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Digital Subscriptions > Writing Magazine > May 2016 > Beyond the Bard

Beyond the Bard

Celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Jan Moran Neil suggests using his plots as springboards for your own stories

What do the comedian Frank Carson and William Shakespeare have in common? As Carson in his Belfast brogue used to say: Ach, it’s the way I tell them. Meaning that his jokes may not be original but his success was founded on the way he told the story. Many of the plots from Shakespeare’s history plays were sourced from the 16th century chronicler Holinshed and the Greek historian Plutarch. Just as the Bard borrowed plots from many sources and placed them into his own contemporary setting, recent generations of writers have done the same with his plots.

Role reversal

The 1982 comedy film Tootsie is a wonderful re-invention of As You Like It. Much humour is drawn from the fact that the audience have the foreknowledge that Shakespeare’s Rosalind has disguised herself as a man. Rosalind, as the man Ganymede, is able to have a relationship on equal footing with the object of her love: Orlando. Turning this idea on its head, in Tootsie, Michael, an actor (played by Dustin Hoffman), dresses up as a middle-aged actress, Dorothy, with the intention of getting a TV role. This is the something that happens which upsets the status quo and allows the plot to take flight. The cross-gender role enables Michael as Dorothy to have an honest and giving relationship with the object of his love: Julie (played by Jessica Lange). In both comedies there are other characters who fall in love unknowingly with members of their own sex and the audience is in on the joke. In both cases the secret cross-gender role opens up wider possibilities for the heterosexual relationships than their stereotyped roles could ever have done. But despite this both Rosalind as Ganymede and Michael as Dorothy are in danger of losing the objects of their love once Orlando and Julie know they have been duped. Both protagonists also have a similar race against time. Michael as Dorothy needs to escape his ‘no exit’ clause in his TV contract which would prevent him from letting Julie know his true identity and feelings. And for Rosalind as Ganymede, she needs to make it clear to the young shepherdess, Phoebe, who has fallen in love with ‘Ganymede’ that there is no future in that relationship. Good plot lines have lots of secrets causing problems and there’s always a lot at stake so that the ending needs to be wrapped up quickly after the climax to save the day.

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Got a five year plan? You set the targets, we'll help you hit them Everything you need to know before you write your novel New series: Shelf life - Top authors pick their favourite reads Reinventing Shakespeare: Be inspired by the Bard Publishing: Behind the scenes - Follow a book from manuscript to publication Star interview: Reader success - Costa Book of the Year winner Frances Hardinge Writers' News: 20 packed pages of publishing opportunities and £80,608 in writing prizes

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