in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: March 20, 2022

Podcast #683: How to Think Like a Renaissance Man

When we think about the Renaissance, we think of a great flowering in artistic creativity and intellectual innovation; we think about the beautiful paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, the astute discoveries of Copernicus, the timeless plays of Shakespeare.

Ironically though, this great creative flowering was spurred by men who were educated under a system that, by our modern lights, can seem rather rigid and rote. 

My guest today unpacks this seeming paradox. His name is Scott Newstok, and he’s a professor of English and the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education, in which he uses the Bard as a jumping off point to explore broader insights into matters of the mind. We begin our conversation with the ways Scott thinks our modern educational system is lacking, and how students’ approach to learning has changed over the years. We then discuss how the Renaissance model of education, with its emphasis on language and verbal fluency, provides possibilities for strengthening our reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills and making their refinement a lifelong habit. We delve into how artists and thinkers in the Renaissance thought about originality differently than we do, and how they believed that imitating and even copying the work of others can actually help you find your own voice. And we discuss how Shakepeare’s sonnets demonstrate the way in which constraints can counterintuitively enable creativity. We end our conversation with how you can incorporate Renaissance thinking into your day to day life.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • How does our modern education system compare to what Shakespeare received? Where does it fall short?
  • How have students changed over the last couple decades?
  • The power of language (and learning a second language!) 
  • What is “Shakespearean” thought?
  • The craft of thinking and writing (and how it’s evident in Shakespeare’s plays) 
  • What does originality really mean?
  • How can the Great Conversation contribute to your education?
  • The lowdown on Shakespeare’s sonnets 
  • How constraints can contribute to your success and creativity 
  • How can adults get back some of the life of the mind?

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Read the Transcript

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When we think about the Renaissance, we think of a great flowering, artistic creativity and intellectual innovation, we think about the beautiful paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, the astute discoveries of Copernicus, the timeless plays of Shakespeare. Ironically though, this great creative flowering was spurred by men who were educated under a system that by our modern lights can seem rather rigid and rote. My guest today unpacks this seeming paradox, his name is Scott Newstok, he’s a professor of English and the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education in which he uses the Bard as a jumping off point to explore broader insights into matters of the mind. We begin our conversation with the way Scott thinks our modern educational system is lacking and how students approach to learning has changed over the years. We then discuss how the Renaissance model of education with its emphasis on language and verbal fluency provides possibilities for strengthening our reading, writing, speaking and thinking skills, and making the refinement a life-long habit.

We delve into how artists and thinkers of the Renaissance thought about originality differently than we do, and how they believed that imitating and even copying the work of others can actually help you find your own voice. And we discuss how Shakespeare sonnets demonstrate the way in which constraints can counter intuitively enable creativity. And we end our conversation with how you can incorporate Renaissance thinking into your day-to-day life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Scott joins me now via

Alright, Scott Newstok, welcome to the show.

Scott Newstok: Thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you got a book called How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. This is a really fun book, you take a look back at the education that William Shakespeare likely got and how that education shaped his thinking and his world view and lessons and insights we can take from that for us modern folks. And you begin the book sort of, I don’t know, bemoaning or sort of criticizing our education system we have today. You are an educator yourself, you teach. As a teacher from where you’re standing, what do you see… What are we lacking in our education and what do you think where our modern education system falls short?

Scott Newstok: Well, I should begin with a caveat that every teacher thinks that things were better in a previous generation [chuckle] when they were coming up through the school system, so I’m cautious about too much bemoaning, but I do think… I do think I’m not alone in saying that a kind of pivot that we’ve had in the last couple of decades, at least in the United States educational system, and from what I hear from colleagues abroad, I think this is a global phenomenon, is a pivot to… I don’t know, a form of education that’s fixated on testing and the kind of poor dynamics that emerge from a fixation on testing, which leads often to teaching to the test or feeling like you’re just doing this for the sake of doing it so you can pass the test to get to the next level, rather than thinking about this education as worthy unto itself and exciting and valuable and something that will in the long run contribute to your human flourishing and your independence of thought and autonomy as a human being.

