And He Solves CrimesComplications Ensue
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Saturday, August 08, 2015

It is a bitter joke among my screenwriter friends that the way you get a TV show is that you create a truly interesting character, in a fascinating environment, whose family has complicated, fraught dynamics... "and he solves crimes."

It is a cliché among high school drama classes that Hamlet is about a man cursed with indecision. What is up with that guy? If Othello had been in his shoes, he'd have killed off Claudius in Act One, scene 2. (To be fair, if Hamlet had been in Othello's shoes, he'd have laid a trap for Iago.)

A playwright and perfessor named David Ball has written a really brilliant book on how to read plays called Backwards & Forwards. He makes the interesting point that to understand a play you have to read it, yep, backwards and forwards. Going forwards, anything can happen. Hamlet could find out his mother's married his uncle after his father died mysterious, and bugger off back to Wittenberg U. Hamlet could avoid the poisoned blade. Hamlet could turn out to have ingested small portions of the poison over years to render himself immune to it. But if you notice that (SPOILERS) at the end of the play he offs someone important (HAH NOT REALLY), you can work backwards step by step until you see the train of consequences that gets him there from the Ghost's first speech. Only then can you understand how the play is constructed.

And, in doing so, he makes a much more specific point. Hamlet is not at all indecisive -- once he knows that Claudius is guilty of murdering his father in Act Three.

How so?

Well, you see, in Elizabethan times, if you saw a ghost, you had no way of knowing if it was your father, as it appeared to be, or a vision sent by a witch or a devil. Sure, the ghost says that Claudius murdered him. But maybe he's lying!

So, for the first three acts, Hamlet is a detective. He adopts a pose of madness. He organizes a play for Claudius to watch about a nobleman who snatches a crown by murdering his brother -- and then he closely observes Claudius's reaction to it. He gives a soliloquy about killing himself when he knows that Polonius is spying on him. (It is not, in fact, a soliloquy!)

He is not indecisive. He does not know the facts. He very decisively seeks to get them.

Shakespeare is a funny playwright for modern audiences and modern theatre companies. His language is some of the best poetry in English. His plays, however, are not "poetic" at all. They are not "art plays." Their subject matter is always something clear: power, love, money, love vs. money, love vs. power, power vs. power. They have fast-moving plots, with twists and turns.

And the damn things are well nigh bulletproof. If you put on a Shakespeare play as is, you have one difficult task: get the actors to understand what the hell it is they're trying to say, and then say it like that is the way they talk. If you can do that, the play will work. It will work in period costumes, it will work in modern dress, it will work with the city guards wearing Victorian bobby helmets, it will work when all the characters are women and Mercutio is mortally wounded with a butter knife.

If you can figure out what people are saying, it is not at all hard to figure out what is going on. (E.g. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York..." = war is over, we Yorkists won, times are good, I hate my life.) Someone will quickly tell you, often three times. Richard III starts his play by telling you that he is a bad, bad man. Romeo & Juliet tells you it's a play about lovers who are, from the first, fucked.

On the other hand, if the actors don't know what they're saying, or think they're presenting poetry instead of people trying to get what they want by talking to other people, then it becomes a morass of poetic syllables. Good poetic syllables, very good, very excellent good, and yet they are but so so, because but no one wants to sit through five acts of that.

Shakespeare is also a funny playwright because his characters are so much more immediate and straightforward than most fictional characters in the intervening Victorian period, that we forget that he is a man from a different time. When he puts witches in his play, he means witches. They're not a metaphor, they're not (just) a plot device, they're actual witches. Everyone knows witches are real! Likewise his father's ghost is not a plot device, it is a real conundrum (true ghost? devilish vision?) that must be solved before Hamlet can righteously assassinate his uncle, the King.

(Hamlet's audiences were also extremely wary of the notion of killing kings, as we are not.)

Backwards and Forwards is a very short book, under a hundred pages, practically a pamphlet, so you have absolutely no excuse not to read it, whether you are a screenwriter or game designer, because it gets to the essence of what storytelling is. Go on. You won't be sorry.

(And here's my old post about why I believe Ophelia is pregnant.)


Hi Alex -- I've just come back from an extended trip and am getting caught up on things, which is why it has taken so long to read your post. This book looks wonderful and I just wanted to thank you for pointing me in that direction. After all these years in development I love finding new ways to approach storytelling.

By Blogger VLucas, at 3:00 PM  

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