To Notice or Not to Notice: What I Learned About Writing from Shakespeare
I learn by observing others, examining the lives and works of other writers, seeking to understand the relationship between the writer and the words.
William Shakespeare fascinates me. Spending hours with his work as an English teacher, debating his merits with students, making connections with modern living, showed me that all writers are bound by humanity—beyond the limits of time and culture, we share the experience of being human.
The scope and breadth of William Shakespeare’s work has sparked many conspiracy theories and suggestions, for example, that he may have been royalty or a name for a collective rather than an individual. Since there is little evidence of his early adult life, some question the likelihood of a man from Stratford, with a relatively normal upbringing, to have the ability to create such poignant and important work. I prefer the idea that Shakespeare is a common man from a small town.
Why could he show honesty and courage, themes he explored in many plays, more effectively than his contemporaries? Shakespeare achieved mastery of his craft and mastery of what it means to be human.
Shakespeare’s plays explore a wide range of human emotion and themes, looking at many shades of virtue and choice. How did Shakespeare learn so much about love, jealousy, evil, justice, and ambition?
Every day at work I witness human behaviour and I learn to see things from perspectives that can differ vastly from mine.
What if I had a better grasp of psychology? What if I had keen powers of observation and deduction like Sherlock Holmes? What if I had a mind like Albert Einstein’s for problem solving and innovation?
How would these skills affect what I am observing and what I do with those observations?
Is it possible that Shakespeare had an ideal blend of genius, inquiry, and insight into the human psyche combined with a mastery of story and language?
One summer I went with my parents on a short vacation to Washington, D.C. We visited many of the Smithsonian Museums. It amazed me to see how many people have influenced our world in major ways outside of a formal education system. In fact, the most common theme among the museums was that many of the most brilliant people have been self-directed learners.
Learning can happen informally through experience and insight. If I can believe that the Wright brothers could build a flying craft without formally learning about aircraft in a school, I can believe that Shakespeare could write a play about royalty without being a royal, and understand psychology without being a doctor.
If I have a learning goal, I can develop my knowledge and skills too. I need to be deliberate about what I want to learn.
So if we write who we are, who was William Shakespeare? Shakespeare wrote the truth without specific details about himself.
His work reveals that he understood diverse human behaviours and motivations. Shakespeare mastered the elements of story development. He understood the implications of cause and effect. Shakespeare took the complexities of internal human emotion and translated them into external stories of human triumph and frailty. He wanted audiences to see what he saw about the nature of humanity.
When I examine Shakespeare’s plays, the underlying theme that runs through his body of work is self-awareness.
I use self-awareness as a lens for some of his characters. I wonder how the stories could change if the characters had been more or less self-aware. Hamlet is known for thinking too much, for getting caught up in trying to understand himself—a quest for self-awareness that freezes him from taking action in his life. In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, Prospero’s greatest powers are his self-awareness and ability to manipulate others through magic. Many literary critics suggest that when Prospero lays down his staff (giving up magic) at the end of the play, it symbolizes Shakespeare putting down his quill, giving up playwriting.
Maybe Shakespeare was astutely aware of himself, those around him, and human nature. Maybe Shakespeare was a great observer, able to translate his insights of humanity into diverse stories.
Shakespeare wrote about human truths in all his themes from love in Romeo and Juliet to aging in King Lear. He wrote what he had learned and it is likely that his learning came from observation and experience.
I learn by seeing, watching models, then engaging in social comparisons. Whether I am learning life lessons or writing lessons, it starts with noticing.
You are splinters of the sun,
You are worth celebrating,
You are worth elevating,
And when you take the time
To fill your worlds within
You will join the world without.
Weller, The Boy from the Sun