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TOPSHELF MARKETING: Let's Talk Shelf-Talkers

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To most people in the United States, reading Shakespeare is required reading. Furthermore, a vast majority would recognize the names even without opening the pages of the author’s work. The characters have transcended from the pages and they’ve become public domain in more ways than just the literary.

Romeo and Juliet are the go-to romantic couple even though their romance barely lasted more than a few days and they both end up dead. King Lear, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, they all are perfectly well-told stories that have spawned countless productions on stage and in the film industry. Prince Hamlet is another example of a tragic story, a young man deciding his future, and suffering at seeing his Uncle Claudius taking advantage of his mother, only to amass political power and capture the throne. The woman is, after all, the Queen of Denmark. Spoiler alert, both Hamlet and Claudius die in the end.

As a young teenager who had recently discovered the pleasure of reading novels, I wanted to elevate my reading, and upon finding a paperback edition of Hamlet I didn`t hesitate to snatch it off the bookshelf and rush home to read it. The big surprise happened when I flipped the first pages. I was thrown off by the ACT I, SCENE I heading on the page after the title as I had been expecting to read CHAPTER ONE instead. I plowed on with the story. Back then, I didn’t know I could stop reading a book if I didn’t like. I guess quitting wasn’t an option in my teens.

Othello, the Moorish general in the Venetian army, is another tragedy that most people know about without the actually reading the play. Othello is in love with Desdemona, and while his love is reciprocated, the story’s antagonist, named Iago, conspires to end the romance. Iago’s motives are political. He’s envious of Othello’s sky-rocketing career, which means the story is not a tired love-triangle, but an example of love suffering the consequences of political ambition.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness for words and tragic situations remains undisputed. He also had a talent for humor, which The Merchant of Venice can prove. Yet, people watch his plays or film adaptations (Mel Gibson as Hamlet comes to mind.) In short, it seems the only people reading the playwright’s words are either actors, directors, producers or screenwriters working on an adaptation. 

Over time I’ve expanded beyond Shakespeare and read plenty of plays and scripts for television and cinema. Point in fact, the study of them has served to improve my one screenwriting skills. I’ve also discussed with many authors about the still current use of the three-act-structure for a novel.

Reading a play as if it were a novel feels weird in the beginning. The unease comes because one feels is only reading the dialogues and skipping the descriptions in the prose. Plays are, of course, the bare bones of a stage production. 

Reading the isolated dialogues from a novel is an excellent exercise for a writer, but that shall be the subject of another column. The purpose of this one is, after all, to motivate the reader to take a chance and read some plays. Once the initial shock wears off, reading becomes a delightful endeavor.

As for where to begin, I’d recommend Romeo and Juliet in order to demythologize everyone’s favorite love story!

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist; however, he ironically prefers to write fiction. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he enjoys to throw in a twist of romance on occasion. He has published three acclaimed novels and is a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild, and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor for their official e-zine The Big Thrill.