How To Think Like Shakespeare: An Interview With Scott Newstok

Frustrated by modernity’s approach to education and the way we think of thinking, award-winning professor, author, and parent Scott Newstok set out to demystify the making of one of history’s greatest minds and unlock the keys to intellectual brilliance in his masterful new book How To Think Shakespeare. A teacher at Rhodes College and the founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, Dr. Newstok’s work has been recognized by fellowships from the American Philosophical Society and the Folger Shakespeare Library, among other institutions. We had the great fortune of talking to Dr. Newstok about his new book, Shakespearean habits and practices, some of the common themes between Stoicism and Shakespeare’s work, and much more. Please enjoy this interview with Scott Newstok and check out his new book How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education!

We know you’re a voracious reader. Have you read much of the Stoics? Do you have a favorite? Any quotes or exercises that have especially resonated with you? 

I’m blessed to be friends with the philosopher Scott Samuelson; he’s been introducing me to the Stoics since we first met, some thirty years ago. Just last fall I re-read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, whose maxim “life itself is but what you deem it” resembles Hamlet’s insight: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

And that famous As You Like It conceit, “All the world’s a stage,” chimes with Epictetus’s injunction: “remember that thou art one of the players in an interlude, and must play the part which the author thereof shall appoint” (from James Sanford’s 1567 translation of the Enchiridion).

Your new book How To Think Shakespeare details the habits and practices vital to Shakespeare’s intellectual formation. Can you give our readers one or two that they can implement into their daily routine?

Little that I say here is new. But if it’s true that that There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before, then it’s also true that we must only try to think it again.

So here’s something obvious that Shakespeare’s peers did, and that we know still works: keep a “commonplace book.” Jot down new words, favorite phrases, ideas caught in passing. Anything that your

memory cannot contain

Commit to these waste blanks.

In such a notebook, an aspiring young thinker archives choice thoughts for later reflection, and eventual action. According to one Renaissance treatise,

it is singular good, to have some pretie sprinckled judgement in the common places and practizes of all the liberall sciences, chopt up in hotchpot togither, out of the whiche we may still help ourselves in talke.

By compiling commonplace thoughts of others, we can better shape our own words.

I’m suggesting that to think like Shakespeare, we need to reconsider the habits that shaped his mind, including practices as simple as transcribing quotations. Doing these things doesn’t mean that you will become “the next Shakespeare”; neither you nor I have the same alchemy of talents and circumstances as anyone else. And as Erasmus insisted: even Cicero wouldn’t write like Cicero if he were alive today. But Shakespearean thinking does demand a deliberate engagement with the past to help you best make up your mind in the present.

You have a great line in the book about how there’s a sense in Shakespeare’s early writing that he was trying to “out-blood Seneca.” We are always looking to understand the influence Stoicism has had on the great figures throughout history. Can you expand on Shakespeare’s interest in the philosophy and the common themes between him and Seneca?

Well, to be clear, when I said “out-blood,” I meant Seneca’s legacy as a tragedian, which differs from his reception as a Stoic thinker.

What does Shakespeare learn from Senecan drama? His early tragedy Titus Andronicus seems preoccupied with showing that he knows (and can exceed) the genre’s conventions, down to citing Latin tag-phrases and deploying Senecan (and Marlovian) rhetorical bombast. But Seneca’s plays don’t actually include the stock “Stoic” character that we find in, say, Horatio. For that matter, the only instance of the word “Stoic” in Shakespeare’s work occurs in an abrupt dismissal from The Taming of the Shrew: “Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray.”

What did Shakespeare learn from Seneca as a philosopher? I think that’s a bit harder to discern. It likely came indirectly, through other writers who had absorbed the Epistles (which weren’t translated into English until 1614, just after Shakespeare retired). Francis Bacon cited Seneca’s letters as precedent for his 1597 Essays; Montaigne had Seneca in mind as well, most sweetly in his invocation of the apian metaphor for the act of creation:

The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this.

That’s an apt description of how the “mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare” worked, too.

You talk about how the fixation on Shakespeare as a solitary genius is overly romanticized and occludes us from the way he actually worked. Can you elaborate? Talk to us about Shakespeare’s real ingenuity and things even we mere mortals can apply in our own work and lives.

There’s no denying that Shakespeare had inordinate talent. But I think he was also inordinately lucky to work alongside so many other talented artists, actors and playwrights alike. They pushed him to outdo himself.

