The Plays of William Shakespeare

To anyone travelling to the UK, Shakespeare’s birthplace and home in Stratford-Upon-Avon is well worth a visit. Much of the blog post below was learned while visiting this unique historic site.

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Born in 1564, Shakespeare was the third child of eight children of John and Mary Shakespeare. He was given a grammar education, which at the time meant being in school 12 hours a day from 6 am to 6 pm learning English and Latin. The town would have been visited by travelling players from London and William would have performed in school plays throughout his years there.

John Shakespeare, William’s father was a glove maker and businessman, Bailiff [mayor] of the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and a man who prioritised education for his sons. Years later John would procure a coat of arms for the Shakespeare family for approximately £20, marking him a gentleman and showing his aspirations for social standing. Mary Shakespeare, William’s mother, was a highly intelligent woman who inherited the lands of her father’s estate despite being the youngest child and a girl, perhaps due to her wit and good sense.

William, the child of intelligent parents, was thus born at a time of social ferment and learning, towards the end of the renaissance and the reformation, and during the expansion of the British Empire under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was given the best opportunity of his time for a common born youth. His schooling would have immersed him in not only the classics but also the latest and greatest of renaissance literature and thought. He did not have the privilege to go up to Oxford or Cambridge to continue his education, however he developed a rigorous work ethic which propelled him into the theatre world of London.

From the age of 21 William enjoyed a successful career as an actor and playwright in London. Young William it seems carried the discipline of long hours of work into his professional career, writing 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems over his 30 year career. That is an average of one or two plays per year and nearly a 800,000 words of writing across his lifetime.

Despite achieving fame within his own lifetime and a degree of material wealth, Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England. This is particularly notable since many of his works are set in locations around Europe and the near East. Rather than traveling to hear stories, Shakespeare simply reworked source materials from famous and not so famous works of classical and renaissance authors to form his narratives.

Below is a brief overview of the plays of Shakespeare and a brief note on how he would have been inspired to compose them.

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS

The Taming of the Shrew 1590 – 1592, was one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. It is set in a London alehouse and in Padua, in Italy and sources for the story include ‘1001 Arabian Nights‘ which Shakespeare may not have read but heard told, and oral folktale tradition from Europe.

Katherine [Kate] and Bianca are daughters of Baptista, a merchant. Various young men are in love with and wish to woo Bianca but are not permitted to marry her until her older sister Kate is wed. However Kate has a fearsome temper and is scornful of men. Who will tame the shrew Kate?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally believed to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays and was written between 1589-1593 and set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the play include prose romance ‘The Seven Books of the Diana‘ by the Portuguese writer Jorge de Montemayor and the intimate friendship of Titus and Gisippus as told in ‘The Boke Named the Governour‘ in 1531 (and in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio).

Valentine and Proteus are two friends. Valentine is setting out to travel to Milan but Proteus stays in Verona because of his love for Julia. Julia loves Proteus but does not show her heart passionately. Proteus later follows his friend to Milan and finding Valentine there and in love with Sylvia, also falls in love with the girl. The two friends quarrel. Julia arrives in Milan dressed as a boy to spy on her love Proteus. Will Proteus return to his love Julia? Will the two men save their friendship?

Henry VI – Part I, II and III believed to have been written in 1591 – 1592 are among Shakespeare’s first plays based on English history. They are drawn from source material in historians Hollinshed and Hall. The three plays are often together with Richard III placed in a Wars of the Roses saga, covering the era 1422 to 1485. The success of these history plays early in his career firmly established Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright.

An England divided under a weak leader spirals from political unrest to all-out civil war. Allegiances are sworn and murderous factions fight for power, but with only one crown for the taking, who will be left standing to lead the country?

Titus Andronicus was written between 1588 and 1593, and is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Sources for the gruesome play could include In ‘Metamorphoses‘, Ovid and Seneca’s play ‘Thyestes‘ among others.

Titus, a general in the Roman army, is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The story entails human sacrifice, rape, cutting out of tongues, revenge including cooking Tamora’s sons in a pie and feeding them to her and her lover, and the burial of an enemy alive.

Richard III could have been written in 1592-3, shortly before the plague struck, or in 1594 when the theatres reopened post-plague. As with his earlier English history plays, Shakespeare drew on the histories of Holinshead and Hall.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is determined to gain the crown of England from his brother, the King Edward IV. He organises the murder of his brother George, whom he has had imprisoned in the Tower of London. When the king is ill, Richard places the young sons of Edward in the Tower and when the king dies Richard has the young princes murdered. Richard is proclaimed king and executes Buckingham who betray him. He is challenged in battle by Henry Tudor, the Plantagenet heir to the throne who defeats him and becomes Henry VII.

