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In the Presence of the Master


Why Shakespeare Had It Rough as a Writer, and I Should Really Just Stop Whining

In the past weeks, I have made some fairly impressive strides (for me) with respect to my identity and practices as a writer.  I have stopped coddling myself and gotten real about what I need to do in order to produce good content regularly.  It’s been a big couple of weeks for me.  I like to think that I’m pretty self-aware, but in reality I find it difficult to internalize criticism (from myself or others) and make changes.  It’s why I spent so long being overweight.  So anyway, here I am, ruminating on how hard it is to write when I’ve got this little voice inside me telling me that I should just go back to bed, or watch Wilfred on Netflix, or play Halo 4, or just sit around drinking coffee and doing nothing, and I receive one of the greatest gifts possible:  another self-aware slap in the face from none other than myself.

This past weekend, my girlfriend Rachel, the beautiful and talented Scatterbrained Seminarian, took me to one of my favorite vacation spots:  Staunton, Virginia.  The literature nerds in the audience know why it’s so important to me:  it’s the home of the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars’ Playhouse.  I first visited Staunton the fall before last with my Shakespeare’s Dramatic Contemporaries class.  The class focused on the other playwrights that were working during the Elizabethan era, as well as the historical, social, and political forces that affected their writing.

The most demanding part of the class was the Reacting to the Past simulation, wherein part of the class portrayed the acting troupe of William Shakespeare, part of the class the troupe of Christopher Marlowe, and the rest of the class the Privy Council.  (The nitty gritty of Elizabethan politics is not extremely important – the Privy Council were the ones that could get you banished, imprisoned, or worse for offensive writing).  Each troupe had to convince the Privy Council that their respective play was the one that should be performed.  This was done through the rehearsal and performance of scenes from the play, speeches about why their own troupe’s play is great and the other troupe’s play is a pile of treasonous garbage, as well as bribes and dirty deals with the members of the other troupe and the Privy Council.  In short, a friendlier version of what the playwrights and actors in Elizabethan England would have dealt with every single day.

I say friendlier because it was anything but friendly.  The thing about Reacting to the Past simulations is that they tend to draw you in.  Everything turned out OK in the end, but the game’s simulated antics led to more than one instance of real-life anxiety and the straining of real-life friendships.  But my point is this: while we had to deal with the possibility of a score reduction for having been found guilty of treason or incitement, Shakespeare, Marlow, Dekker, Fletcher, and the others would actually have been imprisoned, banished, or executed for it.

So I’m sitting here, feeling sorry for myself because I have an internal voice that says “Don’t write that; tomorrow would be just as good a day for writing,” or “Don’t write that; making yourself a good breakfast would be a better way to spend your time,” while Shakespeare had very real external voices telling him “Don’t write that; it’s offensive to the aristocracy,” and “DON’T WRITE THAT; IT’S TREASONOUS, AND YOU WILL BE BEHEADED.”  But because only so much good content can come from me berating myself, I’m going to go ahead and stop writing about what a lousy, terrible, loser of a writer I am (sorry for those of you who read specifically for that material; there will probably be plenty more next week…)

Seriously, though, I love Shakespeare.  It might be overselling it to call him the original wordsmith, but the most notable wordsmith in western history?  Easily.  Shakespeare added over 1700 words to the English language, many of which are still in common usage such as “advertising,” “worthless,” “luggage,” and “critic.”  He invented those.  If you have ever used the phrases “devil incarnate,” “kill with kindness,” “pomp and circumstance,” or “be all and end all,” then you are repeating more William Shakespeare originals.  Also “too much of a good thing,” “send packing,” and “laughing stock.”  And “Knock knock. Who’s there?”

Shakespeare was a badass.  Just because he had political organizations and aristocrats telling him what he should (and more to the point, should not) write does not mean that he always heeded their warnings.  He had many, many harsh criticisms for the Crown and other members of the government.   Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar were both set in ancient Rome.  Typically, when Shakespeare set a piece in that place and time, it was because he was saying something particularly scathing about Britain.  When his critics accused him, he would shrug it off and say “No, it’s about the Romans.  See?  It’s in Rome.  Those wacky Romans.”  (I imagine he’d say this last part with a chuckle and a head shake, but that might just be me).

