What’s the Secret of a Literary Masterpiece?

We sat mesmerized while the actors spoke in Elizabethan English and dashed around on a small square stage in the middle of four groupings of folding chairs. How could a three-hour play, William Shakespeare’s Richard III, written five hundred years ago, so capture our twenty-first century audience? An audience accustomed to movie masterpieces with all sorts of special effects?

What made the play speak to us? First of all, superb actors. They created emotions, ambition, and desire that spoke through the often unfamiliar and flowery language. They pulled us into a world of treachery and betrayal and ambition. They acted so well that the sniping, arguing, and name calling in the first act recalled twenty-first century political sparring followed on our mobiles.

Shakespeare’s stories remind us of unbridled ambition, as prevalent today, not only in our politics but in our corporate boardrooms, as in the bard’s England. He portrayed the universal type who sees others as no more than tokens on a chess board to be swept aside to win prizes. The story and the characters were real in a basic sense, despite their sixteenth century trappings.

It isn’t always the suspense of wondering how a story will turn out. Most of us in the audience knew what happened to Richard III. It’s the journey, the how and the why that captivates. Because these stories are repeated through the centuries, and we shiver at their familiarity.

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