The Comedy of Errors was possibly written for Gray’s Inn Christmas festivities in December 1594 and is set in Ephesus, Turkey. The play is a modernized adaptation of ‘Menaechmi‘ by Plautus which was part of the curriculum of grammar school students.

Two sets of identical twins were accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was presented before her Highness [Queen Elizabeth] in the Christmas of 1595. Set in Navarre, France, the text has no obvious sources though the four main male characters are all loosely based on historical figures;  Henry of Navarre (who later became King Henry IV of France),  Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, Charles, duc de Mayenne and Henri I d’Orléans, duc de Longueville.

The King of Navarre and his three companions attempt to swear off the company of women for three years in order to focus on study and fasting. Their subsequent infatuation with the Princess of France and her ladies makes them forsworn. In an nontraditional ending for a comedy, the play closes with a death and all weddings delayed for a year.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often dated to 1595-96 and is set in a forest near Athens. Various sources serve as inspiration including Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses‘ and Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale“. The play’s plot of four lovers undergoing a trial in the woods can be a reference to ‘Der Busant’, a Middle High German poem. The play is consistently listed among Shakespeare’s most popular compositions.

Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is marrying Hippolyta (the former queen of the Amazons) and commissions a play. for the wedding feast. Four young Athenian lovers run away to forest where they become entangled with some mischief among the fairies there. A group of six amateur actors (the mechanics) are also controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest as the actors prepare the play for the wedding feast. 

Romeo and Juliet thought to be written around 1595 is among Shakespeare’s also most popular plays during his lifetime. It is set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the story includes Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus. The plot is mostly based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.

Young Romeo falls instantly in love with Juliet , who is due to marry her father’s choice, Paris. The two lovers belong to feuding families. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the couple arrange to marry secretly and quickly. Unfortunately Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, causing Romeo to be banished. In a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo, Juliet fakes her own death. However, the star crosses lovers are not due a happy ending.

Richard II was written in approximately 1595. It is based on the life of King Richard II of England (ruled 1377–1399) and like Shakespeare’s other histories is based on the works of Hollinshed and Hall.

King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, and uses the money to fund wars. Henry returns to England to reclaim his land, gathers an army of those opposed to Richard, and deposes him. Now as Henry IV, Henry imprisons Richard, and Richard is murdered in prison.   

King John was written between 1595 and 1597 and dramatises the reign of John, King of England (ruled 1199–1216), it resembles an anonymous history play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (c. 1589), showing that Shakespeare perhaps influenced his contemporaries. Source material is like his other histories, drawn from Hollinshed.

King John goes to war against the French after claims that his nephew should be king instead. John has conflict with the church, orders his nephew’s death, and turns the nobles against himself. In the end, John dies from poison, the French retreat, and his son becomes King.

The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596 or 1597 and set in Venice, Italy. Many elements of the play can be found in the 14th-century tale Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino in 1558.  

Antonio, a merchant, takes a loan from Shylock, a Jew, to help his friend to court the wealthy heiress Portia. When Antonio can’t repay the loan, without mercy, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. The heiress Portia, now the wife of Antonio’s friend, dresses as a lawyer and saves Antonio in a dramatic courtroom twist. 

Henry IV Part I and II  were probably written around 1596–98. Both parts are based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and form a series of English history with Richard II and Henry V. The plays were and have been popular with audiences and critics and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ written to reprise the popular character Falstaff.

While crown Prince Hal spends time in the taverns, King Henry IV argues with his former ally Hotspur. Angry, Hotspur gathers a rebellion, and Henry and Hal go to battle to stop him. Henry’s army wins the battle, while Hal redeems himself from his wild youth and kills Hotspur. King Henry IV suffers from illness, so his youngest son Prince John fights the rebels, while Prince Hal prepares to be king. Meanwhile, Hal’s friend Falstaff causes trouble, recruits, and speaks ill of Hal. Henry dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V. He banishes Falstaff from court, ready to wage war on France.

Much Ado About Nothing was likely written in 1598 and is set in Messina, Italy. Stories of lovers being tricked into believing the other loved them were common at the time in Italy. Various elements of the story can be seen in  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Aristo.

Soldiers return from battle to the villa of Leonato who lives with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. A young solider Claudio falls in love with Hero, but Hero’s cousin Beatrice will not be tamed so easily. She trades witty blows with Benedict a soldier who has sworn off love. Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio conspire to dupe the pair into believing the other is in love with them. Claudio is deceived by a malicious plot by Don Pedro’s wicked brother to believe Hero is unfaithful to him and he rejects her. She faints and is believed dead, but recovers to be proved innocent by a chance discovery. Will Benedict and Beatrice find true love? And will Hero and Claudio be reunited?

Henry V  was written in 1599 and like Shakespeare’s other English history plays is based on the work of Hollinshed and Hall. It tells the story of King Henry V of England, and focuses on the events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years’ War.