So, I know those are kind of grandiose and ambitious goals, but they are long-standing good goals, and I think goals that we would all like to subscribe to as citizens in a flourishing democracy. So, I guess there are a number of things that I think have led to that transition or that pivot in the last couple of decades to fixating more on short-term goals or short-term ends, which unfortunately lead to cutting off the long-term or the more ambitious visions of education that again, I think many of us would agree to if you articulated them in that way.

Brett McKay: So, you’re a college professor, right?

Scott Newstok: That’s right, though I do also teach at multiple different levels, whether I’m tutoring in grade schools or giving visiting lectures in high schools or teaching in prison, so I teach a wide range of audiences. But yes, my formal position is teaching at the post-secondary level.

Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious, how have you seen students change on a… This is gonna be hard to measure ’cause this is sort of subjective, but a qualitative measure, as you’ve seen students who’ve gone through this process, they’ve… They’ve gone through the public education system where there’s been emphasis on standardized testing and getting AP scores and study for the SAT, where that’s been the focus. Have you seen how students approach learning, has that changed or their approach towards thinking, have you seen that change in the classroom when you interact with them?

Scott Newstok: I think it has. I think one way I would isolate that transition would be in the ways in which I think students are kind of primed to receive feedback now and expect feedback in what strike me as very fragmentary forms of evaluation. I recall not having heard the word rubric before, I don’t know, maybe a decade or so ago, and maybe that just dates me in a way, but the sense of breaking down a well-written essay into fragmentary components of you got this many points on this part and this many points on this part rather than the whole worked or the whole didn’t work for all kinds of complicated, nuanced, qualitative reasons, that to me seems like a new thing.

And I think I sense some student frustration in wanting something as complicated and wonderful as writing and articulating yourself well, wanting that to be broken down into little component bits that if you just kind of go through the checklist and you do all these things, then you have an A rather than… Well, there’s lots of things you need to do to be a good writer, that includes reading widely, and that includes imitating other writers and it includes being in conversation with other people and working on good models and revising and all kinds of things that are life-long processes that really don’t boil down to a checklist of a rubric or a series of discrete tasks.

So, I think that’s probably the biggest transition that I’ve noticed in terms of the teaching of writing and reading is that fragmentary sense of, these are the things that you should do in order to get the good grade, rather than writing is an art and it’s a wonderful craft, and it’s a thing that humans have struggled with for millennia. And I think that’s one big transition that I’ve seen. Another thing is just generational and technological. I remember going to college 30 years ago now, and really enjoying the sense of it being a space away from the world in which I had grown up, in part because we didn’t have cell phones. And now that it’s possible to be talking to your parents or your friends from back home, up until the minute that class starts and at the minute that class ends, there’s that space away or that kind of interval of time, or that interval of space doesn’t exist in the same way.

In some ways, college is just kind of continuous with all the rest of your life, and I think that’s a loss for everyone that’s involved, that there was something rich about having a space for thinking that’s away from your origins and gives you a perspective on that and distance on that origin.

Brett McKay: So, it sounds like for you, education in its ideal form, it’s about basically training individuals how to think but think openly, not in very binary black and white ways, but… I don’t know… Think fluidly, basically.

Scott Newstok: Yeah, yes. I think fluidly is a good word. I think dynamically is another good word, reflexively, open-ended-ly. Those are all terms that I think are accurate to what we value about good thinkers and models that we aspire towards, that’s not the same thing as telling you what to think. In some ways, it’s trying to model for you different forms of thinking so that you can stretch your mind and stretch your own capacities to become your best self and become the best thinker that you possibly could be.