So, you know.  Great with words, sarcastic, clever, and ready to thumb his nose at “the man” at every opportunity.  Ah, no wonder I look up to him.  If I could be even half as awesome.  Anyway…

Our weekend in Staunton was fantastic.  We finished the last leg of our journey through the most winding, curving, crazy mountain road I have ever seen (I swear I heard banjo music).  After that, we got into town in enough time to check in to the hotel and grab dinner at the Baja Bean Company, this excellent Mexican restaurant I ate at during  my last visit.  The next afternoon we went on a tour of the Blackfriars’ before seeing Julius Caesar.  The play was astounding, definitely one of my new favorites.  Dinner at Shenandoah Pizza and then out for a movie that evening.  Just a great weekend; wonderful theatre, quality time, and a few instances of dozing off while watching HGTV with my favorite person in the world.

In personal writing news, it’s almost Sunday.  Sunday means I can throw the dirt on this vignette project and move on to bigger and better things.  (Or rather stop feeling guilty about already having done so in my mind).  The piece that has occupied my “Other Ideas” folder for the past week or so, and is now moving into my “Big Idea” folder is an article on video games as a storytelling medium.  The other day I had an Aha moment (or a Duh moment, depending on how you look at it) when I realized that this is a topic that has been important to me for a long time, and it’s something I should be writing about.  I’m going to post a snippet of it here:

We are seeing an increase in the demographic of people interested in video games.  It’s no secret that many of the people buying video games are men.  In fact, it is still a widely held statistic that an overwhelming majority of video gamers are male.  The truth of it is that today’s buying and playing market is almost half female.  It is not my intention to make a gender stereotype about how women prefer a good story while men prefer boobs, guns, and explosions, but rather to point out the market has been static for a long time, and it is beginning to change.

When video games became commercially prominent (when they were no longer solely available on the oscilloscopes and computers of research labs), they were aimed primarily at children.  Thus, we see content to that effect:  plumber superheroes dodging barrels thrown by a giant ape, for example, and other things that make excellent diversions, if not art.  In the past fifteen to twenty years, the gaming demographic expanded to include men of a greater age range, and there was also a broadening of subject matter.  More guns and fighting.  More sex.

What this amounts to is that a broadening of demographics always begets a wider range of subject matter.  Nowadays, more women are playing video games, which means we’ll see an increase in the demand for games focusing on puppies, unicorns, and pretty, pretty dresses.  Just kidding.  Please click this link so I know you know I’m kidding.  Seriously, though, there is a correlation here:  the most recent demographic expansion of the game market has been a greater number of women gamers, and we are already seeing an increase in games that focus as much on good storytelling as boobs, guns, and explosions, if not more.  (Again, I realize I am whitewashing a bit here.  There are plenty of men who love a good story – I’m one, for example – and women who love boobs and guns.  I am speaking in terms of majorities).

The increase in demographics also leads to an increase in the available genres in video games.  I just read an essay by Megan Gaiser, president of Her Interactive, a company that is marketing specifically to the relatively new female gaming audience.  The essay is called “Solving the Mystery of the Missing Girl Games.

I’ll leave it at that.  The Megan Gaiser essay is short but interesting, so you should definitely check it out.  I am not sure yet about the avenue of distribution for that article when it’s done.  I have an idea bouncing around my head (an “Other Idea” that keeps getting “Bigger”) that is…highly ambitious, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and research more before I start talking too much about it.  And with that pair of teasers…

Thank you for reading.  More to follow.

4 responses to “In the Presence of the Master

  1. Lori McCarthy ⋅

    What were your thoughts on the film, “Shakespeare in Love?” I liked it…PS I actually know someone who lives in Staunton, Virginia. I had no idea there was ANY type of culture there. I have not been there. xxxooo

    • Josh

      You know, I’ve still never seen it! The tour guide at the Blackfriars, who is an understudy for the troupe, says it’s a guilty pleasure amongst the people there who study Shakespeare.

      The culture scene is pretty cool if you go into historic Staunton for sure. I don’t know about the town at large.

  2. Sandra ⋅

    You are amazing. Honoured to know you, *with a courtesy*

  3. Pingback: Words of a Different Color | Burning River Writing

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