After an insult from the French Dauphin, King Henry V of England invades France to claim the throne he believes should be his. Henry stops an assassination plot, gives powerful speeches, and wins battles against the odds. In the end, he woos and marries the Princess of France, linking the two nations.

As You Like It is typically dated to late 1599 is set in the forest of Arden, France/ Belgium. The source of As You Like It is Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, written 1586–87 which in turn is based on “The Tale of Gamelyn”.

Rosalind and her cousin escape into the forest and find Orlando, Rosalind’s love. Disguised as a boy shepherd, Rosalind has Orlando woo her under the guise of “curing” him of his love for Rosalind. Rosalind reveals she is a girl and marries Orlando during a group wedding at the end of the play.  

Julius Caesar was written around 1599 and is set in Rome, Italy in 44 BC. Along with Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, it is based on true events from Roman history. The main source of the play is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

Conspirators convince Caesar’s friend Brutus to join their assassination plot against Caesar and to stop him from gaining too much power in Rome. Brutus and the conspirators kill him on the Ides of March. Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, drives the conspirators out of Rome and fights them in a battle and defeats them. Antony then returns to rule in Rome. 

Hamlet was written around 1600 and is set in Denmark. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and was one of his most popular works during his lifetime and still ranks among his most performed. The story was derived from the 13th-century legend of Amleth, by Saxo Grammaticus and retold by the 16th-century scholar François de Belleforest in his Histoires tragiques.  

The ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet feigns madness, contemplates life and death, and seeks revenge. His uncle, fearing for his life, also devises plots to kill Hamlet. The play ends with a duel, during which the King, Queen, Hamlet’s opponent and Hamlet himself are all killed. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor was written around 1597 – 1601 and it is set in Windsor, England. It was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I who much loved the character of John Falstaff the fat knight who featured in Shakespeare’s earlier Henry plays. Source material for the story may have been adapted from Il Pecorone, a collection of stories by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino.

Falstaff decides to fix his financial woe by seducing the wives of two wealthy merchants. The wives find he sent them identical letters and take revenge by playing tricks on Falstaff when he comes calling. With the help of their husbands and friends, the wives play one last trick in the woods to put Falstaff’s mischief to an end.

Twelfth Night was written in 1601 as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season.  It is set on the island of Illyria in the Adriatic Sea. The “Twelfth Night” is a the last day of Christmas Day in which servants often dressed up as their masters, men as women and so forth thus leading the plot of gender reversals and general silliness. Elements of the story are drawn from the short story “Of Apollonius and Silla” by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello.

Viola, separated from her twin Sebastian, dresses as a boy and works for the Duke Orsino, whom she falls in love with. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and sends Viola to court her for him, but Olivia falls for Viola instead. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity, and marries Olivia. Viola then reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino. 

Troilus and Cressida is dated to around 1602. It is set in Troy during the Trojan wars in Ancient Greece. It has been described as a problem play due to its mix of genres between comedy and tragedy leaving audiences somewhat confused by it. Sources of the story include Chaucer’s version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and John Lydgate’s Troy Book.

Trojan prince Troilus falls in love with Cressida, as war rages around them. After vowing to be faithful, Cressida is traded to the Greek camp, where she then agrees to see another man. Troilus witnesses Cressida’s unfaithfulness and vows to put more effort into the war. The play ends after further deaths on both sides, and with no resolution in sight.

Othello was written around 1604 and is set in Venice, Italy. It is an adaptation of the Italian writer Cinthio’s tale “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”)  (1565) which was not available in English meaning Shakespeare read Italian.

Iago is furious about being overlooked for promotion and plots to take revenge against his General; Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago manipulates Othello into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello’s jealousy. Othello allows jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and then kills himself.

Measure for Measure was performed at court for Christmas 1604, and was probably written earlier the same year. It is set in Vienna, Austria. The source material “The Story of Epitia”, a story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, [1565] and the same book as the source story for Othello.

The Duke leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna, where he quickly condemns Claudio to death for immoral behaviour. Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if his sister, Isabella, sleeps with him. Isabella agrees but has Angelo’s fiance switch places with her. The Duke returns to spare Claudio, punish Angelo, and propose to Isabella.

All’s Well That Ends Well is usually dated 1605 is set in Paris, France. The play is based on a tale (tale nine of day three) of Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Helen heals the King of France, and the King grants her permission to marry Bertram, the man she loves. Bertram rejects her and leaves a list of tasks that she must do to have him acknowledge their marriage. She follows him to Italy, completes all the tasks, and Bertram accepts her as his wife. 

Timon of Athens is estimated to have been written around 1605 -06 and it is set in Athens, Greece. It is likely to be based on a story within  William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, also the the main source for All’s Well That Ends Well.  He also drew upon Plutarch’s Lives, and perhaps Lucian’s Dialogues.

