All Roads Lead to Shakespeare

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Stratford_On_Avon_historic_map_1902 Shakespeare has been a source of creative inspiration for many aspiring writers, who may only hope to achieve a fraction of the timeless appeal that his works have consistently held from the Elizabethan age to the present.  My most recent post for Blogging Shakespeare focused on how Shakespeare’s writing influenced that of J.R.R. Tolkien, a subject of personal interest to me after I discovered my ELL (English Language Learner) students were positively responding to both writers in similar fashions.  This observation led me to research any parallel themes in the works of both writers and how Shakespeare’s influence may have inspired Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.  The fascinating evidence I found, which linked the two writers, piqued my curiosity enough to make me wonder if any of the other authors I encourage my students to read were also influenced by Shakespeare.

In the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, children’s bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) claims “when you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”  I tend to agree with this as I reflect on how passionately I responded to favorite books from childhood and adolescence compared to later literary discoveries in adulthood.  I was introduced to Shakespeare at the age of 13 and was instantly drawn to the magnetism of his powerful language and intriguing characters.  While Shakespeare’s writing is expressed from a male experience, many of the other writers I admired wrote from a female perspective, creating stories filled with heroines, which provided me with model examples of independent and spirited young women I could identify with.  As I have discovered, these female authors, many of whom were forced to write under pseudonyms, were all ardent admirers of Shakespeare.

American poet Emily Dickinson may have grown up ‘across the pond’ from Shakespeare, but his works were no less of an influence on her writing.  Her letters were filled with Shakesperean references and allusions to his plays and sonnets within a 19th century American context.  Ironically, she viewed him as a “highly moral poet” but  an “immoral dramatist”.  Emily was enamored with Cleopatra, Queen Margaret, and Lady Macbeth, yet felt little admiration for Shakespeare’s heroines.  She enjoyed Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, but her favorite of all Shakespeare’s cast of characters was Othello, an interesting fact considering the racial environment of 19th century America.  Of Shakespeare’s works, Dickinson wrote, “why clasp any hand but this” and “why is any other book needed?”

In the personal library of another Massachusetts native, Louisa May Alcott, the works of William Shakespeare abounded.  First introduced to her by poet, family friend, and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shakespeare provided Louisa with a role model to measure her writing against.  Louisa’s mother told her young daughter that one day she “would be a second Shakespeare”, which was echoed by beloved Beth in Little Women when she says, “you’re a regular Shakespeare” to aspiring writer and fellow March sister, Jo.

Maud Hart Lovelace, American author of the Betsy-Tacy series, chose “The Heroines of Shakespeare” as the subject of her commencement addresss and her heroine, Betsy Ray, also hopes to become a writer.  In Heaven to Betsy, when a classmate disparages Betsy’s writing ability, the family’s loyal but ignorant cook springs to her defense demanding “who is this Shakespeare?  Does he ever come here?  Well, he’d better not.”  On being told that the Bard is now dead, she counters “small loss, probably.”

Though her characters are not overtly borrowed from Shakespeare, famed Canadian writer Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery, creator of heroine Anne of Green Gables, also made allusions to his works.  Montgomery’s heroines and L.M. herself struggled to juggle the domestic responsibilities society expected of them with independent aspirations, unlike many of Shakespeare’s leading ladies, but the Bard’s influence is still apparent in her Anne books.  In Anne of Avonlea, “some are born old maids, some achieve old maidenhood, and some have old maidenhood thrust upon them” is quite obviously inspired by Malvolio’s speech from Twelfth Night, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (2.5.141-143).

Shakespeare’s influence was not exclusive to female American authors, but also on women writers of his own country.  The Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, both referred to Shakespeare in their personal correspondence and books, published under the names Currer and Ellis Bell.  In Wuthering Heights, it is easy to draw comparisons between Cathy and Heathcliff and Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Hamlet, as well as the element of a story within a story, a concept which Shakespeare introduced with the character of Christopher Sly in Taming of the Shrew.  Charlotte Bronte’s favorite play seems to have been Coriolanus, which she borrowed extensively from in her novel Shirley to establish defined social classes in Yorkshire based on those of the Roman Empire.

Famed children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter established an early interest in Shakespeare and imitated his idealistic portrayal of rural life in the Lake District, as he did in Warwickshire.  Shakespeare’s romances influenced both her artistic and literary impressions and young Beatrix also had a habit as a child of memorizing Shakespeare’s plays and repeating them randomly as a mental practice, which she kept account of in an exercise book.

Only female novelist Jane Austen may hold a candle to Shakespeare, in terms of pop culture marketability.  In recent years there has been much ado about Austen with an increased amount of film adaptations and biographical materials surrounding her life and works.  According to Rachel Wifall, writer of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare-Twin Icons, both have achieved “a level of literary ‘rock star’ status.”  In Mansfield Park, protagonist Tom Bertram says, “How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d in this very room for father’s amusement.”  In the world of Austen’s characters, English culture is thoroughly steeped in Shakespeare.  People of Austen’s time viewed Shakespeare as the author of their common language, both a poet and a playwright who inspired and shaped their thought.  Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pride and Prejudice fame, seem to embody “some cupid kills with arrows, some with traps” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, as do their counterparts from the play, Beatrice and Benedick.

While the structure and intended purpose of a play is not formatted in the same fashion as a novel, the influence of a playwright such as Shakespeare can undoubtedly shape the direction of a novelist.



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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers

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