So You Want To/Be the Next William Shakespeare
And so, the newest Bard you wish to be!
A playwright and a poet without equal-
But can you craft four hours of verses free
And still have plot left over for the sequel?
If so, prepare to be a household name
Your quotes the cheese to every ham's delight
But don't think you can bluff your way to fame
It's not enough to get the scansion right.
Despite the phallic jokes and bits with elves
The plays hold up a mirror to the age,
And strike at something true within ourselves,
Which gives them such a power on the stage
Still game to try? What ho! Let's have some fun
And make Ol' Shakespeare for his money run.
So you want to be the Next William Shakespeare. Well good on you, i' sooth, but what do you need to win such a title for yourself?
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
To be really considered "The Next William Shakespeare," your work needs to have a real brilliance behind it. A relevance and awareness of the human condition that allows him to be adapted into all languages, all countries, and all times. This is more than just being good, this is the kind of resilience that lets a high school turn The Scottish Play into a musical adaptation with Motown hit tunes ("Stop! In the name of fate...") and that same audience can take Lady Macbeth's insanity just as intensely and seriously to heart while watching Orson Welles' film.
You're also going to need a fantastic control of your own language and wordplay and layers upon layers of depth in your story. And women who are actually played by boys in dresses.
Perhaps we'll go into these tropes later.
Source material! Are you re-adapting a tale from Greek myth? Maybe taking the characters of Greek myth and having them watch a lampooning parody of another Greek myth? I know, I know, write about that Danish prince who pretended to be mad and overthrew his uncle! (But this time make it a tragedy.) Got a Tudor on the throne? Let's write a play glorifying Henry VIII (who cares if it sets the theater on fire.) Okay, now we have a Stuart, do we? Let's see, let's see -- Ooh! A play about the Stuart's great ancestor! Score you major points with the royals.
Originality? You are Shakespeare! You need not ever write an original plot in your life!
Setting, although your later film adaptations can discard it and alter it as they see fit, will influence your work mightily. This is beyond whether your romantic leads will be "Helena" and "Lysander" or "Viola" and "Orsino." Shakespeare played modern-day stereotypes to his advantage: Italians were viewed as passionate, hot-blooded, lusty, and violent (must be all that hot weather, eh? Overbalances the humours), hence Romeo and Juliet were Italian teenagers. His plays set in ancient Greece or Egypt pay special attention to the gods and their worship, and to values such as honoring the dead and the guest (who were hopefully not the same person), which would have been paramount in those eras. On the other hand, his plays set in made-up locales - Illyria, the island of The Tempest - have a rather more mystical air to their characters and their actions, as well as tending to be very musical.
Let not your prose be heliotrope, but plain; say what must needs be said, don't take all day.
Your lines they will be screamed and rend the air--don't fight the Narm, it's just the old Globe's way.
A quote! A quote! My kingdom for a quote! Observe how out of context they have come.
Is all your cast Jesus, all limbo-trapped? Don't try to answer, scholars need their fun.
Start saying everything in iambic pentameter. But don't let anyone in on this. The reason iambic pentameter works is that it of all the poetic forms sounds the closest to 'normal' English.
Lord! Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of water in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought, I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea.
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 't were in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems.
Be vague on this. Really. Is Hamlet an accusation of a prince who dallies in enacting his revenge, only to be forced to take arms against his outrageous fortune at the last possible minute, or is it the tale of a lonely, half-mad soul for whom the world is just too much? Let the audience draw their own conclusions. They'll bring their own woes and insecurities and project them on the words.
Now, remember, some plays of his are more direct. The Tempest makes a pretty clear case for "chastity, modesty, preservation of virtue up until marriage = GOOD THING." Twelfth Night likewise has Olivia and Malvolio learning that cloistering yourself and denying yourself any joy or merry company is foolish and unhealthy (although Malvolio's fate might undermine this...) And Romeo And Juliet seems to say that violence is bad pretty clearly. But don't worry - as your works survive the generations, every generation will find some new Aesop to show off in their productions or essays, and promptly ignore the subtext that their parents read.
But on the whole, Shakespeare's tragedies do tend to contain a story arc where what is wrong in the world is set right, rather than the other way around. Hamlet opens with "something rotten" in the state of Denmark; by the end, Hamlet has removed the infecting king from the throne and paved the way for the decisive and military Fortinbras (what? A spoiler's a spoiler.) Shakespeare's most famous plays, although they end with everybody and the palace cat dead on the stage, still suggest that for the survivors, things might be a little brighter.