Wealthy and popular, Timon of Athens helps his friends, gives many gifts, and holds a feast. After ignoring his true friends’ warnings, Timon runs out of money, and none of his “friends” will help him. He runs away to a cave where he curses humanity, finds gold, funds someone to destroy Athens, and dies.

King Lear was written around 1605-06 and is derived from the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. Shakespeare’s most important source is probably the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 

King Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters who flatter him and banishes the third one who loves him. His eldest daughters both then reject him at their homes, so Lear goes mad and wanders through a storm. His banished daughter returns with an army, but they lose the battle and Lear, all his daughters and more, die.

Macbeth was first performed in 1606 for King James I and Shakespeare’s source for the story is the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  

Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth kills the king, becomes the new king, and kills more people out of paranoia. Civil war erupts to overthrow Macbeth, resulting in more death.

Antony and Cleopatra which is dated 1606, was performed at court in 1607. The plot is based on Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Lives (in Ancient Greek). It is set in Alexandrian Egypt and Rome, Italy during the Roman Republic.  

Mark Antony, one of three rulers of Rome, is in love with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Antony is summoned back to Rome, where he clashes with another ruler Octavius before returning to Cleopatra in Egypt. Now in battle with Octavius, Antony and Cleopatra suffer losses and miscommunication, and both eventually commit suicide.

Coriolanus was perhaps written in 1608 and is largely based on the “Life of Coriolanus” in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It is set in Ancient Rome.  

Roman general Coriolanus makes his name defeating an enemy army and defending Rome. The Senate nominates him as consul but he cannot win the people’s vote, so he is banished from Rome and allies with his old enemy. He comes to attack Rome, his mother persuades him not to, and his new-found ally kills him for the betrayal.

Pericles  was written around 1608 and is set in Antioch, Turkey and Tyre, Phoenicia. Source material for the play comes from Confessio Amantis (1393) of John Gower, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of Gower’s tale, The Pattern of Painful Adventures

Pericles, Prince of Tyre leaves home to escape death only to win a jousting contest and marry a princess. Once he can return home, his family sails with him, but a storm separates them, so Pericles returns alone. Years later, Pericles finds his daughter and reunites with the wife he had thought was dead. 

Cymbeline written around 1610 is grounded in the story of the historical British king Cunobeline, which Shakespeare likely found in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The plot and subplots of the play are derived from other sources, namely from story II.9 of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

King Cymbeline of Britain banishes his daughter Innogen’s husband, who then makes a bet on Innogen’s fidelity. Innogen is accused of being unfaithful, runs away, and becomes a page for the Roman army as it invades Britain. In the end, Innogen clears her name, discovers her long-lost brothers and reunites with her husband while Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.

The Winter’s Tale written around 1611 was based on Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. It is set in Sicily and the Kingdom of Bohemia which is the modern day Czech Republic.

The jealous King Leontes falsely accuse his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes’ friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione “comes to life”, and everyone is reconciled.

The Tempest written in about 1611 is set on an unknown island in the sea. There is no clear single source for the play but “Naufragium” (“The Shipwreck”), in Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (1518) and Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo are considered to be several.

Prospero uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, plots to rid himself of his master, but is thwarted by Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel. The King’s young son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Their celebrations are cut short when Prospero confronts his brother and reveals his identity as the usurped Duke of Milan. The families are reunited and all conflict is resolved. Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and prepares to leave the island.

Henry VIII was written around 1613 and tells of the life of the last Tudor King of England. The first Globe theatre burnt down in a fire that started during a performance of the play when a canon fired for special effect set the thatched roof alight. The reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank has a thatched roof and carefully installed sprinkler system since all thatching was outlawed after the great fire of London in 1666 which destroyed nearly one third of the city. As usual in his history plays, Shakespeare relied primarily on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles and the play avoids many of the sensitivities related to Henry’s reign.

King Henry VIII listens to Cardinal Wolsey too much and gives him power, which the Cardinal uses to convict a duke of treason. Henry meets Anne Boleyn, divorces his wife Katharine, and marries Anne. Anne gives birth to Princess Elizabeth who the Archbishop prophesies will become great.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy, written around 1613 was Shakespeare’s last plays. Its plot derives from “The Knight’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and is set in Ancient Athens.

Theseus wages war on Creon. Two soldiers, Arcite and Palamon, in Creon’s army fall in love with Princess Emilia, Queen Hippolyta’s sister and Theseus proposes a public tournament between the two for Emilia’s hand. The loser will be executed. Before the tournament, Arcite prays to Mars that he win the battle; Palamon prays to Venus that he marry Emilia; Emilia prays to Diana that she be wed to the one who loves her best. Who will win the fair Emilia’s hand?

_______

Soon after this final play, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon where he died three years later in 1616, just before is 53rd birthday.

His literary legacy in unparalleled. Gifted with language and poetry, he is known to have invented over 1700 words and phrases used in the English language today and his works have been translated into every major language. His plays are continuously performed around the world and he is globally acknowledged to be the greatest writer of all time.

