|I always think of grand theaters while teaching tragedy!|
I begin the year by plunging boldly into tragedy, so my students and I have just spent four weeks talking about Lear and Othello and Oedipus. Don’t worry – after all the doom and gloom, I clean their literary palates with a good dose of comedy!
Anyway, in the midst of my tragic musings, I realized that the great drama of Othello bears some similarities to my proposed next novel. Othello, of course, is an African - out of place but honored in a white, Venetian society. He marries a much younger, more socially privileged woman of a different race than his own. The disparity in age and background leads him to adore his wife, but also predisposes him to suspect that the marriage can’t possibly work out. Therefore, when someone suggests that Desdemona is in fact unfaithful to Othello, jealousy almost instantly transforms him into a murderous lunatic.
Now plot-wise, my story differs quite widely, but the basic set-up of relationships is similar. My protagonist is half Native American, half-white; he’s respected as the policeman of his community, but he doesn’t feel at home with either whites or Native Americans. He does, however, fall in love with the young, spoiled daughter of one of his few friends. She marries him partly out of admiration for his qualities, partly out of a desire to buck tradition and escape from small-town boredom. However, neither spouse really understands the other. The wife eventually becomes estranged from the protagonist, who falls into alcoholism out of sheer unhappiness.
I just realized that sounds incredibly depressing, but I promise there is hope. The other half of the story is that the protagonist’s son slowly learns to develop a relationship with his failure of a father and actually helps redeem him by doing so.
|We can't paint Starry Night again, but it can inspire us!|
However, if I never noticed any similarities between my story and Shakespeare’s, I would miss the invaluable possibility of adding a new range of resonance to my work. For sure, no painter can say his latest canvas is the new ‘Guernica,’ just as no novelist can say her latest book is a War and Peace for the present day. What he or she can and should say, though, is that the canvas is his ‘Guernica,’ or the novel her War and Peace.
So if I declare that the coming novel is my Othello, what do I mean? I mean that I recognize that Shakespeare was dealing with the human themes of jealousy and love and displacement and infidelity in his great tragedy, and it is my hope that I too will have a chance to deal with those same themes.
|I'd like my community to fill a place this splendid!|
However, as I’m writing, Shakespeare’s plot can weave itself into the fabric of sources and inspirations from which I draw. It will push me to deepen my characters and challenge me to construct my plot with such perfect inevitability as the play exhibits. On the other hand, out of fear of seeming too derivative, it will also push me to find my own way in the story world, instead of falling back on old tropes and clichés.
I think that all creative people can use such a method to improve their work. I don’t urge a blind copying of the masters, or even recent successful artists. However, I don’t think that working in a vacuum is good for anyone. We need an audience and a community, and that community must not only consist of peers who encourage, but also masters who prompt and criticize. If some of those masters are dead, who really cares? We can still learn from their silent example and borrow their genius to fuel our own.