“Who is your favorite screenwriter?”
The above is a question that I’ve been asked many times.
We writers like our lists. Top Ten. Best of.
I find these lists to be somewhat limiting. Men versus women, studio writers versus indie writers. Indie writers versus nano writers. Short form. Full-length. The variations go on and on.
And yet, at the end of the day, there is one writer whom I revere above the rest. One whose body of work is constantly examined, retooled for the screen, large and small. A writer for all seasons.
In my book, the greatest screenwriter of all time wrote during a time when the concept of moving pictures had not been conceived. I believe that the greatest screenwriter – nay, the greatest writer – in Western civilization was William Shakespeare.
It grieves me to see how the American educational system has fallen into deep decline; less than a century ago, the average day laborer with no more than an eighth-grade education could recite at least one sonnet, and soliloquies/bytes from several of Shakespeare’s plays.
Try to find an average college senior who can do the same. One who is not a major in language or creative arts.
Shakespeare had a vocabulary of over 29,000 words. The average American today has a vocabulary of just over 2,000. Shakespeare contributed several thousand words to the English language, including: assassination, aerial, castigate, inauspicious, frugal, hurry, pious, obscene, radiance…
Not to mention the hundreds of catch-phrases that pepper our language even today.
Although Shakespeare wrote for the stage, it is my belief that, were he around today, he would be writing for the screen. His tales are powerful. Cinematic. Primal.
A few reasons why he is a terrific role model for the screenwriter:
Shakespeare knew his craft
Much has been cussed and discussed about Shakespeare’s lack of formal education in writing; these overwrought discussions never cease to amaze me. Shakespeare understood that writing was an art and a craft, and, that the road to success was not measured by how many years one had immersed themselves in the ivory towers of academia, but by plunging headfirst into the world of the theatre. Shakespeare worked, he learned, and he wrote. He learned while he wrote – notice the similarities between Two Gentleman of Verona and Romeo and Juliet, the first being one of his earliest plays, the latter, considered by many to be one of the greats, and the similar character traits shared by Titus and Brutus. Practice makes perfect. Shakespeare was a working writer. He didn’t read books about writing, he didn’t take class after class after class. He wrote. The more he wrote, the more his work began to resonate.
Shakespeare wrote for everyone
If Shakespeare were a Hollywood writer/director today, his box office earnings would make James Cameron’s look like child’s play. He wrote for the groundlings, he wrote for the merchant class, and he wrote for the elite. All at once.
By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus she make her
great P’s. It is, in her contempt of question, her hand.
Note – if you need help understanding why Malvolio’s quote from Twelfth Night is profane… my condolences. Ask your mother.
Shakespeare wrote soap opera
If he were around today, he probably would have cut his writers teeth working for Aaron Spelling. Some of his greatest plays were domestic dramas: King Lear, a story about a family fight over property and money; Hamlet, a story how one man’s lust led to the murder of his own brother – and the chaos that ensues; Much Ado About Nothing, a story about a can’t-live-with-him/her-can’t-live-without-him/her couple; corporate greed and capitalism (Timon of Athens).
His themes are primal: revenge, greed, true love, honor, ambition. His characters are complex; his stories are universal.
Shakespeare wrote in multiple genres
It’s pretty common today for us to write ourselves into niches. That is understandable, for we should do what we do best.
That being said, Shakespeare wrote everything. He wrote, of course, comedy, tragedy and history (or bio-scripts), but if one peels back the layers of these onions, one will discover that he wrote farce (Merry Wives of Windsor), fantasy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), and horror (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth). He wrote about the doppelganger-as-twin (Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night) and the doppelganger-as-self (Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, King Lear, Richard III). He wrote a comedy about death (Twelfth Night). He wrote about prejudice (The Merchant of Venice, Othello). He wrote gender benders. Domestic drama. Parent versus child. Love. Lust. Greed. War. Suicide. Abandonment. Unrequitement. He wrote it all.
Shakespeare used source material
Many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on tales – either in story, script, or song – that had been spun for centuries, including, but not limited to Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. He re-imagined, retooled and adapted these works to reflect the themes that he was addressing.
So, my gentle lords and ladies of the court, next time you are considering picking up the latest NYT best-selling thriller, you might consider doing your mind, your heart and your craft a treat, and pick up one of the aforementioned classics. Lose yourself in it. I dare you.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
Please join me today, 12 PM PST, at Write On! Online’s broadcast of Blog Talk Radio. HRH is the guest; we should have a royal good time. You can call in with questions and/or to listen at 646-381-4910, or access the stream by clicking here. Hope to hear you there!
What I am reading: I’m lost in Gaelic legends. Research, I call it. Yummy.
What I am watching: It’s 31 Days of Oscar on TMC. Wrapped myself in THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI the other night. Sigh. What happened to those human tales of triumph of the spirit and honor?
Without robots and girls with plastic breasts.