World Building

Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.

‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.

‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.

The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.

Why is world building so vital to good story telling?

As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.

The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.

No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.

The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:

can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass:

Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.

However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.

Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.

Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’

Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.

With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!: When Men Write Women

I have recently completed several seasons of Peaky Blinders, a gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham, based on the real life family The Shelby’s and their illegal betting and black-market trading businesses.

The story is clearly a boys fantasy, while couched in history, the heroes and villains become caricatured and superheroesque and women fall into two broad categories, wives and lovers.

Initially, leading female characters seemed plucky, tough. However they soon devolve into wives with children who hover in the wings, or mothers vigilantly attending their sons. They’re sassy and have their own minor narrative arcs, trysts and adventures however they largely fall into two dimensional supports for the boys.

To be faithful to bygone days, women did not have the rights and agency of men to run businesses, bear weapons, own property or take a professional career, nor do they have the physical strength to engage in fisty-cuffs as typified in gangster sagas. What is sorely missing is not girl-versions of boy gangsters, but females with rich, varied and nuanced existences, intellect, entrepreneurship, humour, allure, mendacity and creativity of their own.

Thomas Shelby, the gang leader, is a male fantasy. Women throw themselves at him one after the other, while men either love him or want to kill him [and even the ones who want him dead will happily collaborate with such a decent foe].

What presents as a nuanced period piece, the 1920’s world brought to life amidst IRA tensions, a young Winston Churchill in office, ethnic gang wars between gypsy travelers, Italian mafia and Jewish business empires, an wider back drop of the dying and corrupt Russian Empire, the early stirrings of communism and of a second World War, becomes a disappointing two dimensional fantasy of bad boys gone badder, rolling in money, cocaine and power, breaking all the rules except the code of brotherhood and seeing foes and beautiful women falling in front of them with ease.

There is not one woman in the series who is not oriented to the men as lover, mother, wife or more crudely, an object of desire. No strong character, weak character, evil character or good redeeming character has any other place in the narrative except as part of the family or as a side interest. And this where good writing falls down.

The Power of Reading

In an earlier post, I examined what would happen ‘If All the Books Disappeared.’ Ricky Gervais pointed out that science is the axiom the universe, an unchanging constant that would be discovered again and again should we lose all knowledge and records of learning. He contrasted this to religion which would reappear in a different form because it is couched in culture, language, and context.

For Gervais, science is worth believing in. Religion was not.

In contrast, C. S. Lewis an atheist until his early 30s, described himself as a “reluctant convert” to Christianity,  because as an intellectual, he found he had no choice but to accept what he clearly saw to be truth.

In his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ he mused,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

C. S. Lewis

This little comic articulates the importance of ideas to shape the way we see the world. Should we lose all books, humanity would have to reprocess the fundamentals of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ the world, in order to test, examine and rediscover science.

Without ideas of being, notions of truth and identity, we would in fact ‘see’ the world very differently. Science would not only have to be relearned but would have to in fact be ‘re-seen.’

This process of epistemology, the process of ‘knowing’ is philosophical and tied to notions of belief, truth, and identity. This is why humanity are story tellers, and our narratives of identity which form the basis of religious beliefs run parallel to, and indeed fundamental to, the scientific process.

Beginnings: Setting a Story into Motion

In July, I shared a video essay by screenwriter Michael Arndt on insanely great story endings. The 90 min presentation is a brilliant excavation of how narrative works, and how crisis and catharsis interweave to create ‘insanely great’ story endings.

The Oscar winning screenwriter of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ has also created a shorter lecture on story beginnings.

 

 Here are the key steps Arndt identifies set up a good story beginning:

Step 1: Show Your Hero Doing What They Love Most

The first step to setting up a story is to identify the protagonist or hero’s ‘grand passion’. This is their defining trait, the centre of their universe. As you introduce the character the universe they live in, you show your hero doing the thing they love to do the most.

Step 2: Add a Flaw

The character’s grand passion however, contains a flaw. Usually it’s the dark side of their natural love, a good thing that’s taken too far, a fear or a weakness. What is key however, is that the hero’s flaw is tied to their deepest love and desires.

Step 3: Add a Storm

In the early stages of the story, usually around page 10 of a screenplay, you want to establish ‘storm clouds’ on the horizon of the main character’s world. Your character is walking down the road of life, on a nice bright sunny day, and then BABOOM! ~ something comes and totally blows their joyous life apart and irrevocably changes the path they are on.

Step 4: Add Insult to Injury

This bolt from the blue not only interferes with your character’s life but skewers them through their grand passion to their deepest flaw. This wound, changes their whole sense of what their future is going to be. To increase the stakes at this early point in the story, add insult to injury, making the whole world seem a little bit beyond unfair.

