Tortoise Tuesday: Joining a Creative Conversation – Reflections on Motive in Playwriting

For me and my friends in the class of 2022, Wintersession has been a time for relaxing, catching up on sleep (and our favorite TV shows), and stressing about how much work we have left to do on our senior theses. My thesis stress looks a little bit different than my friends’, though. That’s because my thesis is a play (Lia) that will be performed in the third week of the spring semester. So while my friends have been writing and researching, I’ve been attending Zoom rehearsals, scrambling to find lighting and sound designers, and coordinating with the SHARE office so that they can provide support to audience members during the performances. Although writing my thesis has been a very different experience from the writing I’ve done for my classes, I’ve also been struck by the parallels between the way I approach writing a play and writing an academic essay.

Like almost every paper I’ve written at Princeton, my play began with in-text (or evidence-based) motive. When I set out to write a paper on performative madness in Hamlet and Twelfth Night my sophomore fall, I found myself instead re-reading every scene between Hamlet and Ophelia and recognizing how much Hamlet’s actions are informed by his fixation on and problematic views regarding female sexuality. I began to draw out a series of interconnected questions, tensions, and puzzles that Hamlet raised for me. To name a few: Why does Hamlet seem more disturbed by his mother’s marriage with Claudius — going so far as to imagine details of their sex life (see Hamlet 3.4.205 onwards) — than by Claudius’ murder of his father? Why does Hamlet suddenly lash out at Ophelia in scene 3.1? Has there been some crucial turning point that we don’t get to see? Why does Hamlet, after brutally rejecting Ophelia, launch a series of a series of one-sided sexual puns at her in scene 3.2? How are we to account for Ophelia’s madness and ultimate drowning?

And yet, I didn’t feel that I could sufficiently address these motives in a traditional academic paper. While my questions were grounded in the textual details of Hamlet, the answers I wanted simply weren’t there. However closely I studied the text, Ophelia’s story as it is written felt incomplete to me. I realized that I didn’t want to reconstruct Shakespeare’s Ophelia from the fragments that the play gives us. I wanted to use those details as a jumping-off point to write my own Ophelia and allow her to tell her story on her own terms.

So rather than joining a scholarly conversation about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I decided to join Shakespeare in the “creative conversation” surrounding the story of Hamlet — because Shakespeare’s Hamlet is neither the first nor the only version of the story! In many ways, making my contribution to the “creative conversation” feels parallel to joining a scholarly conversation. Much as I might draw on another scholar’s terms and redefine/extend/adapt them to make a unique argument in an academic paper, my play both draws on many elements of Shakespeare’s play and reimagines and reconfigures them to tell a new story. Ghosts become a way of thinking about trauma as something visceral and real. Hamlet‘s constant blurring of performance and reality becomes a way to reflect both on the behavior patterns of abusive men in positions of power and on the constant self-doubt and fragmentation of memory that survivors often experience as they attempt to reconstruct themselves and their past after a traumatic event.

Writing this play has introduced me to a new mode of responding to evidence-based motive and of engaging critically with a work of literature. But it has also taught me that analyzing stories and telling stories are not as different as they might seem. Both can be equally valid contributions to a scholarly and/or creative conversation, and both can be guided and informed by the principles of motive. 

— Meigan Clark, ’22

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library, January 24, 2022.