Shakespeare and friends at the Mermaid Tavern by John Faed
ONE THING to be noticed about the use of A.I. programs for writing, copyediting, and education is the way the programs enforce conformity and stifle creativity by forcing written language into an ever-narrower template of rules. Type something “wrong” in a document or email and the “correction” instantly appears. I’m sure most writers, especially new ones, immediately comply.
(The latest step in conformity is ChatGPT, which will do all your writing for you, by recycling lines and ideas from past writing– with not a shred of originality. We have a petition ongoing about that matter, which we suggest everyone read.)
Yet these processes, spawned by top-down systems, work contrary to the mode of operating of the greatest writer of them all, one William Shakespeare.
Stratford Will grew up in a time and place that was still largely an oral culture. Written communication was used first for legal documents, while the printing of books was strictly controlled and limited. Language was a verbal phenomenon, and that’s how people used it. Dictionaries had yet to be invented, while grammar was in a state of flux. Spelling was creative, to put it mildly– often used to give cues for how sentences were spoken— which words or syllables to emphasize, depending on context. Spoken language was the main thing– especially for Will and his colleagues in their acting company, as their art was a verbal, not written, art. Literature, for them, was a very different creature for them from what it is for us today.
In other words, it was a milieu designed for creativity. Everything about William Shakespeare’s life enhanced that freedom of creativity. Rules? What rules?! Shakespeare invented hundreds of words, often by turning nouns into verbs. (Today he’d be told, by a teacher or professor or bot, “You can’t do that!”) He was the son of a glovemaker, perhaps learned some of the trade himself, receiving the mental stimulation which comes from skilled manual labor. Also of course, he wasn’t just a writer, or just an actor, but more. Like his fellows, Will was a businessman, stagehand, salesman, and part everything else that went into the acting company’s productions. A jack-of-all-trades, or a “Johannes Factotum” as he was once scornfully described.
FINDING THE REAL SHAKESPEARE
Ironically, it’s the Stratfordian establishment itself which has perpetuated misconceptions of the man, his friends, and his times, in their effort to canonize him.
(Something similar happened with the Beats here in the USA. Free-wheeling fun-loving bohemians taking joy in words and art, they’ve been co-opted in total by a rigidly elitist literary establishment– canonized; or rather fossilized, preserved in amber and placed behind glass– though no one should dare write or behave, in this constipated world, too much like them. As evidenced by a protest at Columbia University back in 2006 by a performance troupe of which I happened to be part.)
The mistake academies make about Shakespeare’s poems and plays is treating them as artworks to be read– when they were created to be seen and heard. To be performed. Without that performance one can’t fully understand the plays or the men who created them.
To find the real William Shakespeare one has to read up on his friends and partners in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company, started by working class carpenter, actor, and entrepreneur James Burbage and his two sons. The company was a collection of characters. My favorite might be Robert Armin, a goldsmith apprentice who was sent one day to collect a debt owed his master. Unable to collect it, he scrawled witty verses of complaint on the walls of the inn with chalk. Queen Elizabeth’s personal jester, Tarlton, noticed them and recruited young Armin into a different form of apprenticeship– one of acting, comedy, and playwrighting. (Note the suffix of “wright”: one who builds, repairs, or creates, such as a shipwright. The connection between skilled manual labor– dextrous work done with the hands– and literary creation.)
KEYS TO CREATIVITY AND ART
Vincent van Gogh’s artistic wonders were based on his ability to escape the systems of his day– to seek grounding in earthy reality. Here’s a quote from one of his letters to his brother Theo:
I wish those who mean well by me would understand that my actions proceed from a deep feeling and need for love, that recklessness and pride and indifference are not the springs that move the machine, and this step is a proof of my taking root at a low level on life’s way. I do not think I should do well in aiming at a higher station or in trying to change my character. I must have much more experience, I must learn still more, before I shall be ripe, but that is a question of time and perseverence.
(Interesting that Van Gogh’s emphasis on experience undoubtedly opened new neuropathways in his brain and gave him a stronger foundation of empathy and knowledge. On the path to genius.)
We have more systems today than ever, enforcing conformity by regulating and controlling every aspect of our lives. The artist’s job is to throw off those shackles and escape those controls.
Coming soon: The Burbage Spoken Word Prize
-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit News
That’s wright, Karl! Really insightful.
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I particularly liked the point made that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be seen or heard – not to be read. The dialogue of a play must, therefore, be the sole conveyor of everything the audience must know, as there will no narration, other than perhaps an occasional “aside “ spoken to the audience. The aside can inform, entertain, or even whet the appetite. The audience has little to do, other than pay attention. Put away your smart phones, please.
The point I am making , and it is an important one for our purpose, is that our potential customers, those who would read our stories, have grown too lazy to sit down with a good book any more. That requires too much concentration. Why read when you can entertain yourself with far less effort in a mindless world of “streaming “?
How to encourage more reading?
Writing better books is the answer but, to do so, we must return to the basics. Perhaps writers have driven away readership by endeavoring to show how well they can write as opposed to telling an interesting story. Is it more important to the story that a mountain be described eloquently when adequate would suffice? Narrate, to be sure, but don’t forget the old adage that if a word or phrase doesn’t advance the story, it should be immediately struck from the manuscript? If we want to attract new readership, shouldn’t we endeavor, at least as a starter, to make reading easier and more interesting?
I read an article in “The New Yorker” the
other day entitled “The Death of the English Major”. College students who are majoring in English have dropped 50 percent in the past ten years, The focus now is on majors that can help you pay the bills.
It’s an uphill battle.
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I agree. The culprit is the MFA/writing workshop mindset, which values “the well-written sentence” over the overall effect. So we’ve gotten from literary writers the past so-many decades is a ton of well-written sentences, usually to little effect. Many of the stories in esteemed university literary journals are unreadable.
Yes, we have to develop a better product, one which hits unwary readers between the eyes. No easy task– and then the task becomes getting those stories noticed among an avalanche of competition.
Kathleen and I both feel we’ve published some terrific work the past eight months or so, including your most recent story. Better, in our opinion, than anything in the overvalued New Yorker or Paris Review. But the trick is getting noticed, which I’ve turned my attention to of late.
As you say, it’s an uphill fight. . . .