Step 5: Make Your Character Pick the Unhealthy Choice

All of this serves to set up the character journey of your protagonist for the rest of the story. Your hero’s grand passion has been taken away, the world is revealed to be unfair and he or she comes to a fork in the road, and they have to make a choice on how to deal with their new reality.

There is a high road to take, a healthy responsible choice, or a low road to take. As the audience, we are barracking for the hero to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing, because we feel his or her pain.

Bring It Home

To put everything right, your character must make a journey that is the rest of the story. By the end of this journey, hopefully, not only will they get back what they lost, but they will have healed the flaw they had which was tied to this deep passion and desire.

The key point of Arndt’s analysis is that the essence of your story, comes out of your character’s deepest desire and darkest fears. The thing they love gets stolen away from them, and the world is revealed to be unfair. Their journey to reclaim their lost passion, heals their deepest fears, their wound and flaw and re-establishes equilibrium and peace.

And this is what makes insanely good story beginnings.

Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live

This article was written by Robert A. Burton and published on Nautilus on August 8th, 2019. To read the original article please read here.

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Without inner narratives we would be lost in a chaotic world.

We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories.

Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the study of purely physical phenomena, science is the only reliable method for establishing the facts of the world.

But when we use data of the physical world to explain phenomena that cannot be reduced to physical facts, or when we extend incomplete data to draw general conclusions, we are telling stories. Knowing the atomic weight of carbon and oxygen cannot tell us what life is. There are no naked facts that completely explain why animals sacrifice themselves for the good of their kin, why we fall in love, the meaning and purpose of existence, or why we kill each other.

Science is not at fault. On the contrary, science can save us from false stories. It is an irreplaceable means of understanding our world. But despite the verities of science, many of our most important questions compel us to tell stories that venture beyond the facts. For all of the sophisticated methodologies in science, we have not moved beyond the story as the primary way that we make sense of our lives.

To see where science and story meet, let’s take a look at how story is created in the brain. Let’s begin with an utterly simple example of a story, offered by E. M. Forster in his classic book on writing, Aspects of the Novel:

The king died and then the queen died.

It is nearly impossible to read this juxtaposition of events without wondering why the queen died. Even with a minimum of description, the construction of the sentence makes us guess at a pattern. Why would the author mention both events in the same sentence if he didn’t mean to imply a causal relationship?

Once a relationship has been suggested, we feel obliged to come up with an explanation. This makes us turn to what we know, to our storehouse of facts. It is general knowledge that a spouse can die of grief. Did the queen then die of heartbreak? This possibility draws on the science of human behavior, which competes with other, more traditional narratives. A high school student who has been studying Hamlet, for instance, might read the story as a microsynopsis of the play.

Despite the verities of science, we are compelled to tell stories that venture beyond the facts.

The pleasurable feeling that our explanation is the right one—ranging from a modest sense of familiarity to the powerful and sublime “a-ha!”—is meted out by the same reward system in the brain integral to drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. The reward system extends from the limbic area of the brain, vital to the expression of emotion, to the prefrontal cortex, critical to executive thought. Though still imperfectly understood, it is generally thought that the reward system plays a central role in the promotion and reinforcement of learning. Key to the system, and found primarily within its brain cells, is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that carries and modulates signals among brain cells. Studies consistently show that feeling rewarded is accompanied by a rise in dopamine levels.

This reward system was first noted in the 1950s by two McGill University researchers, James Olds and Peter Milner. Stimulating electrodes were placed in presumed brain reward areas of rats. When allowed full unrestricted access to a lever that, when depressed, would cause the electrodes to fire, the rats quickly learned to repeatedly depress the lever, often to the exclusion of food and water. Realizing that our brains are capable of producing feelings so intense that we choose to ignore such basic drives as hunger and thirst was a first step toward understanding the enormous power of the brain’s reward circuitry.

Critical to understanding how stories spark the brain’s reward system is the theory known as pattern recognition—the brain’s way of piecing together a number of separate components of an image into a coherent picture. The first time you see a lion, for instance, you have to figure out what you’re seeing. At least 30 separate areas of the brain’s visual cortex pitch in, each processing an aspect of the overall image—from the detection of motion and edges, to the register of color and facial features. Collectively they form an overall image of a lion.

Each subsequent exposure to a lion enhances your neural circuitry; the connections among processing regions become more robust and efficient. (This theory, based on the research of Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb, a pioneer in studying how people learn, is often stated as “cells that fire together wire together.”) Soon, less input is necessary to recognize the lion. A fleeting glimpse of a partial picture is sufficient for recognition, which occurs via positive feedback from your reward system. Yes, you are assured by your brain, that is a lion.