Brett McKay: And it’s like… I mean, this might sound sort of vague, but it’s sort of… It’s soul enriching too. There’s something about thinking well that feels good, you feel like you become a better person, so your talking about that sort of compartmentalized thinking, that’s kind of prevalent in young students today… I think it was an article, I can’t remember was it… NPR interview I was listening to, but it was this poet, her work is used on standardized test…

Scott Newstok: Yes, in Texas.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, you heard this. Yes, she was getting emails from teachers saying, “What does your poetry mean?” Here’s the answers that the test makers say is, and she’s… This poet’s like, “I would fail this test. [chuckle] That’s not what I meant.” Do you know about this? Tell us, if you know about this, tell…

Scott Newstok: Oh, absolutely. No. You’ve pinpointed it. She wrote an op-ed about it, expressing her frustration, feeling like the way that poem was being taught has very little with the experience of composing and making and creating and responding to that poem from her perspective. So again, it’s a little bit like that checklist sense of how could you break this down into the fragmentary, I don’t know, structure, diction and tone, or what’s the meaning behind these words rather than what she was trying to do was to create a complex verbal experience, a complex verbal artifact that is not determined in a simple standardized test, true or false or ABC response format. So, I think, again, you’re talking about soul formation or the pleasure of thinking itself, that’s part of what I love about teaching, what I love about learning, and what I love about reading and writing and engaging with other minds, and that doesn’t fit very well in that kind of assessment-driven format. For some good reasons, and for some very bad reasons.

Brett McKay: Alright. So, if education in its ideal form is all about learning how to think well, learning the habits of thinking well, why do you think Shakespeare and his world, the Renaissance world that he grew up in, is a good model for learning how to think, maybe not the best, but it’s a good model?

Scott Newstok: Right, no, it’s not the only model, but it is a good one, in part, you can just look to the many wonderful writers that emerged out of that era, the many wonderful thinkers that emerged in other disciplines and really even founded fields of knowledge that we still study today, calculus and physiology and global economic theory or international law, or even the philosophy of consciousness itself. Those all emerge from what looks to us in retrospect like an incredibly rigid education, but in some, I think fascinating and paradoxical ways, some of the rigidity of that educational training system led to an enormous flowering of creativity and human achievement.

It was an educational system that was incredibly invested in the verbal arts, there was an emphasis on becoming the most fluent writer you could possibly be through all kinds of strategies across a long period of time. And I think it’s just based on the insight that as humans, we use language to articulate all kinds of complicated things, and the better you can articulate that complexity, the more capable you will be of engaging with the world as a citizen, as a political agent, as a member of a family, as a business person, whatever it is. Language is our vehicle for interacting with the world and expressing complexities, so why not devote incredible resources to refining language?

Now, the language that they were working on across Europe in this era was not their indigenous languages or their native vernacular languages, it was the secondary language of Latin, that was the international language of European pedagogy at this time, but there’s remarkable consequences from that focus on a second language as well. If you’ve ever studied a second language or struggled with a second or third language, you know it actually… Working on that other language helps you refine your primary language, that thinking in another language helps you become more fluent in your own language because you’re thinking through the complexity of expressing yourself in another verbal register. So, one of the weird byproducts of that language system, that educational system that was fixated on fluency in Latin was it created great writers in French and great writers in Italian, and great writers in English because of that amazing kind of bilingual flexibility that was mandated by the system.

Brett McKay: So, big picture, how would you describe Shakespearean thought, like when we look at his work, particularly his plays, how do you see his thinking manifest itself?

