How to Think Like Shakespeare
5 min read

How to Think Like Shakespeare

A look at Scott Newstok's fabulous meditation on learning from the learned.
How to Think Like Shakespeare

Scott Newstok's 'How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education' is my favourite book of the year so far.

In only 200 pages, it sails across our intellectual history to demonstrate how we are running the risk of losing touch with our ability to think and create.

A remedy to this, says Newstok, is by looking back at the education of yore, a time when students learned by imitation, limitation, and craft.

But don't be fooled into thinking this is someone merely harking back to the good old days.

As a teacher, Newstok experienced first-hand the crushing systems in place that are closing our minds to a world of intellectual and creative opportunities. This book is his response.

"Shakespearean thinking does demand a deliberate engagement with the past to help you make up your mind in the present."

On creativity

Creativity is originality? Not really.

Much of Shakespeare's early work is almost indistinguishable from his sources of inspiration.

Today, students fear being caught by the plagiarism bots scanning their dissertations.

"The entire era preceding the nineteenth century had a different sense of what counted as “originality,” and what counted as “plagiarism”," says Newstok.

You see, back in the day the likes of Shakespeare and all manner of thinkers would happily copy and steal ideas, either using them as they were or just tweaking them ever so slightly.

If you look at Shakespeare's earlier plays, entire lines are lifted out of the works of other writers.

He was, one might say, the Noel Gallagher of his time (nobody says that).

But, what he was doing was honing his craft, learning through imitation, and then building on those ideas to slowly but surely find his own voice.

"This is the opposite of how we now conceive of “creativity” in today’s  schooling," says Newstok.

"“Imitation” sounds pejorative to us: a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy; at best, derivative drudge work. As a result, there’s an indifference to the still-valid practices of emulation (and repetition, and memorisation), which are purported to quash in-dependent thought."

I've experienced this first hand.

I was reported for plagiarism at University after I used film clips to illustrate my points during a presentation.

The rules were that our own content should make up 70% of the 20 minute presentation. I was told I only hit 60% within my allotted time. If only playing films back at 2x speed was acceptable back then like it is in the age of Netflix.

I was disappointed to learn that while I was nervously presenting and trying to share ideas, the professor was busily watching the clock and converting my ideas into percentage points.

After some arguments and various outraged emails, charges were later dropped. The professor, one of my favourites until then, never spoke to me again.

Copying, particularly in your younger years, should be part of learning, and should be welcomed.  

Another teacher of mine, at high school, understood this - he allowed me to mercilessly ripoff Terry Pratchett's DiscWorld series for creative writing assignments (CDworld, anyone?).

Hunter S. Thompson typed out the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald word for word to get a feel for their style. A teenage Judd Apatow transcribed verbatim episodes of Saturday Night Live to understand how timing works in comedy.

They both did quite well later on in their careers.

On craftsmanship

When I started this website, I was sniffing around the internet for articles and ideas on the 'art of craft'. With so much hackery and short-cuttery on the internet, I was seeking an antidote.

Disappointingly, I found little.

But Newstok has uncovered a lot more, inside what I imagine to be dusty old books sitting ignored at the back of a university library because they don't exist on Google Scholar.

"What’s a better way to talk about vibrant habits of mind? I propose that craft more accurately describes (and celebrates) thinking, whether in Shakespeare’s era or ours. Craft reminds us of the writer-in-process that Shakespeare was—a product of his practice, just as we can be."

I am a fan of 'craft' because it's finding pleasure and indeed reason in the process alone.

We can become so results driven nowadays that we obsess over the quickest way to finish the journey, missing out on the beautiful views along the way.

"In craftsmanship there is a continuous movement back and forth between usefulness and beauty; this back-and- forth motion has a name:  pleasure. Things are pleasing because they are useful and  beautiful."

Striving to create something both useful and beautiful is something we should all strive for.

On templating

I often mention my distaste for templating in my day job.

People love templates, formulas, and systems, mystical keys to unlock understanding in an easily replicable way. Many believe that the chaos of life can be harnessed in a bunch of columns and rows.

But, the world changes. While our maps stay the same, the territory on our doorstep is forever shifting.

"The only man who behaves sensibly was my tailor; he took my measurements anew every time he saw me, while all the rest went on with their old measurements and expected them to fit me," - Bernard Shaw

In order to work better, says Newstok, we must always be ready to tailor our minds to the situation we are in at that specific time.

That means teachers must adjust to the nature and aspirations of their students, "to fit the task to the student, the student to the task".

The same goes for our work.

How often do we do things solely because 'that's how we've always done it', rather than really thinking and tailoring our work like Shaw's tailor?

This will of course cause friction. Change is difficult.

But friction is needed to bear fruit to new ideas.

"Immanuel Kant pointed out that when a dove feels the air’s resistance in flight, it might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space. No: it would drop. The resistance is what makes the lift possible."

We work better when we have something to push off of.

On thinking

Newstok's work is brimming with quotes, and for good reason.

By sharing gem after gem from some of the best thinkers and artists of our time, he is demonstrating how we should work to compile the commonplace thoughts of others so we can "better shape our own words to become, well, less commonplace".

It made me reflect on how I found a system late last year to store notes, quotes and ideas. It has in a sense been life changing for me, in a very subtle, slow moving way.

"Thinking like Shakespeare means thinking with each other's harvest."

By harvesting the ideas of others, and taking note, we are arming ourselves with a lake of inspiration we can draw from at any time.

That and much more inside this book, says Newstok, will allow us to 'fight properly over ideas and not egos.'

Powerful stuff.

Purchase the book here.

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