An efficient pattern recognition of a lion makes perfect evolutionary sense. If you see a large feline shape moving in some nearby brush, it is unwise to wait until you see the yellows of the lion’s eyes before starting to run up the nearest tree. You need a brain that quickly detects entire shapes from fragments of the total picture and provides you with a powerful sense of the accuracy of this recognition.

One need only think of the recognition of a new pattern that is so profound that it triggers an involuntary “a-ha!” to understand the degree of pleasure that can be associated with learning. It’s no wonder that once a particular pattern-recognition-reward relationship is well grooved into our circuitry, it is hard to shake. In general—outside of addiction, that is—this “stickiness” of a correlation is a good thing. It is through repetition and the sense of familiarity and “rightness” of a correlation that we learn to navigate our way in the world.

Gallagher_BREAKER

Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.

People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible. A fundamental prerequisite for pattern recognition is the ability to quickly distinguish between similar but not identical inputs. Not being able to pigeonhole an event or idea makes it much more difficult for the brain to label and store it as a discrete memory. Neat and tidy promotes learning; loose ends lead to the “yes, but” of indecision and inability to draw a precise conclusion.

When we make and take incomplete stories from science, there are moral consequences.

Just as proper pattern recognition results in the reward of an increased release of dopamine, faulty pattern recognition is associated with decreased dopamine release. In monkeys, the failure to make a successful prediction (correlation between expected and actual outcome) characteristically diminishes dopamine release exactly at the time that the predicted event is anticipated but fails to occur. Just as accurate correlations are pleasurable, lack of correlation produces the neurotransmitter equivalent of thwarted expectation (or worse).

Once we see that stories are the narrative equivalent of correlation, it is easy to understand why our brains seek out stories (patterns) whenever and wherever possible. You may have read or heard about the famous experiment in which University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons asked subjects to watch a video and count the number of times a ball is dribbled by a basketball team. When focused on counting, the majority of viewers failed to see a woman in a gorilla suit walk across the playing area. In effect, well-oiled patterns of observation encourage our brains to compose a story that we expect to hear.

Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them. With a half-story from science in our minds, we earn a dopamine “reward” every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.

Following the Newtown massacre, some experts commented on the killer having Asperger’s syndrome, as though that might at least partially explain his behavior. Though Asperger’s syndrome feels like a specific diagnosis, it is, by definition, nothing more than a constellation of symptoms common to a group of people. In the 1940s, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger noted that a number of patients had similar problems with social skills, eccentric or repetitive actions, unusual preoccupation rituals, and communication difficulties, including lack of eye contact and trouble understanding facial expressions and gestures. The 2013 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome from its guidebook for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V), for failing to conform to any specific neuropathology, underscores the all-too-common problem of accepting a clustering of symptoms as synonymous with a specific disease. Syndromes are stories in search of underlying causes.

Similarly, studies of psychopaths have shown a diminished volume of gray matter in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex. But these findings aren’t the sole explanation for violent acts. Because it is impossible to stimulate a specific brain region to produce complex and premeditated acts, we are left to conclude that while certain brain conditions can be correlated with a complex act, they are not necessarily causing it. Likewise, brain scans that reveal abnormalities in mass murderers may help us understand what might have contributed to their behavior. But the abnormalities are no more the sole explanation for violence than childhood neglect or poor nutrition are. They are stories, albeit with a detailed neurophysiological component, but stories nonetheless.

When we make and take incomplete stories from science, there are often moral consequences. How much personal responsibility should we assign to an individual with a damaged or malfunctioning brain? What is the appropriate punishment and possibility of rehabilitation for such a person? Only when we openly acknowledge the degree to which science is presenting its observations in the form of story can we address this moral dimension. We must each work out our own guidelines for when we think scientific data has exceeded its bounds and has morphed into the agenda and bias of story. Of course this is always going to be a challenge in the absence of a full array of scientific data.

But we can begin by being aware of the various ways that storytelling can insinuate itself into the presentation and interpretation of data. Good science is a combination of meticulously obtained and analyzed data, a restriction of the conclusions to those interpretations that are explicitly reflected in the data, and an honest and humble recognition of the limits of what this data can say about the world.

Loose ends lead to the “yes, but” of indecision and inability to draw a precise conclusion.

As members of the public, we need to ensure that any science we accept as truth has passed through the peer-review process. We should also understand that even peer-reviewed data is not always accurate. In 2011, Nature reported that published retractions had increased by a factor of 10 over the last 10 years, while the number of papers published rose only 44 percent. Also in Nature, scientists C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis wrote that their colleagues at the biotechnology firm Amgen could reproduce only six of 53 landmark hematology and oncology studies from the scientific literature. Similarly, scientists from Bayer reported in 2011 that they could not consistently reproduce about two-thirds of oncology studies relevant to their work.

When reading science reports, we should also search for information on the limits of the data. Were assumptions made? What do the “error bars,” or graphic representations of variable data, say? We may not always understand the data limits, but we should be worried when some discussion of them is completely absent.

