Shakespeare’s Tropes

You know how I always say I don’t make resolutions because I can’t — don’t — won’t — keep them?

Well, here we are again.

I really wanted to take part in the Shakespeare 2020 project, reading all of Shakespeare’s work in one year. I had all good intentions.


My work this semester is full of interesting and gratifying responsibilities, including work on a project that will take me to Venice this May as part of a team from CU Boulder creating an installation at the Venice Biennale. I have a list of work-related books to read that will enhance my ability to support my students and colleagues as we continue to develop a strong writing program in Environmental Design. And I’m writing in small sips, about a half an hour to an hour, two to three times a week, resulting in steady progress for the first time in, well, a long time. That feels good, and I’m building a renewed confidence and joy in writing, something I’ve been missing for a while. If I’m going to accomplish anything this year, it’s going to be finishing another novel, not reading the complete works of Shakespeare.

Sorry, Will.

Here’s an observation, though, about his complete works.

We treat Shakespeare these days like a museum piece, like “literature” in a fancy accent. As something holy and untouchable.

We forget that he wrote popular plays. Shakespeare, an owner of the theater company he wrote for, was looking to make money, and he had his eye squarely on the folks who scraped together their pennies to stand for three hours and throw fruit if they didn’t like what they saw. He had to bring them in, and he had to keep them coming back.

He was akin to authors of genre fiction today who grind out two or three or four books a year for their rabid fans. Shakespeare wrote three to four plays in many years, including some of his most famous: in 1606, he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra; in 1599, he wrote As You Like It, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and he got started on a little thing called Hamlet.

This f*cking guy.

I beat myself up for barely managing a novel every other year.


I don’t have to read every single one of his plays to know something about his plays in general. He kept up that pace, and he kept his fans happy, by reusing the elements that worked.

They like comedy? Give them fat, drunken knights, and mistaken identity, and sparring couples who end up in love despite themselves. Not once but in several plays, again and again.  They like cathartic drama? Give them star-crossed lovers, and overweening ambition, and melancholy princes.

To write quickly, and to assure a connection with your audience, you use tropes.

A trope is a common theme or device in literature, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A trope is only negative when it’s so overused it becomes a cliché, or when it’s done so badly the audience rolls their eyes, or when the author doesn’t do anything new or different with it.

Tropes help a writer work more quickly and efficiently. They also provide a shorthand or code for readers and writers. Readers can say to each other, “If you love ‘friends to lovers’ books, you’ll love this one.” Writers can say the same to readers.

Tropes don’t make a piece of work less inherently valuable or less worth reading. No one would accuse Shakespeare of being less of a genius, I think, because he indulged in the use of tropes to get the work done.

He also changed and elevated the tropes he used. When he took on the medieval trope of the shrew, he gave us Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew,” unlike any woman the trope had seen before. When he took on the “enemies to lovers” trope, he gave us Beatrice and Benedick, a couple every rom-com writer to this day seeks to emulate (or should).

Using tropes doesn’t make you a hack. What you do with them is what matters.





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1 Response to Shakespeare’s Tropes

  1. I love tropes. They are like a favorite joke.

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