For over 400 years, much ado has been made about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.
As critics are wont to argue, a single person – and aworking actor, no less - could not possibly have been that prolific during a career that ran from 1589 to 1616…or could he? The exercises in this month’s issue all revolve around the work of The Bard and how the themes he penned can be used to better understand structure, pacing and character development in feature screenplays and shorts.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
A QUEEN’S DAY IS NEVER DONE
Conspiracy theories abound as to who might have written all of the works attributed to good ol’ Will. Among the most popular candidates are his contemporaries Ben Jonson, Edward de Ver, and Christopher Marlowe. But what if the real author was someone whose day job precluded much dabbling in fluffy theatricals? What if Shakespeare himself – a public servant invention - was nothing more than a clever cover to gauge public opinion about the monarchy?
Your assignment: Yes, you read it here first. Queen Elizabeth was an aspiring playwright who couldn’t easily produce material under her own name. Write a three-page scene in which her publisher tries to convince her that she should go public with her moonlighting activities.
SOMETHING’S ROTTEN IN THE TOWN OF MYSTIC
Shakespeare’s plays have long been a rich source of material for adaptations. Without Romeo and Juliet, for instance, there would be no West Side Story. The teen-centric Ten Things I Hate About You was drawn from The Taming of the Shrew. In 1936, Orson Welles launched Voodoo MacBeth which featured an African American cast set against the backdrop of Haiti. Forbidden Planet was a space-age spin on The Tempest. In “O”, the updated version of Othello, it’s a basketball court – not a royal one – in which jealousies play out in an almost exclusively white boarding school. And in Scotland, PA, a guy who flips burgers for a living is goaded by his greedy wife into climbing the corporate ladder.
Your assignment: There have been some curious events lately in the town of Mystic, Connecticut, not the least of which involves love potion confusion, woodland weddings and a crazy guy running around wearing a donkey’s head. Inspector Truefellow has been sent to investigate this wave of inexplicable insanity. Write a two-page scene in which he interviews one of the participants in the midsummer madness. (Note: if you’re not familiar with A Midsummer Nights’ Dream, brush up on your Shakespeare at http://absoluteshakespeare.com.)
LOST IN TRANSITION
Although Shakespeare’s play Cardenio was performed during his lifetime, it was never recorded in the First Folio of 1623 along with his other works. Is the original manuscript collecting dust in the back of a closet? Did it get left on public transportation on the way to the printers? Was Will short on cash one day for his pub tab at the Fox and Goose and left the manuscript as collateral?
Your assignment: Your character is a struggling playwright on holiday in London who happens across what looks to be the missing script at an antique shop. Write a one-page film treatment in which the character chooses to (1) pass the script off as his own work, (2) cast and direct the “lost” production, (3) start a bidding war among private collectors, or (4) donate it to a museum. Identify his/her obstacles and adversaries as well as the motivations for whatever choice is pursued.
THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
The heroines of Shakespeare’s productions did not have easy lives. They had sons and boyfriends who talked to ghosts and embraced conspiracy theories. They had parents who disapproved of the guys they wanted to marry. They had fathers who were flummoxed about how to fairly divide their estates. They had husbands whose lack of self-esteem drove them to commit murder. Honestly, what’s a gal to do but seek advice and support from her neighborhood chums?
Your assignment: Choose four Shakespearean women from the following list and bring them together for a three-page coffee-klatch scene in which they discuss the difficulties they’re currently having with their respective men-folk.
Juliet (Romeo and Juliet)
Cordelia (King Lear)
Lady MacBeth (MacBeth)
Viola (Twelfth Night)
Miranda (The Tempest)
Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra)
Kate (Taming of the Shrew)
Rosalind (As You Like It)
Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Portia (Merchant of Venice)
Goneril (King Lear)
THE CLOTHES MAKE THE GIRL
During Elizabethan times, it was not appropriate – in fact, it was illegal - for women to appear on stage. Therefore, all of the roles for females were actually played by men and young boys.
Your assignment: You have been hired by Filmmakers Amazonia in Greece to adapt one of Shakespeare’s plays to a movie for an all female cast. This doesn’t mean, however, that women characters will be portraying men. Instead, roles that were traditionally written for male leads – Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Prospero, Iago, etc. – must be entirely rewritten to reflect the female point of view. The show can be set in any time period, country or genre and money is no object in funding the production. Write a two-page film treatment and list of characters that will conform to these specifications.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 144 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.