5 Ways William Shakespeare Wrote like a Modern Professional Screenwriter...
And 3 Ways Will did Not
5 WAYS THE BARD IS LIKE A MODERN PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITER
Shakespeare was a writer for hire, brought in to rework the material of other writers.
Many people have the romantic image of William Shakespeare writing in a quiet space, by himself, isolated for weeks from the rest of society as he created his brilliant work.
The truth is that Shakespeare “did jobbing work” according to Shakespeare expert. Jonathan Bate. “He contributed to plays, which had different scenes written by different dramatists. He revised other writers’ work. The modern version of “Jobbing work” is what happens when a professional screenwriter is hired by a producer/production company/studio to do a rewrite on a script headed toward production. His work either went uncredited or was credited without any clear sign of what work he actually did that became part of the final production.
Shakespeare faced writing restrictions in creating work for the commercial marketplace, very similar to what the modern screenwriter faces today.
Any Professional Screenwriter knows the obstacles when they begin a new script. If it has a good chance of being produced the screenplay must be compelling, exciting, and engaging in a way that media saturated audiences (who’ve been exposed to the basic creative elements of storytelling a thousand times, even before they've left elementary school) will believe that what they’ve seen is somehow fresh and original.
Hard to believe, but Shakespeare faced similar challenges while writing his scripts… only worse.
The convention of storytelling in the Elizabethan theatre was strict and demanding.
The creative expectations during those years consisted of musical numbers, broad (vaudeville-like) comedy bits, and other sidebar excursions such as Bear Baiting.
It did not matter that all the above or more would have nothing to do with the main plot of the play. If the playwright fell short of these expectations, the result would be catcalls, even a violent riot by the crowd.
And of course the Bard faced a censor, similar to our Ratings Board, but even more restrictive.
As professional screenwriters, we need to be concerned about how many times we include the word F**K in our script; and be thoughtful about any depiction of frontal nudity because if we cross the line, the result could be the final production being slapped with an NC-17 rating, otherwise known as Box Office Death.
Shakespeare had similar concerns and more – he also needed to avoid using certain words like “insurrection,” “rebellion,” and any reference to the Catholic Religion.
But if Will crossed the line, he wouldn’t be slapped with a restrictive rating on his work... his punishment could end up being a one-way trip to the London Tower (the fate of many playwrights during this period), otherwise referred to by the Bard as “the undiscovered country.”
Shakespeare is considered a genius. And yet his most brilliant work, like the scripts of many popular screenwriters today, could be accused of not being “original.”
Striving to be creatively original is a common problem for the modern screenwriter.
Often writers today are accused of just reworking the movies they loved growing up, or whatever is the most popular with audiences.
Shakespeare would have felt right at home if he were plying his trade today.
Perhaps the fact that Will is now considered a genius, will allow us to revise the common definition of what we consider creatively “original.”
The reality is that Shakespeare seldom came up with an original storyline for any of his plays.
Instead, he often relied on what on what one Shakespeare scholar calls, “inherited” material.
In other words, LITERARY GENIUS William Shakespeare lifted/sampled/borrowed from the works of other writers who proceeded him.
Sometimes Will would base his plays on what he read in history books, like Plutarch’s ancient text, Parallel Lives as the source for the basic story and plot beats of his play, Julius Caesar.
He would also take/grab from fictional work, such as a novel, and adapt it for the stage, which is what he did for his ground-breaking play, As you like it.
However, the most common source for Shakespeare’s work was actually… other plays.
Author James Shapiro describes the defining feature in Shakespeare’s approach to writing as "his penchant for overhauling the plots of old plays rather than inventing his own.”
This is one of the key elements in Shakespeare’s success.
Will would rework a popular play, update the work for a new audience, while holding onto the overall story and basic plot of the original work. The Bard invested the bulk of his imaginative energy in the characters, tone, theme, dialogue, and a few key twists and turns of the plot. This is how William Shakespeare utilized his talents and skills on the work that eventually led to him being proclaimed a genius.
The contemporary analogy for the context of Will's accomplishments would be what we now look down upon when it is attempted by a production company/ and/ or/ screenwriter — the remake.
Like any modern professional screenwriter, some of the best work from the Bard came from constant rewrites.
Shakespeare was a partner in the acting troupe known as The Chamberlain’s Men. When Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by James I, the company became known as The King’s Men. But whoever was in power, Will’s acting troupe worked a lot. It's actually mind-boggling to consider the amount of different plays Shakespeare’s troupe was expected to put on throughout the year, not only for Royalty, but for theatre audiences who craved a different play every night because they had very few entertainment choices.
|Shakespeare doing a REWRITE on his Work|
Will used this system to his advantage in honing his craft.
