of the Henriad were all based off of other stories that were popular at the time. One of the ways that Shakespeare elevated his stories beyond the level of his peers is with his use of language and poetry. For example:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Shakespeare manipulates the language in these two lines to emphasize the “t” sounds (that, too, melt), the “th” sounds (that, this, thaw), and balance the beginning and end of the two lines with a similar sound (O and dew). The result is a smooth, natural, and soft type of speech that perfectly fits the thoughtful and dour Danish prince. It’s a perfect use of language telling the story and it demonstrates how important it is to balance content and form.

2) Literature is a broad category.

In far too many of my writing workshops, I’ve found that most people think that proper literature should be mostly about such riveting subjects as the quiet desperation of everyday life or maudlin twenty-somethings with inexplicable ennui. And if that’s what you want to write about, more power to you! There should be room in literature for all sorts of stories. However, something to keep in mind is that Shakespeare is the very heart of English literature. And what did Shakespeare write?

Paranormal mysteries. Sex comedies. Romantic adventures about magical islands. War epics. He wrote a wide variety of genres and his stories were filled with sex, violence, and anything else he found entertaining. So, don’t worry that your writing won’t be taken seriously. Just try to have fun with it.

3) Start in the middle.

In Romeo and Juliet, the story begins (after an introduction by the chorus) at the height of a bitter feud between two families, just before the Prince declares that any further breach of the public peace will be punishable by death. In Much Ado About Nothing, the story begins following a war between two brothers, In Richard II, the story begins with one nobleman accusing another of treason and challenging him to a duel.

All writers have a tendency to want to begin a story at the beginning. They want to tell you about how the feud began, what happened during the war, or with one nobleman investigating his suspicions that someone might have betrayed the king. The result is a very boring and slow moving story that takes a lot of time to get to the point. Shakespeare knew the truth of things. You start the story in the middle, preferably as close to action as possible. Anything else and the story will just drag.

These are just a few general things that we can learn from Shakespeare, but they’re all good examples of how important studying the work of Shakespeare—as well as other influential writers—can be in developing your own skills. Next time, we’ll continue our look at Shakespeare by getting a bit more specific and seeing what we can learn about character development by looking at one of my favorite characters: Ophelia. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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