Scott Newstok: Sure. Clearly, it’s immensely invested in the complexity of dialogue and the educational system encouraged that in all kinds of remarkable ways, but it plays out on stage with a consistent investment in the dynamics of speaking, characters, speaking beings, interacting with each other at a high level of verbal facility, that gives us pleasure to read, and it gives us pleasure to witness as an audience because you’re watching amazingly articulate human beings interacting with each other and pressing each other to refine their thought. So, that I think that dialogic…

That’s just a raw commitment of drama, but it’s something that’s clearly manifested through Shakespeare’s mind, is that the commitment to thinking through things through multiple perspectives. I think it’s also, in that sense, anti-doctrinal, it’s not committed to making an argument for a single point. We don’t have manifestos from Shakespeare or political treatises or theological treatises, we have plays, and we have poems which are multi-faceted and they’re giving voice to an entire chorus of characters coming at a problem or coming at a quandary from multiple perspectives. I think that seems to me Shakespearean at its heart. And then I think another characteristic of Shakespearean thinking is that commitment to finding the right words, and you see this even in soliloquies where a character will ponder the best way to say the thing that they want to say and they’ll tease out different forms of saying that thing, or they’ll lean into a single word. So we have great examples of say a character, like Falstaff, pondering the intonations of the word honor, what’s honor? What do we really mean when we say honor? What are all the kinds of context we use when we use that word honor?

Or a character like Edmond in King Lear, talking about the word bastard. What do we mean when we say bastard? What’s really at stake in that word? What are the social contexts of that word? Why do we actually use that word? What are the legal ramifications of that word? Or even some of my favorite instances of this kind of tinkering with language occur when a character says something like, they say a word and then they revise the phrasing of that word. So Richard the II has a meditation on death where he says, “We should think of a little grave,” and then he kind of pauses and says, “A little, little grave.” Or when Prospero in The Tempest talks about a vision kind of moving off into air, and then he stops himself and says, “Into thin air.” So you see that the mind that’s always tinkering with refining words to say it in just the right way, that seems to me Shakespearean thinking at heart, in addition to the anti-doctrinal and the dialogic commitment that is at the heart of the plays.

Brett McKay: And another aspect of Shakespearean thought that at least I have fun with when I’m reading it is, it is fun to read because he’s often using puns and double entendres.

Scott Newstok: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: And you have to like, “Okay. He says that, but he didn’t mean that, he meant something else,” and you have to really think about it, and it makes that, it makes reading it and listening to his plays a lot of fun.

Scott Newstok: Oh it’s enormous fun. I absolutely agree. There’s the sense of the malleability of language, and isn’t it wonderful that the same word can mean three different things, or you can hear that word one way and I’d mistake the word in a different direction, and then suddenly we have a debate between us or we have some dissent between the two of us. And there’s even some studies that have been done with the cognitive neuroscience where they will, you will be read a passage from Shakespeare where there is some of that punning going on or that slippage in meaning between words and different areas of the brain seem to light up in response to that. There’s a kind of pleasure circuit that goes off by thinking that, “Oh, we normally say this way, but if you just steer it a little bit into a different direction or lean into the intonation of that word, you realize, ‘Wow, it actually explodes in a different direction as well.'” So there’s enormous pleasure in that, that’s not unique to Shakespeare, of course, but it’s certainly at his core that he has a deep pleasure in the flexibility of language.

Brett McKay: So an aspect of Shakespearean thought, that sort of Renaissance world view that you bring up and bring to light to readers, is that for them, thinking and writing could be seen as a craft. Now for us, when we hear the word craftsman or craft, we think of technical, mechanical things like a carpenter or a mechanic, but for Shakespeare, he thought of his work with words, thinking was actually making. How do you see that show up in his work and his thinking?

Scott Newstok: Well, in some ways, there’s just a practical sense that the theater in which he worked was enormously collaborative, and it involved a number people working together on creating elaborate, dramatical works that sold well to those audiences at that moment. So there’s that sense of craft as a collective endeavor, that it’s not something that you just do alone, but you’re part of a longer term community of previous creators and your contemporary creators and the audience with which you’re trying to engage. That seems to me to be at the heart of craft, whether it’s woodworking or whether it’s wordworking, that you are not alone in making this thing, and you’re part of a kind of continuity of practitioners who have worked on this thing. So again, that’s true on the practical level of how the theater worked in his era, and it’s also true in the more abstract sense of being in conversation with previous makers and previous creators. So we have a number of writers in this era who are very explicit about saying, I feel like writing is a version of entering a conversation with past writers who I’m reading, and I’m responding to them and they’re responding to me.

