Not of an age, but for all time

This week, the Debs are discussing authors we fangirl over, and I’ve decided to focus on the one writer who has influenced my brain more than any other.

William Shakespeare

I mean that so sincerely and entirely. I worked for the man for seven years, after all! My Master’s degree is in Shakespeare studies. I’ve not only read all of his plays, I’ve actually seen all of them. Most of them at least twice. Yes, even King John. Some of them (looking at you, Much Ado about Nothing) upwards of a dozen times. I’ve been in a handful (including having played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream twice), and I directed Romeo and Juliet in high school. I’ve written teaching guides for twenty-two of them. I’ve conducted a complete metrical analysis of Julius Caesar and Macbeth, and a complete rhetorical analysis of Caesar.

Bill and I have a long relationship, is what I’m saying.

And his words have seeped into my brain so much that they’re just a regular component of my thought process. Utterly inextricable from the way I process language. Someone asked me a while back if there were any Shakespeare references in From Unseen Fire, and I laughed and said no, because I didn’t think there were, what with it being set 1500 years before his birth and all that. And then I listened to the audiobook, and realized that there are a ton of them. (I’ll be marking them out in the annotated copy of the book I’m going to give away when I reach my next Patreon goal). Tiny ones. One or two words, mostly, or sometimes just a rhetorical flourish that I borrowed, but they’re all over the place.

For instance, in a scene where Aula and Latona are discussing marriage possibilities with a friend, Aula advises, “Might as well be a handsome fellow, if you’re getting a choice about it.” Whether consciously or not, those words echo Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, giving similar advice to her cousin Hero: “Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me.’”

There’s no writer I admire more, and certainly none that I’ve studied as deeply. Shakespeare had a brilliant talent for empathy: he never shows only one side of an issue, no matter how thorny or repulsive it might seem. His plays give voice to so many different kinds of people — it’s one of the things that really sets him apart from his contemporaries, who tend to deal more in stock characters than in real humans — including those who no one else amplified. Women, in particular, get better treatment from Shakespeare than from his contemporaries, and while he was certainly subject to the prejudices of his day, he elevated Black and Jewish characters above the stereotyped villainies that damn near every other author of his centuries relegated them to. Take the Prince of Morocco’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, a finer statement on essential humanity than you’d see written anywhere else in early modern England:

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen.

I mean, that’s not just a gorgeous assertion of the self, it’s also smooth as all hell.

Shakespeare’s rhetoric is also what strikes me so deeply about him. As anyone following my Patreon knows, I’m a total rhetoric nerd, and no one since the Romans has done it better than Shakespeare. (Aaron Sorkin and Lin-Manuel Miranda come close). Many people just think of rhetoric as persuasive speech, and it certainly is that, but it’s also why Shakespeare was able to craft so many individual voices. He had a great ear, a sense for how different people use different speaking patterns, and he used rhetoric to break that down and reshape words for his worlds.

But here’s the other way Shakespeare is an author I admire: it’s not just his words. It’s that he was a businessman as much as an artist. He knew how to earn an income from his writing — which not all playwrights could manage! Copyright law as we know it didn’t exist in the 16th century. Something resembling it was beginning to develop, but print culture on the whole was still nascent. Most playwrights got paid exactly once for a play, by the company that would perform it. If they performed it more than once, the playwright didn’t get paid again. If another company stole the script, the playwright didn’t get paid again. If someone at the playing company decided to have the play printed and sold in bookshops, the playwright didn’t get paid again. And so most playwrights either had to have other funding, like writing poetry for wealthy aristocratic patrons, or else they had to churn out an incredible amount of work in order to keep the shillings coming their way. Thomas Heywood, for example, is thought to have written over two hundred plays during his career, making Shakespeare’s 37 (or so) look positively lazy.

Shakespeare, though, knew how to monetize. He  So instead of dying penniless in a tavern, he died in the second-best house in his hometown. Married by the Sea put out this cartoon a while back, and it’s become something of a watchword among creative types that I know:

And this is a thing I keep in mind when making career decisions. There are worse mottos to have!

If you’re interested in some of the other authors who have influenced me and From Unseen Fire, check out this Goodreads shelf of suggestions. From Unseen Fire is available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook from a wide variety of retailers!

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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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