Looking for a geeky but delightful way to fill your long, dark November evenings? Let me suggest a master class in narrative — taught by none other than the master himself, William Shakespeare. It’s cheap, it’s illuminating, it’s entertaining, and — bonus! — it will provide you with a lifetime supply of eloquent insults.
Shakespeare didn’t invent the Western world’s classic plots — most of his plays, after all, were based on historical events or existing stories — but he structured his versions so brilliantly and beautifully that they endure today. It didn’t hurt that he peopled his works with memorable characters, and finished them out with fresh language and clever jokes, but the plots are the foundation of his plays, and any writer can learn a lot from his blueprints.
When I was a teenager, my parents dragged me to a performance of The Merchant of Venice. I was deadly bored until about halfway through the play, when the Elizabethan English started to make sense. It was as if I’d finally remembered to turn on the subtitles: Love! Vengeance! Pounds of flesh! Whoa, I thought, this is a pretty good story.
I’ve been a Shakespeare fan ever since, and I never get tired of seeing his works performed. As a writer of narratives about science, I especially like productions that use the original language but are set in radically different times and places, showing off the plays’ incredible ability to bend without breaking. And I love how Shakespeare’s plays — in any form — remind me of the endless possible variations on history’s handful of archetypal tales.
If you find yourself thinking, as journalists sometimes do, that every story has “been done” to death, watch a few interpretations of a Shakespeare play. The contrasts will reassure you that while yes, every story has been told, they can be told over and over again in new and fascinating ways.
So lay in the popcorn and the adult beverages of your choice, and settle in for your own narrative bootcamp with the Bard. Below are a few suggestions for starters; please add your own.
(And if you’re intimidated or puzzled by Shakespeare, prep with a little Wikipedia. I’m an unapologetic Shakespeare amateur — hey, I was a biology major! — and I find that brushing up on a play’s plot or historical inspiration before watching makes the experience much more fun. Also, this book is a very readable introduction to Shakespeare and his times.)
Star-crossed Gangsters: Chase the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production of Romeo and Juliet with both West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann’s postapocalyptic gangland adaptation from the 1990s, which uses the play’s original language and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Finish things off with Shakespeare in Love.
Drugstore Hal: The Hollow Crown, a fine new set of Shakespeare films shown on PBS this fall, got me started on my latest Shakespeare tear. Try watching the Hollow Crown versions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V followed by My Own Private Idaho, the Gus Van Sant movie loosely based on the Henry plays.
Tragic Pairs: Follow Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 Othello with the film O, in which the doomed hero is a black basketball player at a predominantly white American boarding school; follow Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet with either The Lion King (really) or the 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke, which uses the original language in a modern setting; follow Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (yes, Olivier did get a chance at every great Shakespeare part) with the 1995 movie, which sets the action in 1930s Britain; follow Olivier’s King Lear with Akira Kurosawa’s Ran or A Thousand Acres, the film adaptation of Jane Smiley’s devastating Lear-inspired novel.
A Bundle of Beheadings: The Hollow Crown, which includes Richard II as well as the Prince Hal plays, follows the struggle for the British throne at the turn of the 14th century. The 1960 BBC production An Age of Kings adapted not only Richard II and the Hal plays but also their chronological successors, Henry IV Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. If you make it through both tetralogies, nothing in politics will ever surprise you again.
Actor Smackdown: Get a sense of the the wide range of possibilities within a single Shakespeare character by comparing performances, for instance Laurence Olivier’s Henry V with later interpretations by Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston; Derek Jacobi’s relatively contained Richard II with Ben Whishaw’s creepy, weepy version; or Olivier’s Richard III with the tyrant Al Pacino finds in his documentary Looking for Richard. (Snarky comments and bad impressions encouraged throughout.)
The Lighter Side: Pair the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton The Taming of the Shrew with 10 Things I Hate About You, or Trevor Nunn’s central European-style Twelfth Night with She’s the Man. If you get tired of Hollywood rom-coms, try following the BBC Television version of As You Like it, starring Helen Mirren as Rosalind, with the 1996 film version directed by Kenneth Branagh and set in 19th-century Japan.
Top photo courtesy of Flickr user Calamity Meg. Creative Commons.