So the classic example of this is, Niccolò Machiavelli describes going into his study at the end of the day, putting on a special study robe and feeling like he is in conversation with generations of hundreds of years of other thinkers who preceded him in that sense of… That craft of thought is like an ongoing conversation. You’re not the first person to have made a wooden bucket and you’re not the first person to have made a sentence, and you can learn things from other people who made wooden objects before you, and you can learn things from other people who made sentences before you, and ultimately, you can refine your work or refine your craft and make a sentence that’s suitable for you at this particular moment that no one else has made before in that way, even though it’s drawing upon all that heritage and all the tradition of previous writers. Just like a woodworker draws upon the previous heritage but also make something new for this moment with this set of tools.

Brett McKay: Now, Matthew Crawford makes that point, he’s the…

Scott Newstok: Yes.

Brett McKay: Yeah, in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, that craftsmanship, to be an original… And we can talk about Shakespearean originality in a bit, but creativity, innovation requires you to be embedded in a tradition. And he talks about it, in his book The World Beyond Your Head with organ makers. There’s like these people who make organs and renovate organs, and they’re very deeply embedded in how people did it hundreds of years ago at the same time, they’re able to make innovations, but those innovations mean something because they are deeply embedded in that tradition of organ making.

Scott Newstok: Absolutely, and I love that Crawford book and your right to pinpoint that a lot of the language I’m using about craft derives from his meditations on the same… And that language of embeddedness is perfect, it’s the sense of, I’m not the first person to have made this thing, I’m not making anything from scratch, but that doesn’t mean that I lack creativity or I lack innovation, and I think that’s one of the… That sets of binaries that I’m trying to undo with the book is to point out that being original is not the opposite of working within a tradition and conversely, benefiting from a tradition or being embedded within a tradition does not stifle your creativity or originality, in fact, it enables it in a really wonderful way, there’s a continuity there, that’s part of that conversation through time, rather than thinking of those things as being in opposition to one another, so I think that that sense of embeddedness is a perfect word to describe what’s going on when you are a writer or a thinker or a reader that those things are not in opposition to one another, but they’re mutually productive, they’re mutually enriching.

Brett McKay: So when you’re talking to your students about trying to subtly show them that they can be a craftsman with their work, how do you do that? What does that look like? How can writers and thinkers take a more craftsman-like approach to their writing and thinking and reading?

Scott Newstok: There’s one basic way that I do it, which is we do imitation in my classes, old school imitation, where I ask students to imitate the sound of this particular writer or imitate the form of this particular writer. That’s a deeply Renaissance practice at heart, it’s based on the premise that when you are able to emulate interesting, challenging models, it helps you stretch your own forms of creativity rather than thinking that you create something from nothing, you’re actually inspired in part, by engaging with another mind who struggled with this same task before you. So the great example of this from the American tradition is Benjamin Franklin, who had to leave school at an early age because his brother was making him work for him, and so Franklin felt frustrated by his own lack of eloquence, his own lack of capacity in writing. And one of the things that he did to improve his facility in writing was to take copies of The Spectator, an 18th century English periodical that had wonderful essays that were published on a weekly, monthly basis, and to read an essay that he admired, put the essay aside, and then try to reconstruct the moves of that essay, in some ways, it’s almost… This is Crawford-like as well, one of the things that you’re doing is you’re trying to get under the hood of the machine and figure out how this thing works to kind of get into the inside workings of this verbal artifact or this creation.