A big argument of the book is that thinking resembles a kind of craft practice, rather than some checklist of tasks.  Craft takes place in a collaborative environment where skill is honed, in conjunction with others. This space is characterized by gradations of expertise, as knowledge is continually being refined, enriched, or completely revised by experience. Total expertise is always deferred; as Hemingway put it, We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. But we can still practice, and we’re spurred on by emulating (and competing with) others, working in the company of adroit practitioners. In his treatise on archery, Elizabethan schoolmaster Roger Ascham lamented the decline in archery skills due to blind use — that is, practice without the expert guidance of knowledgeable instructors, leading to much illfavoredness and deformity.

My students’ papers often describe Shakespeare as a play-write: they hear the homophone for what they presume a playwright does: write. But it’s spelled w-r-i-g-h-t, from the Anglo-Saxon wryhta, glossed in 1567 by Laurence Nowell’s Saxon dictionary as “A woorkman, a wright, a common name of all artificers . . . a poet” — like a cartwright, who crafts carts, or a shipwright, who crafts ships. There were arkwrights, battle-wrights, boatwrights, bread-wrights, butterwrights, candlewrights, millwrights, wainwrights. A playwright crafts plays. They are wrought — designed, molded, fabricated, formed, contorted, sharpened, bent, formed, polished. And the more you work around other talented folk, the more mastery you can see modeled.

Is there anything Shakespeare provides someone like you—or anyone putting themselves out there and launching something—on the lead up to a scary, intimidating thing like a book release? How do you manage the process of publishing and marketing?

 Well, I thought I had a pretty good handle on it, until the world was upended these past months . . . Stoicism should have prepared me better!

I have to say that this is the most personal book I’ve written, grounded as it is in my teaching, my parenting, my life. Shakespeare strikes me as a far less personal writer; for a model of how to proceed, I guess I’d turn again to Montaigne:

If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Publishing anything always makes you feel exposed, if not naked. That’s understandable cause for trepidation, yet there’s something freeing about it as well.

At any rate, I’ve tried my best to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Prospero’s line was, “Every third thought shall be my grave.” It’s remarkable how constant death is as a theme in both the Stoics and Shakespeare compared to today, when we just don’t talk about it. If we do talk about death, it’s mostly in how to avoid and prevent it. Which of these attitudes is better in your eyes? What does the approach of the Stoics and Shakespeare have to teach us?

As James Romm pointed out in his interview with you, Seneca often enjoins us to “rehearse death.” Take a look at his letter to Lucilius, 26.8:

Epicurus will oblige me, with the following saying: “Rehearse death,” or, the idea may come across to us rather more satisfactorily if put in this form: “It is a very good thing to familiarize oneself with death.” … “Rehearse death” – to say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom.  A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

I think drama can help us “rehearse death.” It’s telling that recent popular accounts of how to face death have hinged on passages from Renaissance literature. Roy Scranton’s decidedly bleak Learning to Die in the Anthropocene meditates upon Montaigne’s “to philosophize is to learn how to die”; Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air derives its very title from Fulke Greville, and meditates upon Thomas Browne, as Sherwin Nuland did before him. In his 2006 study Last Rights, Stephen P. Kiernan cites these elegiac lines from Cymbeline:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, 

Nor the furious winter’s rages; 

Thou thy worldly task hast done, 

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: 

Golden lads and girls all must, 

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. 

Fear no more the frown o’ the great; 

Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke; 

Care no more to clothe and eat; 

To thee the reed is as the oak: 

The scepter, learning, physic, must 

All follow this, and come to dust. 

Katy Butler does the same her 2019 The Art of Dying Well, invoking the ars moriendi tradition to ground her analysis. The endurance of this tradition is remarkable — even Luther revised his own version of it in 1519.

Poignant as they are, these gestures are comparatively fleeting. As we face a global climate crisis and declining faith in institutions, can Shakespeare’s confrontations with death provide resources for our own quandaries? I think they can, through a renewed attention to the theatrical elements of the craft of dying: rehearse death.

Any good book recommendations? And any favorite Stoic or Shakespearean quotes you could leave us with?

I commend a pointed essay by the Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky called “A Ship from Delos.” You can find it in a slim volume she co-wrote with Robert Bringhurst, titled Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. It speaks to me.

And I’ll leave you with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, which speaks to our moment anew:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

***

Check out Scott’s new book How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education!

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