Writing with Integrity–Shakespeare Style

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Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears

Moist it again, and frame some feeling line

That may discover such integrity

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act III, Scene ii, Lines 74-76

What does it mean to write with integrity? Most people would liken “integrity” to some sense of truthfulness or authenticity. Lack of integrity these days can be seen as anything from spreading false information to posting something that is “off brand.” These are good working definitions or ideas of what writing with integrity means, but what does our supreme example, the great Bard himself have to say on the matter? 

The scene from which these lines are taken is one which will undoubtedly offend quite a few people. Basically, the Duke of Milan wants his daughter Silvia and his friend Thurio to get married. There’s just two small problems: Valentine and Proteus, the titular gentlemen from Verona. Both Valentine and Proteus are in love with Silvia as well and Proteus, being the last man on the scene because he begins the play in love with another woman named Julia, decides to undercut his friend Valentine’s efforts with Silvia to advance his own and to make a little fun of Thurio in the process.  He does this, by “teaching” Thurio how to properly write: which is the scene where the lines at the heading of this post come from. He, of course, is not being sincere with Thurio since he intends to have Silvia for himself. 

Proteus is specifically speaking about love sonnets—a form of poetry which had been around since Petrarch and was widely used subsequently in English literature by the likes of Edmund Spencer, Sir Phillip Sidney, and William Shakespeare. Most sonnets argued the lover’s cause to the object of desire. Some “feeling line” therefore is a line full of ardor, passion, and devotion which pretty much sums up most love sonnets at the time.  The “integrity” of which he speaks refers not necessarily to truth or authenticity, as we now have come to think of “integrity.” Rather “integrity” here means whole, sound, or without structural fault. The best example of this usage is, believe it or not has been in recent sci-fi franchises such as Star Trek. When the ship’s hull is losing strength, they refer to the hull’s “integrity.” A hull which has little integrity cannot hold up long in the vacuum of space nor can it support life on board since the interior of the ship is slightly pressurized. Without hull integrity therefore, life in space cannot survive. So, when Proteus is telling Thurio that his sonnets should demonstrate the strength of his love as well as the wholeness of his love. In other words, he is loving her from a place where he himself is whole and therefore he can love her with his whole self. 

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Understanding what this means in a Shakespearean context, requires looking into several other plays where there is a very strong theme of wholeness in the self. The most famous of the plays where division of self is a theme is, of course, Hamlet. It’s also present in OthelloMacbethTwelfth NightThe Tempest, and so forth. Shakespeare was fascinated with the idea of the self not being whole and what that meant regarding truth, human nature, and action. So, when Shakespeare talks of integrity, he’s referring to truth but he’s especially referring to the phenomenon of a person being whole and complete in his sense of self.

In other words, you aren’t just putting a “brave face” on things, you aren’t one thing one minute and another thing the next minute whether that is intentionally or unintentionally. You are always and only yourself from first to last. Primarily, his plays are what happens when that either isn’t entirely true (as in the tragedies) or when it’s not perceived to be true (as in the comedies). The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is, thankfully, a comedy, so we get to see here the hilarious results of perception. 

If you become “divided” from yourself and you aren’t true to your best self, then there’s no telling what exactly will happen. Well, we know what happened in Shakespeare’s plays…

Considering integrity in the context of Shakespeare’s writings, therefore, we have some idea of what it means to write with integrity. Personally, I find this to be more difficult than just writing from a place of presenting the truth. Writing from a sense of wholeness is much more challenging—as it was undoubtedly in Shakespeare’s day too. As writers and as human beings, we are being pulled in so many different directions all the time, it’s easy to lose sight of ourselves.

