Writing Shakespeare

As prolific as Shakespeare has proven to be with his plays, most people at least have a passing familiarity with a few of his plays. With Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh out there, it’s even likely many have seen at least one of Shakespeare’s plays performed more or less with its original dialogue–even if some have guns in them.

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
(photo: Romeo+Juliet [1996])

While Shakespeare has been adapted and re-adapted in just about every setting possible at this point, the language is still a sticking point for many readers. This exposure to what sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “Old English” (Shakespeare wrote in “Early Modern English” much more understandable than true Old English), many times seem to give writers who wish to set a story in Tudor England the feeling that they need to break out the prithees and thous (and perhaps try to figure out how the heck to write in iambic pentameter) if they are going to be “accurate”.

The first time I received a question about how to properly do X-time period language in writing, I admit I was a bit confused. Having grown up on a steady diet of historical fiction as a child, I’d never considered having to make someone “sound” 16th century in a novel by going so far as to write in Early Modern English. It makes sense to some extent (you wouldn’t have someone in 1620’s Massachusetts saying “cool” or “what’s up”) but there is certainly a difference between refraining from using modern slang and trying to get your PhD in Renaissance Literature so you’re able to properly use Elizabethan phrasing.

Have your PhD and want to write in historically accurate language? Awesome, that sort of rocks. Just find the time period fascinating and want to write a story about it after doing non-PhD-level linguistics research? Don’t drive yourself crazy.

You see, the main reason Early Modern English finds itself questioned so much when it comes to this set up is that it is a version of English that is obviously different, but still possible to understand. Writing in it is not outside the realm of possibility, so some authors feel like a fraud not even trying.

But then, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, do you have to write it in Latin? If your characters are from China, do you have to write in Chinese? Do you have to come up with an entirely new language for your aliens who would obviously not speak English on their home planet?

Of course not.

Creative fiction comes built in with a very handy tool for writers–suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, the reader is willing to believe what you (the author) say is true simply because you say so. There are dragons in your world? Sure, let’s read about them. There’s no such thing as a smart phone? Sure, why not. You have to be careful to stay within the set rules of your universe and not strain/break that suspension of disbelief, but it is a very handy tool.

Language works the same way. Would someone born and raised in China likely speak English everywhere they go? No. Does that mean you can’t write that story until you become fluent in Chinese? Again, no. As we have been trained to do since before most of us would be able to even really think about it, suspension of disbelief allows the reader to assume that the novel is a modern-English translation of whatever your characters would likely be speaking. You can easily break this disbelief by throwing in too-modern language in historical pieces, but you by no means have to learn some different dialect just because you are writing historical fiction. And that really is for a few reasons.

1. Suspension of disbelief covers you.

As I said above, people aren’t going to condemn your WWII story for not being written in Polish when that’s your setting. They aren’t going to condemn you for not writing in Early-Modern English for a Tudor period piece. Just keep the modern slang out of it, and it is assumed your work is a “translation”.

2. You’re more than likely going to get something wrong and be more distracting.

Unless you are a linguistics protege/actually did get your PhD and are now fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of whatever time period you’re setting your story in, trying to make your characters sound Shakespearean is just going to make the dialogue stilted, and annoying to people who might be more familiar in the usage (that’s not how you use thou!) You will end up with better writing writing as you are comfortable.

3. It makes it easier for your audience to read.

As well-remembered as Shakespeare is, there are still plenty of people who just “don’t get it” and thus don’t especially like struggling through the Elizabethan language while attempting to follow along. Perhaps you know all the nuances, perhaps you don’t, you still have cut your possible readership down to people who understand Early-Modern English/don’t mind muddling through. Generally your sales will thank you not to do so.

And so, don’t worry too much about what your characters would actually speak when you’re writing, even when writing historical fiction. Worry about not throwing someone out of the time period altogether with modern slang. As long as you are careful about that, you’re in good shape.

(Note: When it comes to using a word that you feel might sound too “modern” I highly suggest looking at etymonline.com. An online etymological source, it has the historical usage of most words in its database. So can you use the word “crazy” to describe the man yelling about the world ending outside the Globe Theatre? Etymonline says if it’s after 1570, yes if you mean “diseased, sickly” or after 1610 to mean (the more modern usage) “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”).

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2 thoughts on “Writing Shakespeare

  1. Doc says:

    Jessica……thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve written a play in EM English, but for reasons well stated in your blog, find myself too squeamish to even attempt publication. Now, I am faced with the dilemma of do I translate the play to mundanity or do I leave it to collect dust on the eternal shelf of pride. Are you aware of any publishers who welcome manuscripts written in EM English? Is there a market for EM English verse (plays) aside from poetry? Any thoughts? Thank you. Doc

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Sorry to miss your comment until now.

      As it is a play, rather than something like a novel or short story, perhaps publishing isn’t the way to go. You could always look into local theatre companies who might be interested in producing it. If you simply mean it’s written in verse, you really have two marks against you for mainstream publishing–they don’t tend to like novels in verse either. It certainly isn’t impossible to get a verse novel published, but can be harder.

      That said, it’s really up to what you think is best for your work. I don’t know of any publishers who would look for that off the top of my head, but there are many small presses out there you could look into. Do what you think is best, and yes, look into theatre companies if it is truly a play. Perhaps ones that often produce Shakespeare/Marlowe/etc.

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