He would revisit the plays he had previously written, sometimes just months before (or at other times, years ago) when they were due to be performed again.
And as his writing talents matured and his craft improved, Will could see the mistakes he had made with his previous efforts.
He also gained invaluable insight from seeing his writing performed in front of a paying audience, watching what worked on stage, and what didn't.
There was also no one better at judging other writers’ work than Shakespeare.
He deconstructed what he saw instantly, see what was right, and what was missed by the original writer. Will's creative mind was always thinking of how he could make what he experienced better if he were to perform a rewrite.
This was the process that helped Shakespeare rework/rewrite/revise and polish his writing efforts to become what we read today. It was a complicated creative process that did not happen over night, nor did it come from a prodigy who wrote a perfect draft from conception to finished playbook for the acting company.
No one should believe that Hamlet, King Lear, or As you Like it was conceived and written over a frenzied weekend when the Bard was in a “writing zone.”
Like a modern professional screenwriter, Shakespeare’s writing career was dependent on box office revenue.
Writing plays that had Huge Box office returns made all the difference in Shakespeare’s career.
His early commercial success allowed him to segue from being a full time actor and part-time writer with his troupe to becoming a full time playwright / occasional performer (and what we’d now consider “the director” of the plays he had written).
The really interesting thing that followed is what Will did with his success and popularity. He could have just kept doing the same thing — romantic comedies and historical dramas that he had become known for, but instead… he decided to stretch as an artist, hoping the audiences who loved his work would follow. In 1599, during the same year the Globe Theatre was being built, Shakespeare wrote two plays that were artistic level jumps from anything that he had attempted before — As You Like It and Hamlet. Both plays not only stretched his creative talents, but they asked a lot from the loyal following who trusted his talents.
As You Like it was a box office disaster. The play would not be performed again for over a hundred years.
However, when it was finally re-staged, the play’s daring focus of gender and sexual identities eventually led to what is now a conventional element in many modern romantic comedies.
Hamlet was a Box-Office hit.
And the creative challenge to the audience paid off as well. He found that his audience was ready for an evolution in the way a dramatic story could be told. The success of the play laid the ground work for more daring creative choices by Will in the future.
Shakespeare’s writing effort in Hamlet focused on the main character’s mind rather than just his actions, and the Bard's pre-occupation with character issues would end up being the gas driving the engine of the plot.
Hamlet changed the construct of storytelling for an audience, an achievement that became a major part of the foundation for Modern Drama.
3 WAYS WILL SHAKESPEARE WAS NOT LIKE A MODERN PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITER
If he was writing today, William Shakespeare would obviously have the word genius all over his IMDB bio.
But the label of “genius” is used so often now that it doesn’t take a genius to imagine Shakespeare’s early career success would be treated by the media as if he had come up with the cure for the plague.
But Will being thought of as a genius during his actual writing career… Not so much.
Actually, Shakespeare had a huge problem with everyone but the audiences who loved his plays.
His fellow playwrights considered him an “upstart”… “a country clown”… and an uneducated idiot (because of his non-university background) whose only talent was for ripping off the more educated playwrights’ work.
Shakespeare did not have an agent, or a publicist representing him.
I bet that even if Will had hired one when his career was getting started, he would have dropped the agent after his career took off. Shakespeare was a pretty sharp guy in all areas of his life and would have probably felt confident in negotiating all of his future writing deals.
But hundreds of years later, there are those who doubt Shakespeare is the true author of the plays he is credited with writing.
I know this is revisionist history advice, but I can’t help myself –
Will, if you had only hired a publicist, maybe today no one would question who was the true auteur behind your work.
It doesn’t appear as if Will was represented by a lawyer throughout his writing career, despite being known as a pretty litigious guy throughout his life.
One of the areas that I think a lawyer might have benefited Will’s writing career is incorporating as part of his writing deal a now standard part of any professional screenwriter’s contract. The clause is known as Force Majeure (“act of god”).
Will’s writing career was often derailed when the Plague (truly an “act of god” if there ever was one) would sweep through London, causing the deaths of thousands of people, some of which I’m sure were season-ticket holders.
An outbreak of Plague would cause the government to order the closure of all the theatres, a shutdown that would sometimes last for months.
If only Will had not written, “let's kill all the lawyers" (from Henry VI, Part II), and allowed a barrister to negotiate his writing deals. Perhaps the Force Majeure clause in his first look writing deal with the Chamberlain’s Men would have been triggered during an outbreak, and Will could have enjoyed a negotiated buyout of his original step deal, allowing him enough money to go back to his hometown of Stratford to work on a spec script.