If It Was Good Enough For Shakespeare!

While I was trying to figure out where my file of reminders for today had gone, about 20 minutes ago (it’s now midnight) which tells you how my day went, I came across a ridiculous ditty I wrote some years ago (and if I remember my fans piled on and added verses) called “If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it is good enough for me.”

Now, I didn’t re-read it. If I remember it read like a drinking song, meaning it sounded like it was written while drunk. So, I won’t inflict it on you.  But the spirit of the thing is not a bad idea.

So when you’re talking and you say “I’m not a real writer, because I only write fanfic or perhaps disguised fanfic.”

We have reason to believe pretty much all of Shakespeare’s work was either based on other existing work, or on legends that were pretty much universally known, or on ballads sold on the street corner.

The important thing is not what you’re writing, but making it yours. Yeah, if you’re playing in fanfic with copyrighted properties, making it yours means taking out stuff that might bring lawyers with shark teeth to your door. So, you learn to file the serial numbers, but other than that? Don’t worry overmuch, because Shakespeare did it. He just took what he found laying around and made it better.

Or when you think you’re not a real writer because you almost had to break the structure of the story to make it come out the way you wanted?
Oh, heck, go watch Much Ado About Nothing. Starts as a comedy, heads to tragedy, comes back around to comedy through major act of author. Still staged.  Why? Because even though those of us who understand story (and a lot who don’t, consciously) know there is something wrong there, it’s enormously entertaining.

So, if you have to indulge in a bit of structure breaking, remember Shakespeare did it.

Or when you think you have long passages signifying nothing? Eh. As long as they’re funny, you can probably get away with it. Or as long as people are in the mood to keep reading. Drunken constables, and verbose grave diggers and all.

The bit with the dog is hard to do in books, but you can try (And I know right now a bunch of you lunatics are doing just that. Just to show me.)

But, you say, you have really icky situations and terrible romances, and and and…. Oh, please. Go Watch Midsummer’s Night Dream. I mean, the fairy queen falls in love with a guy with the head of a donkey. An actual donkey. You can’t get much weirder than that, even in modern day shifter romance.
And Romeo and Juliet?  She’s barely a teen.  Just go with it.

But you say, my dialogue is unrealistic!

No, really. What? Do your characters have long soliloquies contemplating offing themselves? Do they pause in the middle of action to compare themselves to various very strange things?

But, you say, sometimes I pander to what seems to be prevailing opinion.

Well… there are limits to how much one can do that before one hits the wall — trust me — and I don’t think Shakespeare’s Historical Plays (Which largely amount to Tudor propaganda) are his best work, but heck, they’re still performed.

But… but …. but…. sometimes I am not sure I’m using a word right.  Ah! Shakespeare made up words wholesale. Because he needed one at the time, and wasn’t about to give up on a certain rhythm just because he didn’t have a word to hand.

But, seriously, you say, I make puns and am very silly half the time, even in the middle of serious stuff.

So, was Shakespeare.  It’s called comic relief for a reason. And as for puns! Well. At one time older son started explaining Shakespearean slang and why some things were funny to his 7th grade class.  (Yes, I DID get the phone call. Yes, some of the puns were off color. Fortunately the teacher was susceptible to being snob-shamed and didn’t want me to think she was positively Victorian.  The truth I couldn’t tell her was that my kids had long since decided mom’s research books were fascinating, and you try to keep a kid who is determined to read something away from those books. You might as well try to stop rain from falling.)  Even Jane Austen who has been called Shakespeare’s little sister named a character Fanny Price. And if you don’t think that’s funny, I’m not explaining.

Let it go. Let it all go. If you are mortally embarrassed by what you’re writing, feel free to write it under Ima Nidiot. But be prepared for Ms. Nidiot to become a bestseller.

You don’t have to be perfect to be good. You don’t have to be stunningly original to be worth reading. You don’t have to never make a craft mistake to be worthy of being a writer.

Say it with me: if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

Just keep the reader reading, and keep them entertained.  And they’ll come back for more.  And give you a lot of money.

Master Shake-staff understood that.  Which is why his plays are still performed when playwrights that were, at the time, considered much more accomplished and highbrow are utterly forgotten unless your local college is holding a I’m snobbier than thou Obscure Playwrights Week.

Be like Shakespeare. Just write it. And make it fun.

All the rest is irrelevant.

28 comments

  1. The worrying thing about Shakespeare is how thoroughly “educators” can suck the fun out of it.

    The first of his works I was ever aware of encountering was being taken to Branagh’s Henry V at the cinema, I watched it later on video (still entertaining).

    By the time (two years later?) I was required to study it for “English” (NZ being a British Commonwealth nation) I was *completely* over Shakespeare (& any pretty much any entertainment which wasn’t for fun, which used to bug my “English” teachers no end, because I’d pretend to be reading the assigned text, while I was actually _reading_ something else entirely under the desk, but neither would nor could analyse my way out of a wet paper bag).

