23 Apr 2014
basac's picture

I don't normally recommend other writers or books, and I'm sure you all have people you read and follow who provide you with hope and inspiration for your own work.

This week I’ve decided to be a little controversial and suggest you read a much-derided author rarely, if ever, lauded in our world of comedy, but perhaps now ready for rehabilitation. I'm talking about William Shakespeare.

Like most people I know, I wasn’t born hating Shakespeare. It took several years of skilful graft by a succession of poorly-dressed English teachers, all of whom had been trained at colleges around the country to painstakingly dissect the complete poetry of Shakespeare, and drain from it every ounce of joy, wit, truth and beauty.

But they couldn’t have managed the job alone. Destroying all that’s good about Shakespeare also required the untiring assistance of a succession of megaphone-voiced theatre performers, who had learned at drama school that the correct way to interpret his plays was to ignore the stories and characters, and concentrate instead on booming the words as though addressing an audience of 16th century miscreants.

In my teenage years I merely disliked chemistry, physics and biology because all science was impenetrable to me, but as a lover of words, stories and live shows it took a lot of serious work by the nation’s educators to turn me off the bard.

Over the years I was dragged, along with my classmates, to a series of mind-numbingly turgid productions. Even the excitement of a coach trip to Stratford-on-Avon, forcing the abandonment of double chemistry, wasn’t enough to help me derive any pleasure from an especially tedious RSC interpretation of ‘Richard II’.

Occasionally I would be surprised: I still remember a Nottingham Playhouse performance of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ from the mid-1970s, played in modern dress, simple to follow, and gripping from start to finish. But this was an exception, a one-off to set against the hours of tedium I’d been forced to sit through because some theatre booking agent was cashing in on whichever play was being mangled at the time on the current school curriculum.

I managed to get through my early adult life without having to think too much about the boring Brummie playwright. Then in 1994, working with a bunch of actors, I was asked to perform in a showcase that included an extract from ‘Julius Caesar’. It was a great couple of scenes and it made me want to read the rest of the play, which I did, in a single go. That made me want to look again at ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Which took me to 'Coriolanus'…

And that was the beginning of how I spent my summer of 1994, reading the complete plays of William Shakespeare. While each and every one of you was off your face on E's in a field in Shrewsbury dancing embarrassingly to 'Parklife', I was ploughing through a 1000-page musty old copy of The Complete Works.

It was a daunting task, but once I’d finished those first fairly easy-to-read works, I was familiar enough with the language to tackle the harder stuff. Plays like ‘The Tempest’, which had always confused me, started to make complete sense.

By the time I’d seen off the comedies, the complete Henries and the ethnic minorities, I was ready to take on ‘King John’, usually talked of as Shakespeare’s most challenging work. Admittedly that took two sessions, but it still made sense.

You might be wondering what this eulogy is doing in a blog about how to be averagely successful at comedy. The only other book I’ve ever mentioned as essential reading is ‘The Poetics’ by Aristotle. I’m being disingenuous of course, we should all be reading all the time to improve our writing. But if you want to understand story structure, characterisation, motivation, keeping your audience interested (to name just a few necessities), then I suggest you put down that ‘How To Write Screenplays’ book right now and pick up your Shakespeare.

His plays have everything – great characters, gripping drama, beautiful writing, and gags, yes really. I never understood people who laughed at Shakespeare in the theatre, but I’ve been re-reading ‘Hamlet’ lately and there’s some cracking one-liners in there.

We think of the deconstruction of comedy as something very modern, aimed at minority audiences – in stand-up for example, begun by Tony Allen in the 1980s and refined for the telly by Stewart Lee. But Shakespeare’s plays are full of knowing and arch references to the artifice of what he is creating. There are many stories involving actors putting on shows for their audience – not us, but the other actors in the play, although the device allows Shakespeare to present to us (the audience) the contradictions of who we are and how the rest of the world sees us - a major requirement of all comedy writing.

And talking of those ethnic minorities: Shakespeare is often criticised for fostering racism, whether it be the anti-semitism embodied in Shylock, or the anti-African sentiments contained in ‘Othello’. To which I would say in both cases – read the plays. You’ll see that both of those characters are forced by circumstances to behave in ways that cause them problems. They’re flawed people, like people we know, and they make mistakes.

Yes Shylock is unreasonable, but then the humiliation heaped on him by Antonio is way out of proportion to his misdeeds. Antonio by the way, who comes across as the most unpleasant character in the whole play, is a merchant banker. And anyway I’m not sure I buy into the idea that the reason UKIP hate us minorities so much is down to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jews and blacks.

Nowadays there is a liberal consensus that makes it difficult for writers to get flawed ethnic characters past nervy producers, and our work is the poorer for it. Ethnicity is one aspect of Othello and Shylock, they are, like all of us, far more complex people.

There’s no better way to learn about the process of writing than to read ‘The Tempest’, and see how Prospero uses his magic arts to try and change the world. Then look at the incredible range of humour in ‘Twelfth Night’ – which manages to be a romantic comedy featuring ambiguous sexuality, unpleasant cruelty, and one of the earliest comedy double acts.

You may have learned about characters like Richard III and Henry VIII in history lessons, but Shakespeare humanises their power. Being King is one aspect of their character, but the writer helps us understand why they act in the ways they do.

Above all, reading the complete plays allows a form of osmosis to take place, whereby you soak up many of the technical skills required to produce a piece of work, be it a sitcom, a screenplay or a two-minute sketch. You’ll learn to get to the heart of your story in the quickest possible time (Lear banishes his favourite daughter in the first scene), how to pace your main story (‘Julius Caesar’ moves at a breathless rate), how to take your audience along with you (it’s impossible not to be drawn into Hamlet’s story by his thoughts and actions throughout).

Sit back and relax, pick up a copy of ‘The Complete Plays’, start reading now,  and celebrate the dramatic irony of the man who died on his birthday.