I was lucky enough to have a fantastic Shakespeare professor in college. She brought the material to life with her vast knowledge and brought students to tears with her brilliantly structured lectures. Every year she split the class into groups of five, assigned each group an act of a play, and had students stage a production all over campus. It was my first and only appearance as Hamlet
, but I did get the big graveyard scene. The experience stuck with me forever.
So when I sat down to write a novel about a Shakespeare professor, out this month called Elizabeth the First Wife, I borrowed liberally from my own exceptional teacher. Except the vast knowledge of Shakespeare part. I quickly realized that being a Shakespeare enthusiast is not really even in the same ballpark as being a Shakespeare scholar. There was almost no academic question I could cook up for my fictional professor to study that hasn't already been beaten to death by those in the know, in books, blogs, and message boards. I couldn't compete with the real deals, even in fiction. So I decided to go the other way and make my Shakespeare professor as equally taken with the Bard as she was with, say, Bridget Jones. And surprisingly, I found that particular area of Shakespearean study under-examined. Nobody appeared to be working on Renaissance relationship red flags or doing comparative studies of Hamlet and Edward Cullen. I had a way into Shakespeare through a pop culture door. Here's what I learned:
No Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy will ever be as good as As You Like It. Put down your pens, Hollywood writing teams, because the Bard has been there first. There will never be a "meet cute" cuter than The Taming of the Shrew. Two leads will never be hotter than Oberon and Titania. Even a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle from back in the day can't compare to Much Ado's Beatrice and Benedick. Shakespeare's plays are the blueprint for every rom com, now and forever.
Elizabethan bad boys are much worse than Lena Dunham's bad boyfriends. Prince Hal. Mercutio. Hamlet. Bertram. These guys had issues like primogeniture rage, slanderous tongues, Oedipal complexes, and jealous wives. What's a little embarrassing sex compared to getting involved with a guy who talks to ghosts?
That guy had a line for everything. Talk about a hit maker. There is almost no subject that our man Will didn't write one great couplet about. One-night stands. Rescue dogs. Sex advice from Cleopatra — I Googled them all plus the word "Shakespeare" and, voilà, killer lines for each. And when you say it in Shakespearean terms, you sound smarter.
As a theater lover and a fan of words, I'd long appreciated the work of William Shakespeare ever since reading the gateway play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. But many years later, as a working writer trying to create fresh characters with humor, depth, and humanity, my appreciation grows deeper and more reverent. The research I did while working on Elizabeth the First Wife confirmed my suspicions: William Shakespeare has been there, done that with wit, intelligence, and sex appeal. And his dazzling and sometimes wacky plotting would be right at home in any Hollywood writer's room or in Helen Fielding's next book. (Note to Bridget Jones: cross-dress to get your man.) That doesn't mean that writers out there should throw in the towel, not at all. In fact, I found great comfort knowing that my Elizabeth Lancaster, contemporary Shakespeare professor, would surely have been a great friend of Shakespeare's Rosalind. And isn't that why we read — to make connections across the ages?
Note: Lian Dolan will be appearing at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on Thursday, June 27, at 7 p.m.
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