    1. My kids knew Shakespeare so well by the time they hit it in school.
      So both of them ROUTINELY took over the classes on Shakespeare and made it MUCH MORE fun for everyone. (Rolls eyes.)
      No credit to me. Both of them like puns and dirty jokes.

      1. The students at Day Job were aghast as one of the English teachers and I were doing the “I bite my thumb, but not at thee, sir,” from Romeo and Juliet back and forth before class, with all innuendoes intact.

      2. Saw a Richard III production at the Old Globe in San Diego back in the ‘80s. It was done as Blackadder style dark comedy with Paxton Whitehead in the titular role. His was the calm, normal person with everybody else running around like crazy people. The way it was played you could see the Anti Tudor digs Old Will put in it. I wish there was a video of it.

  2. Hell, I watched a Shakespeare play in ROMANIAN (I *think* it was Love’s Labours Lost) and even though I couldn’t fully follow the dialogue (I was fluent in Romanian by that point, but Shakespeare–and I expect *especially* translated Shakespeare–was a whole other ball game.)

    It was still hilarious. It helped, of course, that the actors on stage were also playing up the physical comedy aspect (although I have zero idea what the plot was, on account of not catching more than one word in ten, heh).

    Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite renditions of that play. Even if the rest of the cast wasn’t brilliant, it would be worth it alone for Michael Keaton’s Dogberry.

    1. We watch a lot of anime.

      Recently, the Duchess has been on a Cells At Work kick. Needless to say, the seven year old isn’t catching the medical explanation blocks that flash up on the screen, the five and unders aren’t reading the subtitles, and neither the eight nor ten year olds are catching more than a few of the spoken, Japanese words.

      It still works and they enjoy it, because (quoting five year old) “Ghost guy* with knifes likes pretty girl** and he fights monsters, and she helps him! And bunches of other good guys fight monster germs! And is funny.”

      Good guys get a dramatic music, focus on them posing cool intro; bad guys get a cool pose, scary music, dramatic laugh and short monolog while posing before doing something scary. Then when there’s lots of physical humor– like the delivery girl sqeezing through a narrow alley to deliver oxygen to a cell there, or the wait-his-character-design-is-totally-shingami guy ninjas up from a sewer grate, or a whole pack of white blood cells stops (drenched in blood) to ask for directions to the next monster.
      (The three year old got that gag, even; blood, germ-parts flying, screaming war cries, then a shouted question, dead silence, focus character pointing and answering quietly, a polite thank you complete with a bow and they run off screaming again. Oh, gads, the Chief HOWLED with laughter.)

      Costumes, character introduction shots, color-coding, big huge themes like consistent weapons…. hey, the cheap seats are paying, too!

      *White Blood Cell U-1146
      ** Red Blood Cell AE3803

  3. So when you’re talking and you say “I’m not a real writer, because I only write fanfic or perhaps disguised fanfic.”

    We have reason to believe pretty much all of Shakespeare’s work was either based on other existing work, or on legends that were pretty much universally known, or on ballads sold on the street corner.

    I seem to remember reading in comments somewhere around here that totally new stories– new characters, settings and plotline– were really unusual. You got fifty gazillion Adventures of Robin Hood, some of them mutually exclusive.
    Stealing from a bunch of places is research!
    Or so I justify my going “wow, I hate the cartoon the kids are watching. It doesn’t have anything specifically objectionable, even after fifteen viewings, but wow the smart character is consistently blond to a painful degree. Hm, you know, how exactly would that plot point authority figure function…..” and end up making a kingdom for future use.
    (Including digressions about “kingdom” being the area a king rules, and thinking about how to have like six kingdoms overlapping an area, with some folks ignoring all of them.)

    Because even though those of us who understand story (and a lot who don’t, consciously) know there is something wrong there, it’s enormously entertaining.

    Need more coffee. Brain translated that as “Shakespeare wrote crackfic.”

      1. And given some of the shenanigans in his comedies–as you said, just LOOK at Midsummer Night’s Dream–it might be straight up crack-fic in the traditional sense as well (ie, crazy ridiculous stuff that’s just fun)

  4. Shakespeare (1) had to write things that got crowds in, enjoyed them, and most importantly, got paid-because there was no other way to do it beyond getting people into the theaters and getting their tickets, over and over and over again.

    I will admit, he was good at a turn of phrase, and anybody that believes the stage is “realistic” in the “has to mirror real life(2)” sense needs their head examined. It’s probably why I didn’t make it through more than two semesters of College English-I was trying to learn how to be a writer by understanding the language, but the Cult of Deconstruction was already well, well, established.

    (1)-For the sake of argument, there is no “writer behind the playwright” conspiracy theory things here.

    But…an interesting story idea, with someone that has a lot more knowledge of the era, would be that Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe would “swap” plays with each other, especially if one of them needed money more than the other. The other writer would revise it and add “their” touches.

