Thursday, September 20, 2012

PERSONIFICATION: The First of Three Shakespeare Tricks I Will Rip off Shamelessly for NaNoWriMo

When I was about fifteen years old, I caught the Shakespeare bug. (See West Slide Story.)

The bug intensified and became a real obsession in college. When I got out of college, I got a job at a bookstore; the only real significance of the job turned out to be a Riverside Shakespeare that the manager of the bookstore, Rob Dufney, let me have. 

The pages, though completely legible, were cut at a slight angle that made the book "damaged" in some technical sense. It couldn't be sold. Rob had the choice of sending it back to the publisher or giving it to me. After I bugged him about it, he gave it to me.

Thank you, Rob, wherever you are, and I hope it is where you want to be, perhaps a vast used bookstore whose titles you can browse at your leisure, a store you do not have to manage. Through a dozen or so jobs, two marriages, five kids, scores of ghostwriting assignments, a dozen or so published books, and now JIHAD COMIX, my novel for the 2012 NaNoWriMo, that cockeyed Riverside Shakespeare has been my loyal companion, always there to comfort me, challenge me, support me, and offer the relevant insights that only a dear friend can. (I used a trick there, did you see it?)

I could fill every blog post between now and November 30 with tricks that a writer could steal from Shakespeare. Instead, I will limit myself to three. The first is PERSONIFICATION, which is the trick of attributing human motive, quality, ability or action to something that is not a living human being, such as an inanimate object (a book), an abstraction (wisdom), or even the weather (the wind of a storm). 

The Great Literary Book of Tricks (which I just made up) says to search under the needlessly confusing code-word prosopopeia for more on personification. Whatever you call it, this trick shows up so often in Shakespeare that it is easy to overlook what he is doing, or why the line he has come up with works so well. It may be his most common trick, unless metaphor itself counts as a trick.  

If you want to see a master at work, the three lines from THE TEMPEST below, in which Shakespeare makes Prospero use personification, are an opportunity. Notice how Shakespeare wraps one trick (the howling wind as a human singer, a metaphor that employs personification) around another (thunder as the deepest note on an organ, a metaphor that doesn't use personification):

The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper: It did bass my trespass. (3.3.97-99)

Of course, it is probably a mistake for any of us to think we can write like this ... but that didn't stop Nabokov (for whom Shakespeare was the great role model) from trying, so I say use the trick and see what happens. That's my plan, anyway.

I'll talk about the other two big tricks I picked up from Shakespeare in future blogs, inshaAllah. Below, a cool video on personification by Abigail Ledman.