Oh, these abound. Whether it's Romeo and Juliet overflowing with Light imagery, or Hamlet and all of the images of decay and corruption, or just the mockery about how short Hermia is in A Midsummer Night's Dream, if you can get a nice running image going through your work, the critics (and the English students of four hundred years to come) will love it.
Put the motifs into your most quotable lines to make them really stand out: "If music be the food of love, play on." "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" "That you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear..." These themes are rooted in both the subject matter and setting of the play (Twelfth Night, set by the sea, uses sea-imagery generously) and also in the characters' relationships with each other - Claudius is corrupting the state of Denmark, both by merit of how he took the throne and by his indulgent habits, letting the proud Danes go to seed. Juliet has become the light of Romeo's life in the fifteen minutes since he first saw her. Puck... well, A Midsummer Night's Dream is pretty much the ultimate "don't think about, have fun, relax" kind of play.
Crossdressing is always fun, especially if it's a boy pretending to be a woman who's dressing up as a boy so that she can spy on her boyfriend. Or pretend to be her twin brother. Or woo another boy-pretending-to-be-a-woman in the name of her overemotional employer. You know what else is fun? Murder.
Whoever said a setting must be sketched
And ev'ry leaf and tile given place?
He obviously was never in a stage
To watch the players swift describe their set
Or else he'd know that tables, branches, lamps
Are all the bare-bones that a theater needs
The Venice high street, woods Athenian
Or inner courtyard sits in the mind's eye
And with such vast spatial fluidity
The stage expands to encompass the globe
Los Angeles, the sea, or outer space,
Now fueled by naught but reader's own fancy,
Can hold whatever drama you create.
A bodkin is a dagger and a glass
A mirror be, keep your props quite simple
And they'll work most splendidly. What ho!
If costumes be the Oscar Bait, sew on!
The clothes of that one era most refined
Elaborate, lush, and accurate, that's good
(And modernizing we'll not speak of here!)
Unless the writing calls for something clear,
Fret not over specifics. Here's a list:
A girl in with flowers in her hair
All garbed in white, then she'd be mad, forsooth
If yellow stockings, lad pursues a suit
Most erroneously. And but of course
Two selves mistook must be arrayed the same
With little cues to keep clear what's the game.
Your cast should be a varied bunch of men,
In how they look, and how they speak, and such.
Back in the day, you see, 'twas all one troupe,
And therefore each man knew what he would play,
Whether the hero, smartass, or a chick
But Will, being the writer, pulled some strings
To give himself the best roles and best lines
For instance, Hamlet's ghost? The bard himself
(A cozy placement in the story's arc)
Or Prospero towards his career's end
Who throws his magic back into the wind.
A swordfight usually begins "Lay on!"
And ends with "Thou hast killed me! I am dead!"
What goes between is not your business now
But that of the two players and the films.
The basic rule would probably be "swords,"
And after that, "be swift," and then "be safe,"
That means that guns aren't cool, katanas are,
And Enforced Method Acting is not good.
And last, your stage directions must be spare,
And only say that which they need to say.
For instance, Exit, pursued by a bear,
The most famous direction to this day.
- For an adaptation of Shakespeare In Space (and its subsequent musical), see Forbidden Planet.
- For high-school adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, check out
- Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is set in Italy, with period-appropriate costumes and swords, the full text, and age-appropriate leads with so much chemistry between them you can see the hormones going off. A must-see.
- Ya can't go wrong with Kurosawa. Ran is King Lear with samurai betrayals set in Himeji-jo. Throne of Blood, meanwhile, is his take on Macbeth.
- Orson Welles did other Shakespeare: Chimes at Midnight is considered by himself to be the best of his work, trumping Citizen Kane.
- Also, don't overlook Scotland, PA, in which Macbeth is reset as a conflict centered around a hamburger joint in 1970s Pennsylvania.
- Nor the recent Australian film version of Macbeth which turned everyone into members of modern Australian drug gangs -- without changing too much of the of the original Shakespeare.
- And then there's Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story, which set Romeo and Juliet in the backdrop of New York's West Side in the 50s, with the two feuding families being two rival gangs.