    (2)-I agree with the author. Brannagh’s version of Henry V is probably the best version of the play to come to the screen. Even when Tom Hiddleson did it for The Hollow Crown, Brannagh was able to put such absolute calm menace in the “tennis balls” scene and several others that I consider it to be the gold standard. His “steel my soldier’s hearts” speech-one would expect bombastic, instead it is quiet and it makes it all the better.

    1. Yes. I play the Agincourt speech every year for the students, and after five minutes of that they’re ready and willing to go attack the French. Great acting + greater writing = magic. Brannagh has a gift. His being closer in age to the real Henry than most actors who take the role has a lot to do with it, I suspect, but still. Wow. He’s amazing.

  5. “I’m not a real writer, because I only write fanfic or perhaps disguised fanfic.”

    Lin Carter made a career out of thinly disguised fanfic. Some major author who have publish not-so-disguised fanfic include Mike Resnick, John C. Wright and Robert Heinlein. The last half of The Pursuit of the Pankera is Barsoom/Lensman fanfic with a dash of OZ.

  6. I tried to write up an essay of the theme ‘how to write awesome fanfic’ for someone who was putting together advice for writers, that could be from readers.

    I suspect I failed to produce a great essay that met all my goals.

    But yeah, great chunks of the literature are fanfic for the purpose of that essay, there is a lot of awesome fanfic, and there can even be a bizarrely literary appetite for derivative fiction. Naruto SI stories could be understood as part of a big academic conversation, and all that jazz.

    Don’t let theory get in the way of having fun with writing. Fanfic just means you love the original work, and disappointed by it, even if only because Dick Seaton isn’t building Death Stars for Honor Harrington to lead against the Anti-Spirals.

  7. “If you are mortally embarrassed by what you’re writing, feel free to write it under Ima Nidiot. But be prepared for Ms. Nidiot to become a bestseller.”

    There’s a little indy film called “We love you Sally Carmichael” that takes this as a premise and runs with it. A male author pens a Romeo & Juliet / Twilight ripoff (Romeo/Edward is a merman, rather than a vampire), and it takes off to Harry Potter-like success, and he hates it becuz he dashed those books off as drek to fulfill a contract with his publisher. Meanwhile, he can’t get the books that he writes under his own name to sell at all….

    It’s a very cute movie. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5664676/

  8. You have to see Shakespeare performed, I firmly believe. Not read by rote in your high school English class with the other barely-interested students reading the parts. You have to see it performed to really grasp it…
    Which reminds me of how my daughter – then about three years old – got into Shakespeare. We were in the habit of going to my next-door neighbors’ house, early in the 1980s to watch “Jewel In the Crown” when it showed on Greek TV – with subtitles in Greek because the channel broadcasting it was too cheap to opt for dubbing. When something came up at the last minute, and they couldn’t broadcast the latest ep of “Jewel” they did an episode of the Royal Shakespeare Co. doing any old play – usually one of the history plays, which I presume they pulled out of their video library as a last minute replacement in the schedule. And my daughter was enthralled. It was really quite eerie, watching her, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching every word of whatever play with adamantine concentration.
    She still digs Shakespeare, BTW. And is immersed in self-education when it comes to Tudor history…

    1. Agreed, Shakespeare–the plays, at any rate–are MEANT to be watched in performance of some kind, not just read.

      For one thing, the jokes are a LOT funnier when you get physical comedy/gestures/expressions added alongside them.

    2. Concerning the idea that, to be properly understood, plays should be performed, I have a tale from my past that is (at least tangentially) somewhat relevant.

      At one point during my 8th grade (1976-1977), my English teacher had our class read 1776 aloud (we read the spoken lines, and she played an album of the Broadway soundtrack for the songs). Most of my classmates read their assigned roles by rote, and the teacher kept rotating them through the various roles. I, on the other hand, read John Adams, and she kept me in that role from beginning to end.

      (At the time, I attributed this to my resembling John Adams as being “obnoxious and disliked.” Fortunately, I eventually overcame most of my self-dislike.)

  9. If you are mortally embarrassed by what you’re writing, feel free to write it under Ima Nidiot. But be prepared for Ms. Nidiot to become a bestseller.

    I’m reminded of all the Much Ado in collegiate lit circles (at least, when I was in and around such circles, seventeen-odd years back) about whether Shakespeare wasn’t somebody else writing under a pen name. In light of that, maybe he did start out that way– if we don’t know that he was born with that surname, it leaves open a possibility that it was assumed for the sake of a phallic joke. And one in keeping with his known humour, at that.

        1. Oh, dear Lord. ALL OF THEM.
          He was actually referred to by contemporaries as Mr. Waggstaff….. 😛
          Most surnames coming from that time have a dirty hidden meaning. The Eizabethans had filthy minds and middle school sense of humor.
          My kids still call him shake-staff or waggle-staff….

  10. I recently read a “human meets alien” (not first alien for either species, but is for the individuals) scene and thought about writing a chapter by chapter head-hopping story with the alien and human alternating. Then I realized that everyone would think it was a romance and be upset if the two characters just went their separate ways at the end.

    Breaking convention can be perilous 🙂

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