As I spent the day working on my novel, and drawing anxiously closer to completing my first draft, it occurred to me that my main character is Hamletesque in so many ways. Now, it occurs to me how quickly I am becoming comfortable with making up words like Hamletesque. But it works. Though I hate that red squiggly line that signals I have misspelled a word, I’m going with it! After all, today IS Shakespeare’s birthday. And he was KING of making up words.
Anyway. My protagonist, Sonny, reminds me of Hamlet. And after three years spent studying Shakespeare intensely in grad school, I’m sort of an expert. Though I use that word loosely. Really loosely.
I will never forget the time I did an independent study course facilitated by one of my professors who told me that by the end of my degree in Renaissance Lit, I should have “mastered” Shakespeare. Really? I thought. Is it possible to master Shakespeare? Luckily, another prof and mentor said the truest words possible to me: Shakespeare cannot be mastered! Whew! That was a relief.
And that’s what makes it timeless, folks. Shakespeare cannot be mastered, just like most other great writers in literary history. Why? Because there is always a new way of understanding it. We see things today that an audience may not have seen four-hundred years ago. I see things that another reader may not. Our responses to literature stem from many things. One of those is personal experience. When I read about Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, I think about my own. About my siblings’ and their relationships with our mother. About my children’s relationships with me. When I read another book about a son and his role in his family, I think about Hamlet a little differently thereafter. And that’s the beauty in it. That’s why it’s a living thing. All books are. *Note: Someone else super smart said that, too.
And when I think about my MC, I think about his relationship to his stepmother and the biological mother he never knew. I think about how that affected him. I wonder how Hamlet might have behaved differently in Shakespeare’s play if it was his mother that was slain, rather than dear old dad. And I wonder about Hamlet’s state-of-mind BEFORE the events of the play. What were they? What was life like for him at university? What was his childhood like? He wasn’t poor, like my own character. But was he loved enough? Did he receive enough affection? Did the father that he loved so much toss around a ball with him in the gardens of their sprawling estate? Eh. Probably not. And did Shakespeare kill him off in the end (spoiler alert!) because he had committed so many crimes at that point, justified or not, that there was no satisfying end to be had that allows Hamlet to live? Or just because audiences like a good strong dose of death in their Elizabethan tragedies? So many questions. So many different ways to answer them.
But that is the magic of Shakespeare. And why his works live on, in part. The stories, and characters, stay with us. They bleed into new stories, like the one I am currently writing. They both shape the new stuff and demand to be re-examined in light of it. Their universal themes make them accessible long after the ink has dried.
So, while I cannot say I “mastered” Shakespeare, I can say that I learned a lot. Enough to have subconsciously worked him into my novel, that has nothing to do with kings and princes and a stage overflowing with dead bodies. Though there may be some mommy issues and bouts of madness. And even a ghost or two. Soooooooo…Happy Birthday, Shakespeare. Today, I celebrate your contribution to literature, the arts, humanity in general, and me. My main character thanks you for it, too.