“Words without thoughts behind them will never make it to heaven.”
Claudius in Hamlet written by William Shakespeare
“Shakespeare surrounds us.”
Christopher Gaze Ted Talk Shakespeare is everywhere
Shakespeare died in 1616—and in the almost 400 years since his death I image not a year has gone by when a Shakespeare play hasn’t been produced somewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scholar told me not a month—or even a day—has gone by since Shakespeare’s death where a play of his hasn’t been performed at some level somewhere in the world.
So we know that his work has endured, but according to more than one scholar Shakespeare was less than original. Some have gone as far as calling the famous playwright a thief, a copycat, and a plagiarist. I’m not here to debate that, but to steal from Shakespeare himself. Of course, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but some thoughts that can help your own writing journey.
“These things I call the DOLTS; death, order, love, transformation, sovereignty—these things you’ll find in the classics.You find in Shakespeare, you find in The Odyssey, you find in Gilgamesh—the oldest story that we know of. And by studying the classics—and Shakespeare is a very handy way of doing it, because you can find his works in used bookstore—by breaking down what Shakespeare did in various modes and basic tropes you can see those threads develop in his work and you can steal them.”
Greg Robin Smith
Managing Director of The Washington Shakespeare Festival
On the Page “Stealing from Shakespeare” podcast interview with Pilar Alessandra
Here’s how Smith unpacked that a little more:
DEATH Death is always referred in his plays, even if it’s comedy.
ORDER In every Shakespeare play order is restored at the end. All of his plays start off with a little bit of order and then splits apart—the toilet explodes (to borrow Stephen J. Cannell’s phrase), the world shreds a part.…It’s about how do you struggle to bring back order. Sometimes people have to die before order is restored. At the end of every one of his plays order is re-established.
LOVE… Or its cousins hate and jealousy.
TRANSFORMATION Part of the hero’s journey is how they change. (Translates to many films including Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shakespeare in Love, Casablanca. And the transformation isn’t always bad to good, but good to bad.)
SOVEREIGNTY The question of who owns me? Who am I? (Translates to many films including Memento and The Bourne Identity.)
The only thing I would change from Greg Robin Smith’s list—and I know it messes up DOLTS—is I’d change sovereignty to identity. Something more primal and easy to grasp. Or soul if you wanted to preserve the DOLTS acronym.
“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul—call it identity—as we struggle to figure out just what and who it is we genuinely are.”
And here’s another helpful quote from Smith’s interview with Alessandra:
“If you look at [Shakespeare’s] introductions he usually starts off on the run. There’s no voice-over . You have to be up and running with him. Romeo and Juliet—two houses of equal nobility. There’s a brief introduction and then you’re off with fights, it starts off on the run. He will bring in people to let you know what you need to know, but not everything you need to know. In Romeo and Juliet we know that these two households are at war, it takes the length of the Bible before Romeo comes on and he’s in love with somebody named Rosalind— there’s no Juliet, he’s in love this other person that we never even see. There’s confusion there and we begin to sort it out. The best of his work is focused on the people not the situation. It’s all about humanity. It’s not about the war of the family it’s about the families at war.”
Related articles (Who isn’t stealing from Shakespeare?):
Sons of Anarchy: Shakespeare on motorcycle wheels by Anne T. Donahue
9 Things ‘House of Cards’ Took From Shakespeare
7 Teen Movies Based On Shakespeare That Would Make Him Roll Over In His Grave by Claire Fallon
The Lion King and Hamlet
Sopranos is Shakespeare of modern times by George Galloway
5 Reasons Why Breaking Bad is Macbeth
‘King Lear’ meets ‘Dynasty’ in the hip-hop-fuled ‘Empire’ by Robert Lloyd
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.” Three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan
Fueling Your Imagination (Jarmusch Style) “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.
Creating Under the Influence “Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”—Woody Allen
Movie Cloning (Part 2) “I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.” Francis Ford Coppola
Paying for Transformation We pay movie stars a lot of money to show us how to change.”—Michael Chase Walker
‘To Live or Die’ “To live or die? What drama is greater?”—Howard Hawks