What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Reusing Our Ideas

A little post for Shakespeare’s birthday this past Sunday, and for his baptismal day, today!

If you’re in the content creation game, or even if you’ve been a student writing multiple papers, you know the value of researching once and then getting several different pieces of content out of it. In today’s written word-hungry internet, we have less and less time to research sand write before we actually have to go about the business of publishing. 

Oddly enough, it’s a feeling Shakespeare would have known very well. While the pace of theater life in Elizabethan England wasn’t nearly as fast-paced as our social media-driven word, it wasn’t exactly any easier to get an entire play written, memorized, staged, and rehearsed. 

So, in honor of what would have been Shakespeare’s 459th birthday this week, here’s a little food for thought. 

We all know Shakespeare got his subject matter elsewhere but he also recycled his own ideas. 

Compare Much Ado About Nothing with Romeo and Juliet, for instance, and you’ll find an eerily similar play with two very different outcomes. 

Another unlikely, but very intriguing pairing is Richard III and Macbeth. Here, Shakespeare played with a couple of different ideas twice over. The first is the figure of three women, hurling curses at a would-be king. The second is the murder of a king after the murderer proved his loyalty. 

Richard III is the final installment of Shakespeare’s plays on the so-called War of the Roses.” Dated to 1592, this is one of his early successes as a playwright, and if you see Benedict Cumberbatch play the character in The Hollow Crown, you can understand why. It’s masterfully executed, and it made the character of the deformed king so memorable, that we still associate Richard III with tyranny and murder. 

Even though it’s not exactly clear Richard did murder his nephews or not. 

There are, however, very specific ideas we see first in Richard III that are revisited in Macbeth. 

The difference between the two plays is in how Shakespeare reuses his ideas. 

Richard III and Macbeth are both, in their ways, history plays and both contain betrayal and regicide. Both have three female figures who curse and who foretell. More details will be in Friday’s post on both of these, but for now, think of both plays as essentially the same play. 

What makes them different? Betrayal in Richard III isn’t just political, it’s familial. One brother betrays not only his own brothers, but his own nephews. The three royal women who confront Richard later in the play become the three witches who reveal Macbeth’s fate to him. 

We don’t necessarily see these connections, however, because the storyline is usually what we focus on in Shakespeare. And while Richard III is a very English play, Macbeth is equally very 

Scottish. Even down to the title of “thane” and the question of succession. 

Additionally, Richard III was one of Shakespeare’s early successes. The Shakespeare of Macbeth is a much more jaded but artistically mature man. 

What does this mean for you as a writer?

You can reuse the same ideas, characters, and yes, even themes in your writing without fear of reprisal. Shakespeare proved that you can not only freely graft your own ideas onto already popular stories, but that you can recycle your own stories and possibly even get a bigger hit than before. 

It’s not Richard III that’s in school textbooks, after all, it’s Macbeth

For writers with anxiety over how their final pieces will be received, this should be reassuring. It means that publishing your work isn’t the end by a long shot. If you don’t like how it turns out, you can simply try again. The ultimate villain that Richard is supposed to be in Richard III doesn’t quite work out, but by Macbeth and especially Othello, Shakespeare has perfected his craft. 

Let’s face it, Macbeth is far scarier than Richard by a long shot. Richard is too obvious. Macbeth is far more subtle and the way his relationship deteriorates with Lady Macbeth just adds to it. 

So, if you aren’t sure whether that masterpiece you’re trying to write will actually come out the way you want it, go ahead and write what you can, see what works, and then write it again. 

If the greatest writer of all time can do it, then so can you…

Make sure you come back on Friday! I’ll be breaking down some of the similarities between Richard III and Macbeth in more detail. 

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