See how it moves, see how it functions, see what’s successful, what’s not successful, and then ultimately internalize those practices as you’re emulating them in order to become a more fluent writer and a more compelling thinker yourself. So we do that on a basic level in terms of imitating models, but we also do it on the larger level of trying to think our way into what’s going on here in this thing that we’re reading? Why would a writer express this in this way? Are there other ways that they could have expressed this? And with Shakespeare, we’re lucky because about half of the plays we have both chordal versions of the plays, which are the paperbacks that would have been published during his lifetime, and the hardcover collected work that was published after he died. So we can often compare a single line or a single phrase or speech across two different versions and think about the dynamics of why is this one different than this one? This phrase is just slightly different, but it changes our reading of the entire speech because of that one variable word. So I try to just kind of stage the writers that we read as writers in process, or writers that are themselves struggling with articulating what they wanna do, and then I hope that that’s a model for the students themselves as they’re thinking their way into… How do I articulate myself as best as I can?

Brett McKay: I wanna mine this vein here about of originality and in using tradition to become original, ’cause we think of Shakespeare as an original. There’s no one like him before and there’s no one like him after. But as you point out in the book, if you look at his work, you discovered that he copied, and sometimes even a lot of thinkers, writers to this day, they just out… They just plagiarized stuff, but for them, that doesn’t jive with our modern idea of originality. Originality is you just come up with something completely new, but for the Renaissance thinker like Shakespeare, that’s not what originality was. So walk us through our difference of how we think of originality and how Shakespeare and his thinkers may have thought of originality and how that Renaissance Shakespearean idea of originality can actually help you become more original. [chuckle] There’s a lot going on there.

Scott Newstok: No. It sounds like a kind of looping paradox, but I think if you dig your way into it, we have many examples of creative human beings across all kinds of endeavors who became as accomplished as they were, not by starting from scratch, but rather by imitating or emulating figures whom they admired. So I think one of the easiest ways for us to get our head around this is to think about the physical art, so whether that’s playing a musical instrument or performing high level dance or even doing sport, I think we’re very quick to acknowledge that in those physical endeavors imitation at early, as well as late levels of performance, is a immensely productive… So think about a kid imitating a swing of their favorite baseball player and doing that over and over again until some of those moves become internalized as part of their own repertory of moves that they can make when they ultimately become a professional player. Whatever the sport or whatever the bodily function, it’s partly because you’re looking up to someone who does this thing really well, that you are able to do that thing well eventually by imitating them. And that sense that we have of creativity is emerging from…

I think a naive version of originality comes about in the mid-1700s, early 1800s, where you are yearning for saying something that’s never been said before, but it’s a kind of an odd thing because it contradicts, again, I think what most of us experience as how originality actually works, that there’s an immense debt to the past, and no one really ever escapes it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Even the originals are not original, that there’s a imitation model and suggestion to the archangels, if we know their history.” So on a practical level, how does this work? It’s thinking of yourself, again, embedded, or in continuity with a series of previous creators within your field, but that doesn’t mean that you are making up something from scratch. The original part is the way you are reconfiguring the past for the present moment. So there’s a great figure… A great image that the 16th century writer, or contemporary of Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne brings up, which is actually a very old classical image of making something as like the way a bee goes from flower to flower, it picks up the pollen and the nectar and brings it back to the hive and makes something new, which is the honey.

And Montaigne, he’s going back to a number of Roman and Greek authors, which is a joke itself, because he himself is being like the bee in terms of picking up this image of the bee, but Montaigne is emphasizing that it’s the making of the honey that’s the new thing. That’s the original thing. It’s the blending of your inspiration, and your sources, and your contemporary world that is the new thing, but the new thing is not the nectar and the pollen itself, the new thing is the recombination that’s… And in a way, you’ve digested this thing, or it’s gone through your guts and you’ve made it your own. That’s the original thing.

