Lately I’ve been reading Shakespeare again. I know what you’re thinking (Nerd!) but hear me out. After all, the guy was a speculative fiction author. Fairies, ghosts, witches, you’ll find all of these creatures in his work. And seriously, who doesn’t love Puck?
I also find reading him helps steady the cadence and structure of my writing. This might sound strange since it’s challenging just to understand what the hell characters in his plays are even saying, but it’s so worth the effort. There’s a reason why they call him the master.
It’s often taken for granted just how integrated certain lines from these stories are with the common vernacular. Many don’t realize they are actually quoting Shakespeare when they use them. A few examples:
“Murder most foul.”
“The lady doth protest too much…”
“To sleep–perchance to dream.”
“All the world’s a stage…”
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
“The rest is silence.”
And this is only from Hamlet. So, why are they remembered so well? In a word: Simplicity. It’s what I notice most about his works. He uses simple words to convey weighty themes like love, grief, and betrayal. This is a good reminder as we approach NanoWriMo. It’s so easy to fall into purple prose with wildly uncommon word choices. We think we’re weaving poetry when really we’ve just wandered into metaphor mania.
The puzzle of language has always held a fascination for me. It drove me to learn several languages. Those unknown vowel and consonant combinations would stare back at me like a wall I couldn’t see past. The curiosity to know what they said, unfiltered by translation, became a fire that consumed me. Living abroad, I was that student who’d randomly flip through the language dictionary just for the fun of learning new words. (Okay, go ahead and say it. — Nerd! — I know.)
Miraculous lines of code, that’s language, even if you speak only one. For the speculative fiction writer, it translates into a universe of worlds. Shakespeare did it with just twenty-six letters and he didn’t reach for complicated words to accomplish this, not even in some of those amazing soliloquies. One of my favorites — and I have many — is from Hamlet in the crypt, that moment he indulged in grief and frustration, when he wondered aloud if we put up with so much cruelty in life because the confrontation of it may consequent our deaths, and so through fear, we do nothing:
“…Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”
Proof that the lyrical and the memorable do not have to come from ten-letter words or complicated metaphors to be effective. Simplicity. It’s the lesson I continually learn.