Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Write Like Shakespeare

Saturday was Shakespeare's 447th birthday, and as part of the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project, I'd like to share some pictures and thoughts from my recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare's Birthplace
 First, a confession: As much as I loved Chawton, Stratford-upon-Avon grabbed my heart and would not let go. I felt absolutely at home here, and I did not want to leave.

Shakespeare's Grave, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Even in March, the city was full of tourists. (I ran into the same group of French students every place I went.) They all come to visit because they have been touched by the words of a man who died almost 400 years ago.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, childhood home of Shakespeare's wife
 The authorship of those words, however, has been a subject of contention for the last 150-200 years. When I was at Anne Hathaway's Cottage, I overheard the guide explaining the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy to another visitor.

There are several reasons some people doubt Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. However, the most ludicrous to my mind is this: Shakespeare grew up in a small town in rural England and never traveled any farther than London. His life experiences wouldn't have given him the keen understanding of human nature we see in the works attributed to his name.

Let's put this argument in perspective. Many of Shakespeare's plays are histories. If we're to believe he couldn't have understood people well enough to write the complex relationships he did, then how would Francis Bacon, the Earls of Denby and Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe (all given as potential candidates) have been able to write about events in the past? They didn't experience them, so surely they couldn't have written about them.

King James Bible, first edition. Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Ridiculous, yes? Have these people never heard of books? Shakespeare lived in a time when books were becoming readily available to the masses. The obvious example in his lifetime was the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, but even before that the written word was a hot commodity among those who could read.

Guild Chapel, King Edward VI Grammar School, Stratford-upon-Avon
Some go so far as to argue that Shakespeare was illiterate, but that stretches credulity a bit far. As the son of a well-to-do man, he would almost certainly have been educated at the local grammar school. There he would have received instruction in Latin and Greek, a vital tool since most works were still written in either language.

Carnegie Library, Stratford-upon-Avon
Today, Stratford's public library is just two doors down from the Birthplace, as if it is impossible to separate a love and reverence for the Bard from a love of books. Shakespeare read classical myths and the plays and poems of his day, and in them he traveled to places he could only see in his mind. Today, people read his plays for the same reason. His words take us to Ancient Rome, to the battlefield of Agincourt, to fair Verona. With each reading, we learn more about people and history, about mythology and poetry.

This is why writers need to read. It is not so we understand how to use language, when to follow the rules and when to break them. Those are things we learn in the process of attaining a greater wisdom:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, 166-167)

If you want to write like Shakespeare, if you want to live in a world that is wider than you can imagine, then you must read.