In the end, scientists have the tools, language, and experience to tell us informed, engaging, and powerful stories. In turn, we should judge their studies in the same light in which we judge other artistic forms. Like a literary critic, we should assess the preciseness of language, the tightness of structure, the clarity and originality of vision, the overall elegance and grace of the study, the restraint with which they present moral issues, how they place their studies in historical, cultural, and personal context, and their willingness to entertain alternative opinions and interpretations.

The methodology of science remains one of the great advances of humankind. Its stories, properly told, are epic poems in progress, and deserve to stand alongside the great stories of history.

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This article was written by Robert A. Burton and published on Nautilus on 8th August 2019. To read the original article please read here.

Agatha Christie: Queen of Crime

Agatha Christie is an English writer, known for her 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections and 1 play. More than thirty feature films have been based on her work and her novels have sold around 3 billion copies.

Her success as a novelist is an example of how an author can develop a truly recognisable voice and brand; her’s being The Queen of Crime or The Queen of Mystery. Despite critique of her populist style, her prolific output of novels featuring recognisable protagonists such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, creates a universe into which readers can return time and again to enjoy new episodes.

She was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15th September 1890 into a wealthy upper-middle-class family. Christie described her childhood as “very happy”. Her time was spent between her home in Devon, a family house in West London, and parts of Southern Europe, where her family would stay during the winter.

Agatha receive a home education and was a voracious reader from an early age. At age 11, after her father’s early death she was sent to receive a formal education and later to Paris where she attended finishing school. In 1910, Christie and her mother Clara moved to Cairo to enjoy the warmer climate and Christie attended many social functions in search of a husband.

Christie wrote her first short story, a 6,000 word piece on the topic of “madness and dreams”. Other stories followed however, magazines rejected all her early submissions. Christie set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo drawing from her recent experiences there. Still rejected by publishers, a family friend and published writer sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, who despite rejecting her novel suggested a second.

Agatha met Archibald Christie at a dance near Torquay in 1913. He was an army officer and they married on Christmas Eve 1914 while Archie was on home leave from the War. Christie volunteered at home and attended to wounded soldiers at a hospital in Torquay where she qualified as an “apothecaries’ assistant”. After the war, Agatha and Archie settled in a flat in London and in 1919, welcomed a daughter, Rosalind Margaret Hicks.

Agatha kept writing and having long been a fan of detective novels including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories, she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. This novel first featured Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer, inspired by Belgian soldiers whom she helped to treat as a volunteer during the War. Her original manuscript was again rejected by many publishers however, after several months, The Bodley Head offered to accept it with revisions. It was finally published in 1920 and Christie was 30 years old.

Her second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured a new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, again published by The Bodley Head, earning her £50. A third novel followed again featuring Poirot, titled Murder on the Links (1923), as did more short stories. As Agatha kept writing, the popularity of her work grew.

Around this time, the Christie’s toured the world promoting the British Empire Exhibition, leaving their daughter Rosalind with Agatha’s mother and elder sister. However in late 1926, Archie asked Agatha for a divorce. He had fallen in love with a woman he had met on the promotional tour. On 3 December 1926, an evening that Archie left their house to see his mistress, Christie disappeared causing an outcry from the public and a nationwide man hunt. Christie’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. She was discovered safely 10 days later, however her global fame was secured.

The couple divorced in 1928, and Archie married his mistress. Agatha retained custody of their daughter Rosalind and the Christie surname for her writing. The same year, she left England for Istanbul and subsequently for Baghdad on the Orient Express. Late in this trip, in 1930, she met a young archaeologist Max Mallowan, whom she married. Their marriage was happy and lasted until Christie’s death 45 years later.

During the Second World War, Christie worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, London, where she acquired a knowledge of poisons that she featured in her post-war crime novels. For example, so accurate was her description of thallium poisoning that on at least one occasion it helped solve a real case. Also during the Second World War, Christie wrote, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, both the last cases of the great detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Both books were sealed in a bank vault until near the end of her life.

Christie often accompanied her husband Mallowan on his archaeological expeditions, and her travels with him contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey and the archaelogical temple site of Abu Simbel, is depicted in Death on the Nile as is life at the dig site in Murder in Mesopotamia. Their extensive travelling also resulted in transportation often playing a part in her murderer’s schemes.

From 1971 to 1974, Christie’s health began to fail, although she continued to write. She died on 12 January 1976 at age 85 from natural causes. She remains the most-translated individual author, being published in at least 103 languages and her novel, And Then There Were None with 100 million sales holds the record of being one of the best-selling books of all time. Her stage play The Mousetrap also holds the world record for longest run, opening in 1957 and still running today in the West End after more than 27,000 performances.

Whatever one thinks of Agatha Christie one cannot but admire the enormous impact she has made on world literature.