It is a truth universally acknowledged that William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of the English language—and possibly every other language, as well. For more than 500 years, his plays have been performed in virtually every country on the planet in a myriad of languages on stage, on film, on television, radio, and the internet. The words and phrases he coined are part of our everyday usage, and thanks to the ways the media now surround us, may be more relevant in the 21st century than ever.
Working every day in the theatre, Shakespeare knew what his audiences wanted to hear and see, and was able to structure his plays (and the information inside them) to give them what they wanted in a way they were able to understand it. It’s not for nothing that one of his best-loved comedies is titled As You Like It. Let’s take a look at how Shakespeare worked, and how we can still take lessons from one of the world’s greatest writers.
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be”
Shakespeare’s plays are divided into many scenes over five acts. The basic formula of setting up the situation in a plot, exploring complications, and resolving them is all Shakespeare needed for timeless storytelling. Though he wrote great poetry for the theatre, you don’t need to be a poet to tell stories just as effectively as Shakespeare did. Understanding how he organized and communicated his stories gives you a good starting point for any of your own writing or communication projects. It’s true that preparing a report for the boss isn’t as difficult as writing Hamlet or King Lear (at least, let’s hope not). But you can take a lesson from Shakespeare’s practice of drawing from varied sources, knowing his audience, giving them a good story, and drawing on the strengths of those he was working with. These are techniques anyone can apply to any task.
Shakespeare guides us through his work
Shakespeare organized his plays and characters so audiences could easily gather all the information they need about them and their circumstances. A perfect example is how his characters speak. Shakespeare gave audiences clues about who was who, and what was what. Upper-class characters and royalty spoke in iambic pentameter (that is, ten syllables in a line, alternating in stress: “to BE or NOT to BE; THAT is the QUEStion”). When the characters break that pattern, either with more or fewer syllables, or a change of meter, it was a clue to the audience that something was up. Maybe it meant that the character was really a member of a lower class, disguised as a noble. On the other hand, lower-class characters spoke in prose, the language of everyday people.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays work on more than one level. While there’s the main plot, there’s also a subtext that is a reflection of what was going on in the society at that time.
For example, Shakespeare knew his audience at the time (late 16th and early 17th centuries) was preoccupied with who Queen Elizabeth’s successor to the throne would be and they were anxious about other current events, too. He used his plays to comment on these events. A reader or audience member who knows those contexts adds more depth and interest to their enjoyment of each of them.
“Take heed, be wary how you place your words” or, Shakespeare’s lessons for today
In the same way that 21st-century companies search for the latest trends and innovations, Elizabethan producers were always on the lookout for new plays. They had to find material where they could. Of the 37 plays credited to Shakespeare, not one used an original plot. All were taken from previous best-selling and popular plays or (his most pillaged source) Holinshead’s Chronicles, a history of Britain.
In adapting his plots from existing sources, Shakespeare was using material his audiences were already familiar with. They already knew the plot of Hamlet or the stories of what King Henry V had done when audiences came to the Globe Theatre. The question for them was how Shakespeare was going to use those stories to comment on what was going on in society.
To do this, he had to reframe the information by transforming it into a narrative that combined prose and poetry. He cut out what was irrelevant or useless, and emphasized those things that would both make his points and entertain his audience. Since that audience was made up of all parts of society — from the “groundlings” who paid a penny (about the price of a loaf of bread) to nobles (who paid six pennies for a cushioned seat) — Shakespeare had to make sure that his ideas were expressed in language that any of them could understand. This technique was especially important because people were hearing those words for the first time, and just once. Those audiences didn’t have the luxury of reading the script beforehand or replaying something they’d missed. Every thought had to be expressed in language that was clear and simple enough for everyone to understand right away — despite the poetic flourishes.
Shakespeare’s communication techniques — his striving for clarity and simplicity, his use of outside sources, and creating interesting narratives — are timeless. And, just as Shakespeare borrowed from others to make his art, we can borrow from him to make our own messaging lively and engaging.
1. “What’s past is prologue” – Innovate by honoring the past
Modern innovators understand that the best way to create breakthroughs is to look for the basic principles underneath technologies and combine old and new ideas in fresh ways. That smartphone in your pocket combines a telephone, a computer, an adding machine, a television, a radio, a phonograph, and a camera into one small package that we can easily comprehend, and is fun to use. It repurposes older technology in new and useful ways.
Shakespeare was a firm believer in this principle. If a word didn’t exist to express the idea he wanted to convey, he just made one up by combining old forms or changing the meanings of words. The Shakespeare Online website notes that the Bard “invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into nouns, and devising words wholly original. A list of those words is staggering; from ‘lonely’ to ‘bedroom’ and from ‘eyeball’ to “skim milk.’ His invention knew almost no end.”
This type of thinking may be the ultimate form of innovation: juxtaposing existing ideas in ways that allow the best features of each complement to each other to create new products and concepts that neither could fulfill alone.
2. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” – Understand your audience
When he sat down to write a play, Shakespeare had to decide which genre he wanted to use. Was his point best made satirically in comedy to show how silly something was? In a tragedy, to show how even the best of intentions can go horribly wrong? Or using the distancing effect of a history to show that modern problems had echoes in the ancient world? He knew his audience well enough to know which of these to use to make his points most effectively.
When writing or preparing a presentation, we have to know what our audience is expecting. It’s important to communicate to audiences in terms that will mean the most to them, in the language that will be clearest to them. We have many different ways to send messages now—text, email, verbal communication, a video or slideshow, just to name a few. You probably text your best friend in one style of language and give a presentation to your boss using a more formal tone. So tailor the type of language you use to your audience. There’s no need to get fancy and dazzle your audience with verbal pyrotechnics. They want information in the form that is the simplest and most appropriate for them. It’s up to you to give them what they want.
3. “Search the secret treasures of the world” – Know how to find your information and research
Shakespeare borrowed (or stole) his plots and stories from numerous sources. His plays are loaded with references to and comments on then-current events and societal concerns. When it’s your turn to communicate, you may be able to have more impact if you can figure out how to contextualize current events with what’s going on in your company, peer group, or school. Your words become that much more valuable and exciting. You also show that you’ve put in the work, especially if you go beyond the bare basics of looking something up on Wikipedia. Find reputable sources and keep digging. Put the time in to get to know your subject in more depth. Not only will your project have greater insight, but if people have follow-up questions, your command of deep facts will dazzle them. It’ll make you memorable the next time an opportunity comes up.
Not everything you communicate will lend itself to a global view, but try to find those places and aspects that will. How many times have audiences been bored to tears by presentations that are nothing but hard numbers and factoids? Who doesn’t love a good narrative that places everything in an interesting context?
So far, we’ve discussed many of the techniques Shakespeare used to create his plays and poems—the nuts and bolts of communication. But keeping all of the pieces separately is a little like assembling an IKEA cabinet. You may have the instructions and most of the tools, but you can’t put them together without the most important tool: the Allen wrench. In Shakespeare’s case, that “Allen wrench” is figuring out whether “to collaborate or not to collaborate.” In Part 2 of this post, we’ll discuss how Shakespeare worked together with others (and he did), what to look for in a collaborator, how to work together with others effectively, and the hidden partner that every writer works with, knowingly or not.
Dave Sikula is a writer, actor, director, and teacher who holds a BA and MS in Theatre and Film History and Criticism. He recently appeared off Broadway as Samuel Beckett in Sam and Dede, or My Dinner With Andre the Giant.