Why Fiction Writers Should Read Shakespeare
It struck me recently that I still hadn’t read all of Shakespeare, and there was no real excuse. After all, I claim to be a writer, in English, and Shakespeare has been regarded as the prince of poets for four hundred years. It’s possible that in our benighted days, when even university curricula frequently try to teach identity politics—which means bombarding their students with woke authors of cool ethnicities and sexual persuasions, among other things—Shakespeare, as a Dead White Male from an evil colonial country, is considered irrelevant, or worse, pernicious. But quite apart from the fact that the man was surely gay or bisexual (it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s read the sonnets coming to any other conclusion) and that his plays are full of gender-fluid people, there are compelling literary reasons to read him too.
First, and most obviously, he’s the most gifted user of English we’ve ever had. Read almost anyone alive now, then plunge into Shakespeare for half an hour, and his superiority is immediately evident. And I don’t just mean his often-mentioned vast vocabulary, although it’s certainly stunning. More striking still is his use of imagery, which is constantly astonishing, literally ‘imaginative’ (the word means creating images) in a way that most modern poetry, or what passes for it, is decidedly not. Even if you do not aspire to write poetry, immersion in great poetry can only stimulate you to use rarer and less banal words, to experiment with syntax, to let the child or magician inside you conjure up pictures of things never seen before. If you want an example, consider The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both exercises in the freest, wildest imagination, and both protracted songs.
Second, the dramatic structure that Shakespeare was such a master of is an excellent model for fiction. Just this week one of my most trusted writing friends, who happens to be a television producer in LA, advised me, on reading a draft of a novel of mine, to read Sophocles’ Antigone for its flawless, and almost brutally concise, drama. Sophocles, he told me, presents us with just what we need to know to understand the central conflict, and nothing else. Well, I have read Antigone, and most of the other Greek tragedies, and I agree they’re terrific, but I venture to say that Shakespeare is better still. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, he was not some vain aesthetician, but a practical playwright whose first concern was to entertain, and like the Greeks, he was writing not just for an educated intelligentsia, as too many of our ‘literary’ writers do (myself included, at times!) but for the whole public. Along with lords and ladies and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, the theatres of London, especially the pits where spectators paid a penny to stand, were full of apprentices and tradesmen who came for the action, the thrills, and the laughs, as much as the poetry. (Let’s not underestimate them: they went to church every week, and listened to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, so they probably had a better vocabulary than many a graduate these days. This is true of the old bluesmen of the South too: people marvel how Robert Johnson, who had little schooling, had such a good vocabulary, but it’s clear to me that the churches of Mississippi gave it to him.) He understood all about conflict and how it works, and he understood better than the Greeks that character is the mainspring of conflict. (The Greeks thought it was all about divine will.)
But, you might object, have I got time to read Shakespeare? Isn’t he hard? Well, first, yes, you have time. He wrote about thirty-six plays (a handful are of dubious authorship) and I can usually read one of them in two hours. So the entire dramatic opus is only about 72 hours’ reading. If you read for an hour a day, you could read the lot in ten weeks. Or five weeks if you read two hours a day. And how hard is it? If you’ve been fed on the thin gruel of contemporary fiction, you’re certainly going to find Shakespeare’s stews rich and spicy – perhaps uncomfortably so at first. But you’ll very soon get used to it. You might think his language is old-fashioned, but it’s very obviously modern English (compared to Chaucer, say) and although there are some differences of grammar, you pick those up very quickly, and much of the unfamiliar vocabulary is repeated and thus quickly learned too. (‘Marry’ for example, as an expression of surprise, or ‘whoreson rogue’ as an insult.) Besides, whatever edition you read, there will be a glossary. I find I have to look up no more than a couple of words per page, which is quite comfortable.
Third, I’ll mention in passing something that may not convince many fiction writers, as they tend to think they’re all-wise already. Shakespeare is a fount of wisdom: he simply knows more about the human soul than anyone else, certainly in literature, but perhaps in psychology too. It’s a cliché, but he’s probably the greatest genius who’s ever lived, at least in historical times. The greatest one who’s left a record, in any case. So even if you yourself are a genius, you might learn something from him, as a human being, as well as a writer.
So, perhaps you’re thinking, how much do I need to read? His Greatest Hits? The ten or so plays everyone has heard of? That would be a good start—I suspect most educated people these days, even ones with degrees in literature or creative writing, have not done so much. But why not read the lot? If you were a composer, wouldn’t you want to listen to all of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven? If you’re a writer who aspires to write true art, why would you limit yourself to reading the NY Times bestsellers or Oprah’s picks, or the latest prize winners? Shouldn’t you read all of Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at least?
In case you think I’m hectoring, I’ll admit my own fault. At school, we read two Shakespeare plays a year, from the age of 11, so I must have read ten of his plays by the time I was 16. I did a couple more in the sixth form. Since then I have re-read some of the more famous ones, and have seen quite a few, again usually the more canonical ones, and almost all the film versions. But still I find there are at least a dozen plays I have neither read nor seen. This makes me a very naughty (in the Shakespearean sense, which meant ‘worthless’) old man. And perhaps a whoreson rogue too, no disrespect intended to my mother.
But I’ve begun: six plays in the last ten days or so. Now it’s your turn.
Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell, until 2017 professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his story collection, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. Powell lives in northern Portugal and writes full-time. His novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, was published by Flame Books in 2022, and is available from their website, Amazon, and all good bookshops.
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