In Shakespeare’s day, there were many different pressures too: religious pressures from the rigid Puritans on one side, and the Anglo-Catholics on the other, political pressures from Queen, Pope, Parliament, and the Lord Chamberlin; societal pressures to support whatever fad was new (hence all of Shakespeare’s history plays), familiar pressures from back in Stratford, and then whatever pressures Shakespeare imposed upon himself. What happens when those pressures force a break within the person himself? In Hamlet’s case, hesitation, doubt, and inner conflict before he finally reaches his object. Macbeth loses not only his wife, but his crown, and his head. King Lear loses his daughters, his dignity, his kingdom, and his friends. The list goes on. 

In today’s world, we too have multiple pressures put upon us. There are the pressures to keep pace with technology, finances, social media, career paths, politics, world news, global humanitarian efforts, ecological efforts, religious observances, culture, sports, you name it. We’re all under pressure these days to keep up with everything. If you are employed full time, you have to have a sideline to reach your financial goals. If you are an entrepreneur, you have to build your business, build your reputation, make a living, and worry about your family. As a writer, you have to build a social media presence, actively participate in writing communities, write your masterpiece, edit, get financial backing, find a publisher, market your book, etc. My own generations term “adulting” came into being for a reason—we felt these pressures acutely. Not necessarily more so than previous generations, who had their own pressures to deal with, but because we were more acutely aware of just how many different directions we were being pulled in and how quickly some of those directions were developing. Some of us came out well. Others did not. 

Do you have concrete goals either personally or professionally? Do you have dreams?

Staying whole as a writer in such a world as this is not easy by a long shot—it wasn’t easy for Shakespeare who only survived two years into his retirement, by the way. So how do we deal with the pressures of today? To quote the tried and true “To thine own self be true” seems a little cliché, so I shall revise: To thine best self be true. That advice, after all, was given by Polonius in Hamlet and Polonius was a meddler, a spy, and was more than likely the cause of his daughter’s eventual madness and suicide (to be continued in a different post). 

If you become “divided” from yourself and you aren’t true to your best self, then there’s no telling what exactly will happen. Well, we know what happened in Shakespeare’s plays, becoming divided from yourself generally meant only one thing: death. Macbeth couldn’t live with himself, neither could Othello. They lost sight of who they were as people and they allowed outside influences to tempt them away from who they were. Macbeth gave in to his darker nature—which is why I shied away from likening integrity to authenticity. Othello gave in to his own insecurities which were heightened by Iago. 

So, take the time to know who you are as a person and a writer. Do you have concrete goals either personally or professionally? Do you have dreams? Integrity as a writer is knowing those aspects of yourself too and using them to your full potential. When you feel you can’t type one more word, keep those goals in mind, or write your goals down physically and put them in a prominent place. Put them in your daily practice journal, if you keep one. Put them in your daily intentions, gratitude practice, and affirmations. Keep yourself whole—at all costs.  

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Returning to the quote which is on the landing page of this site as well as the top of this post: “write till your ink be dry” go until you literally cannot go farther and then, “with your tears” go back and discard whatever isn’t you. Being a whole self is sometimes a practice. As writers we know the value of a good revision (each post gets revised several times before it’s posted) so we need to make sure we are revising who we are and how we see ourselves. People dochange, writing styles change, our reasons for writing change. Sometimes keeping your integrity means revising what it means to be you—it means putting better habits into place, it means working on improving your mental outlook, your attitude, your physical well-being, your work-life balance. 

If this feels like another long to-do list to weigh you down, look at Shakespeare. Two Gentlemen of Verona is considered not only one of Shakespeare’s worst works, but potentially his earliest. The man who wrote this play was not, in a sense, the same man who wrote HamletOthello, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That, I think should be of some comfort to all of us because it means even Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer who ever lived, had to work on improving himself. The man who wrote the later plays had seen more, experienced more, lost more, and learned more perseverance. How many times did he have to work on himself as a person as well as a writer? How many bad habits did he have to change? How much did he have to evaluate his own integrity time and again?  How many times did he want to give up? These are questions we cannot answer. But we can and should ask them of ourselves remembering that, like the lines above, we may have to “moist again” what we’ve written so that we too can “frame some feeling line” and maintain our integrity both as selves and as writers. 

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