Friday Writing Experiment No. 5: Borrowing From The Bard

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I saw the fabulous production of Twelfth Night at the Globe on Sunday, and as ever when watching Shakespeare I am awed into submission by the range and the depth of everything on show in the work: the language, the storytelling, the characters. And the words! The OED tells us that Shakespeare was the first recorded user of 1,035 words (bandit, critic, dewdrop, ode, puke, swagger …), and he also coined many phrases that have passed into common usage (fool’s paradise, love letter, into thin air, elbow room, green-eyed monster …). And many books have in turn taken their titles from Shakespeare’s work (Infinite Jest, The Dogs of War, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Pale Fire, The Sound and the Fury, Brave New World …). What a legacy.

And let’s not forget too that Shakespeare was a borrower himself. My programme for Twelfth Night tells me how the play owes a debt to Plautus, the Roman writer of comedy, as well as collections of tales such as Riche His Farewell To Militarie Profession (1581) by ‘old-soldier-turned-writer Barnaby Riche’. And of course he adapted plots (the histories, MacBeth) and even lifted descriptions from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

This week, I’m going to suggest that you lean heavily into this wealth of wordsmithery, and take a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, and write off it in some way or other.

I did this once, for example, using as an epigraph a line from Queen Gertrude in Hamlet – ‘Ay me, what act/ That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?’ – to create a short story about the secret life of a freelance indexer. I think I had the indexer in mind as a character to start with, but in doing a bit of research into indexing I stumbled across this quotation and began to wonder about the hidden life that roared and thundered beneath a tame exterior. The word thunder was a particular gift for helping this character come to life.

You might use your prompt as an epigraph too, or maybe a title or a first or last line, or maybe it’ll appear in dialogue or in some other explicit or subtle way, or somehow as a framing device. Your chosen form could be a short story or a poem, or whatever strikes your fancy.

This also reminds me of a class that Dr Reed Bye sometimes teaches at Naropa called Writing With Shakespeare, where students read plays while continuing an ongoing project that picks up ‘on infinite clues, character facets, and dramatic-linguistic stimuli’ within Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps this could even be something larger?

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