Most people think of creativity as fundamentally opposed to logistics like word limits, deadlines and style standards, which can be discouraging for content writers who try to produce creative work while juggling all of these restrictions. The good news is that on this issue, as on most issues, Shakespeare has your back.
He wrote for a living.
We’re trained to think of Shakespeare as the most English-majory of writers, the most elite of the elite, which makes it easy to forget that Shakespeare didn’t write only when he felt he’d acquired some new insight into human nature that needed to be shared with the world. He wrote for a living, which meant producing work that would please his audience and bring in money, and that would do so quickly. Elizabethan audiences were avid theater-goers, and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men, along with all theatre companies, had to produce new work almost constantly in order to keep their audience entertained. In other words, Shakespeare wrote under deadlines, and for a very particular audience with specific demands.
He targeted a specific audience.
The ability to appeal to an audience is one of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths. All of the character development, symbolism and philosophical introspection that make Shakespeare so renowned coexist happily with what he knew his audience wanted: bawdy jokes, songs, plenty of bloody deaths (if tragedy) or convoluted romantic entanglements (if comedy), lots of Roman and English history, and abundant cross-dressing. We tend to think of Shakespeare as the literary equivalent of Oscar-winning movies, but it would be more accurate to think of a Shakespeare play as a summer blockbuster that still got nominated for Oscars. It wasn’t enough for King Lear to be a work of genius – it also needed to be a hit.
He worked within structural boundaries.
In addition to the need to please an audience, Shakespeare wrote within structural restrictions. Elizabethan theater had clear expectations for how a play was supposed to go: typically five acts, ending in marriage or death, and mostly written in verse. (I sometimes find it hard to write within character limits. Imagine writing in iambic pentameter.) While Shakespeare played with these restrictions, especially with the problem plays and his later romances, most of his works fit within them. Sometimes the need to fit within these restrictions even gives the play its impact (several people are married at the end of Merchant of Venice, but is it really a happy ending?).
The knowledge that Shakespeare wrote as a career, with the need to appeal to an audience and with abundant stylistic restrictions, may initially seem more intimidating than encouraging. But the point isn’t that anyone who writes for a living can be Shakespeare. I certainly can’t be, and you probably can’t be either. The point is that restrictions, whether of time, of purpose or of structure, don’t have to be the death of creativity. Instead, they can be seen as a starting point, a way of giving purpose to your writing. Once you know what you need to do, you can start working on new, exciting ways of doing it. A different verb isn’t all it takes to turn an Elizabethan revenge tragedy into one of the world’s greatest examinations of human nature, but reminding yourself that you can still be creative even when your expectations are very specific can make writing for a living a little more fun.
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