What makes it a “classic?”


Last week I raised the question of what makes creative work endure because I was thinking about Shakespeare. But did Shakespeare set out to write “classic” plays?

In his professional life he was an ever-hustling playwright-slash-entrepreneur, his time stretched (thinly, we can only imagine) between churning out the plays that kept his company afloat and the ceaseless daily business of running a theatre. 

Talk about slings and arrows! Shakespeare dealt with snide critics, box office receipts, actors who went off-script, not to mention the recurrent bouts of plague that closed London’s theaters for months at a time.

Creatively, he walked the fine line between writing from the heart while finessing the sensitivities of his royal patrons. His work had to engage the nobility at court and the commoners, too, including the “groundlings” who paid a mere penny to stand there, stageside, under the open air, and who had likely downed a pint or two before (or during) the show!

(Fun fact: John Heminge, of the actors in Shakespeare’s company who helped assemble the First Folio after Shakespeare’s death, also ran the pub adjacent to the Globe Theater. What’s a five-act tragedy without snacks and ale? Way to live your best lives, Elizabethans!)

And yet, amidst all the sound and fury of practical concerns, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon still managed to pull off something remarkable, artistically speaking—and it did not go unremarked upon, even then. In the words of his fellow playwright Ben Jonson, Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!” 

In this week’s livestream I want to reflect on some of the thoughts you shared with me about what makes a classic, and then bring that question around to us—all of us, in the here and now.

As writers, dare we concern ourselves with swinging for this particular fence? Are we writing for ourselves, our friends, the awards committees, the bestseller lists—or "for all time," as Mr Jonson so memorably put it.

Why, or why not? And if we are, how does that ambition show up in our work?

I like this topic a lot. Expect mentions of Frankenstein, Joseph Campbell, Pinocchio, Lindy's Delicatessen, and of course, the Bard of Avon. I hope you find this talk to be of—dare I say it?—enduring interest!

My weekly livestream about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific on YouTube. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays on YouTube, or here on the blog.

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