I know, Shakespeare is a subject that makes many high school students crawl up inside their own heads and shriek in agony. (Unless you’re a theater kid, had an excellent teacher, or were like me, went to college, and had his plays properly explained.)
So, buckle up. We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare’s use of character, structure, and dramatic tension. Specifically, we’ll be discussing how Shakespeare used the same narrative five act structure for both his comedies and his tragedies. He built happy endings and tragic endings from a character oriented perspective, the personalities of each character, their flaws, their foibles, their human failings, from the information they had on hand, and the decisions they made as a result. Most importantly, this will be a discussion about how you can apply these helpful lessons to your writing, because that’s what this blog is about.
If you’ve ever been confused by Shakespeare and the language, understand, it’s not your fault. Language is always changing, reading the language of Shakespeare, Elizabethan English is like reading a completely different language. I missed almost all the jokes and the insults when I studied Shakespeare in high school (both high and low) or I didn’t understand why they were funny, and there were a lot of them.
Below, I’ve included a passage from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing where Claudio breaks his engagement with his fiancee Hero after he and Don Pedro are convinced by Don John that Hero is faithlessly meeting with another man.
There, Leonato, take her back again.
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
Oh, what authority and show of truth.
Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence.
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid.
By these exterior shows? But she is none.
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
When Claudio calls Hero a “rotten orange” in Much Ado About Nothing, he’s calling her a prostitute. Changes the tenor of the scene, doesn’t it? A man drags his fiancee before her family and his boss to break the engagement, and claims she’s a prostitute. This is a comedy!
And so it is, because Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. However, the play could just as easily been Othello or Romeo and Juliet if the crucial information of Hero’s innocence and Don John’s treachery had not been revealed on time. If Benedick had dueled Claudio as Beatrice requested, in her anger, and they’d slain each other. Everything might have fallen apart, and we’d be left with a tragic outcome.
One of the things to understand about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, even his romances, is they all share the exact same structure in the first four acts. At the ending of the fourth act, when events come to a head, as we head toward resolution, our characters hit their tipping point and the whole play rests on a razor’s edge of whether our story will end tragically or happily. The villain of the play incites the action, sets the fall, but ultimately it’s the choices of the other characters (and the timely arrival of crucial information) which decide the outcome.
We, the audience, are given information throughout. We know all, from Don John’s plot to the fact Hero is not dead but still alive. We feel more dramatic tension from that anxiety, wondering how or if, the characters will ever find out. Will Claudio learn he has accused Hero falsely? Will Benedick be forced to duel his best friend? He will, for the woman he loves and her belief Claudio has slandered her cousin. And what of Hero? Will her name be cleared? Will she get the happy ending she deserves?
There’s that building anxiety, even when we know what the outcome will be, until the tension finally releases at the climax.
In the tragedy, the truth is never revealed, opportunities are missed, offers of reconciliation are rejected, and our heroes set themselves on course for the worst possible outcome. Their decisions based on the knowledge they have and their own personalities, their strengths, their flaws, their foibles shown throughout the earlier acts, ultimately create these tragic endings for their stories.
If Romeo wasn’t such a hasty overly emotional twit… (ah, youth.)
If Othello had only accepted the evil in Iago… If only he’d believed Desdemona…
Except, it couldn’t have been otherwise. If it were, they’d be different people and that’s the core of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so great. That’s why we still put them on four hundred years later. Love him or hate him, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.
So, what can you learn from Shakespeare?
Actions create plot. The actions of your characters. A single decision, one small action, can change the course of an entire narrative.
Many writers think of plot as external, overarching, moving from Point A to Point B with events happening because they need to. The end result is characters who are recipients and passengers rather than a force driving their narrative forward. This isn’t true with Shakespeare, nothing happens because it needs to. The entire narrative is driven by the decisions of various characters from major to minor.
We never ask, why did that event happen? We don’t need to. We know why, we know who, we understand the exterior circumstances which forced the issue, how the character made their decision, and, for good or ill, why they acted the way they did.
Instead, we ask, why didn’t X, or Y, or B choose differently?
There have been endless debates, discussions, and scholarly papers written about the decisions and choices of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. They’re treated as such a gold standard, a hallmark of excellence in storytelling, that their brilliance is often not explained unless you choose to make a study of them.
If you were to take one lesson from Shakespeare, I would say look at each choice your character makes without thinking of where you want your story to go and look at the array of potential outcomes.
Every moment in life is filled with choices, of maybes, of might have beens. Your characters have a kaleidoscope of options, pick one, and ask yourself what happens as a result? What are the external forces which lead to cascading dominoes? And as the dominoes fall, what results from them? At what point are your characters locked in? When in your narrative have they passed the point of no return? What was the decision which got them there? How do other characters react to those decisions?
Human beings are messy, they’re imperfect, and filled with flaws. Every quality which leads to greatness can just as easily be the hubris which causes the fall.
Write your stories with such tight characterization and plotting that your audience never asks, why did that happen? They won’t need to. They’ll know it could not have been otherwise.