Shakespeare wasn’t born writing well. As Mark Forsyth observes in The Elements of Eloquence, Shakespeare’s early plays are rarely read—because they’re not that great. They lack almost all of the explosive wit, insight, and linguistic mastery of his later works.
The short answer is, “Shakespeare practiced and got better.”
That’s not super useful in itself, though. So, I want to talk about how Shakespeare practiced and got better, using an analogy to Twitter.
These days, I’ve seen a number of strong writers get started by tweeting. Twitter’s tight character constraint (& perhaps also its culture) makes the tweet an ideal whetstone for sharpening your writing chops. It’s a bit like when boxers practice with weights so they’re fast in a fight.
Twitter is also a good way to test different iterations of your ideas. That’s another reason it’s served as a training ground for some modern writers.
Twitter in Shakespeare’s day
Shakespeare didn’t have Twitter—but in a way, he did. He had sonnets.
Each constrained to roughly 100 words, sonnets served Shakespeare as a writing microcosm. The way some writers use tweets to test ideas, Shakespeare used short poems. Poetry, which hinges on concision similarly to Twitter, was Shakespeare’s sandbox for testing ideas.
Instead of Twitter followers, Shakespeare had a close circle of friends with whom he shared his poems, long before they were published—and also before he wrote any of his truly legendary works, including Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Antony & Cleopatra.
When I look at the sonnets, I see the foundation of Shakespeare’s mastery. Within them, I’ve found not only big concepts that Shakespeare later fleshed out, but also some near-exact phrasing that he repurposed in the voices of his characters.
Here are three illustrations of what I’m talking about.
1. Love is not love
In the popular Sonnet 116, Shakespeare writes, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.” He’s saying that true love is an unconditional feeling that doesn’t change based on situational concerns.
That poem was written some time before King Lear—but in that play, the King of France expresses the same idea, with almost the same phrase: “Love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.”
2. Sonnets in Romeo & Juliet
During the years when he wrote the majority of his sonnets, Shakespeare also wrote Romeo & Juliet. The play ended up containing several sonnets, one even “co-written” by the lovers themselves. I see this as an autobiographical gesture showcasing the importance of sonnetry to Shakespeare at that time.
3. The role of pity in love
This a subtler example, but it’s one of my favorite sonnet-to-play corollaries.
In Sonnet 111, Shakespeare expresses the idea that it’s enough to receive your lover’s pity for your misfortunes, even if the lover can’t do anything to solve your root problem. “I assure ye,” Shakespeare writes to his lover, “your pity is enough to cure me.”
In Othello, written some years after Sonnet 111, Othello himself expresses the same idea. It’s in one of his most famous and beautiful monologues, where he’s describing the dawn of his relationship with his wife. “She loved me for the dangers I had passed,” Othello says, “and I loved her that she did pity them.”
Tweets can play a specific role in your larger body of work. To understand this, you can look at the role Shakespeare’s sonnets played in his development as a writer.
Like the tight-walled tweet, the restrictive sonnet form presented challenges that pushed Shakespeare to (1) sharpen his ideas, and (2) sharpen his command of the English language.
That said, ultimately, Shakespeare had to learn to scale what he’d learned in the “sonnet lab” to his full-length plays. This involved learning new techniques and habits that weren’t required on the micro scale. When he did this, it paid off handsomely.
Bottom line: If you’ve done some good practice on Twitter, you’ve likely developed a solid foundation. The next step is to extract and scale that skill set to longer forms of writing. That’s what it will take to make your longer pieces not just strong, but outstanding.