Hemingway, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. These are just a few authors’ names I find fun to say. Another is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous writer in the world, thanks largely to the 1998 biopic Shakespeare in Love. The movie was a genius publicity move, and one I’m looking to imitate to boost my own profile as a writer. As soon as Gwyneth Paltrow’s agent replies to my emails we’ll get the ball rolling.
But Shakespeare was not just a guy who had a movie made about him; he was an unrivalled master of language and verse, characters and conflict. Hamlet is a prime example. In this play Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, who reveals he was murdered by the young prince’s uncle, Caudius. He commands Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet stalls, feigning madness and hosting a play allegorical of the murder until he is certain of his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet’s apparent lunacy affects those he loves. Claudius makes plans for Hamlet’s murder, and in the end it’s a giant, bloody mess of botched schemes and deceit.
Hamlet himself is an absorbing character. He’s the star of the show, the hero I suppose, but he’s not a man of action in the vein of Henry V or John McClane. Hamlet is just a typical young guy whose dad was murdered, whose mother has married his uncle, whose girlfriend has died, who has seen a ghost and is wanted dead by the king; things aren’t going well for him. He is tormented, confused by conscience and duty, and it gives rise to some of the most pained and eloquent soul-searching to grace the page (and stage). The “To be, or not to be” introduction to Hamlet’s soliloquy at the start of Act III is one of the most recognisable lines in English literature, surpassing even, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” by Dickens, and, “I am Sam,” by Seuss.
Shakespeare is a master, and any aspiring writers would do well to glean these valuable tips from Hamlet:
- Ghosts: use them early and often. Ghosts are great because they’re guaranteed scary and can show up anytime and anywhere. Is there a lull in your plot? Send in the ghost. Are your characters not behaving the way you want them to? Get the ghost to scare them into line.
- Make characters crazy. Characters’ natures can make things entertaining, but they can also be stifling. When someone is stark raving mad though, anything can happen. Want to kill off Ophelia, but can’t find a believable murderer? Make her crazy and she can drown herself. Problem solved, on with the story.
- Kill everyone. For your grand finale, tragedy will be more memorable than comedy, and more death means more tragedy. Don’t feel you must space out the death in your story either; you can bump off all your main characters in the final scene if you like. Beware though, when you do this it makes a sequel much harder to write, unless your sequel relies heavily on the first tip mentioned above.
Shakespeare is at the top of his game in Hamlet. If you’ve never read it, and you don’t mind the old school language, what the heck are you doing? Go and read Hamlet now! 10/10
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