Brett McKay: All right, so the way you do this, read widely, if you are a writer, do some of the exercise you talked about earlier, say you’re gonna write this from the perspective of Shakespeare, like how Shakespeare would write this essay. But you could even do… And you talk about this in the book. We’ve written about this on our website, copy work, where you just… You basically just… Hunter S. Thompson did this. He wrote The Great Gatsby, typed it out, ’cause he just wanted to know what it felt like to write a great novel. And Jack London did this with Stevenson. I mean, it’s a tradition of you just copy it and then you start internalizing those habits, but then, as you said, somewhere along the long in that alchemy you start adding in your own little flare to it.

Scott Newstok: Yeah. I mean, Stevenson recommends it as well. We have a number of examples of creators who say… Judd Apatow did that early as well. He would just transcribe Saturn Night Live episodes just trying to get the feeling of the timing of the skits. And the sense is that you’re putting yourself in the subject position of another creator and trying to think through, as you said, with the Hunter S. Thompson, what does it feel like to write like that? And it doesn’t mean that you have to write like that, but it is helpful. It is productive to go through that process of doing something that’s uncomfortable for you. Again, to use the bodily analogy, I ran track in college, and I remember our coach having us do all kinds of odd running exercises for warm-up, where we would run backwards, and we would run sideways, scissor steps, and we would skip and kick our legs in all kinds of odd ways. And the point wasn’t that we would ever do that in a race, but the point was we were stretching ourselves in all kinds of other directions, so that way when we did come back to our natural gait, or our native bodily motion that we would be better at it for having stretched ourself on all those other directions.

So yeah, I do… I will encourage students to say, “Transcribe this poem, but write it out as if you were writing it yourself for the first time, and ask yourself, why would I say from fairest creatures we desire increase?” That’s a little weird. I could have said we desire increase from fairest creatures, so why would I invert the structure of that sentence? And why do we like beautiful creatures to reproduce? And then the next line starts to answer that question that you posed in the first line. So again, seeing writing as a form of thinking, or as a form of human expression rather than, I don’t know, frankly, seeing it as something that you just brutally extract meaning from for the multiple choice question that you have to answer for the quiz.

Brett McKay: So I mean, thinking requires… And you talked about this earlier, Shakespeare’s dedication, so oftentimes rote exercises. And they seem boring and mind numbing, and they just… But there’s a trick. There’s something to it that’ll help you actually internalize this stuff.

Scott Newstok: Yeah. Here’s one of the rote things that was recommended early in the 16th century by Erasmus, and it was adopted by educators across Europe, and it’s still used by artists to this day, is something as rote as transcribing phrases and quotations that you hear from singers, and thinkers, and politicians, and writers whom you admire. Just making a notebook of that. That sounds really basic. That sounds even almost remedial, but we know that in many cases we have fantastic examples of writers who created that own personal archive of great phrasing, and great thoughts, and great thinkers whom they admired, and then that… At some point, that became a kind of a trove for their own creation when they were later making a speech, or later drafting a letter, or producing an essay, or creating a new manifesto, that they had absorbed those words and thoughts of others that help them become their best most articulate self.

So that is rote in the sense of it doesn’t sound like a form of creativity if I tell you to sit down and write other people’s words down, but in the long run it does end up helping you articulate yourself in the best possible way. So that’s one example of that rote process. The imitation that we were talking about earlier fits along those lines. The Ben Franklin experience of trying to reconstruct what someone else has said using their words. You’re trying to think your way into a different voice. And again, the pedagogy in this period would have encouraged that. A little eight-year old boy from Stratford would have been asked to imagine himself as a widow from the Trojan War. Now, that’s distant in time, that’s distance in gender, that’s distant in nation and all kinds of circumstances, but you…

That’s an amazing exercise to stretch yourself into a different subject position. And I have students who’ve done this with writing back to a Shakespearean character or writing in the voice of a new character that they’ve added to the play, that they’ve kind of inserted themselves into the dialogue there, and it’s fun and it’s productive, and it’s a great way to stretch your mind.

Brett McKay: So rote exercises can be fun. You can make them fun, I think so.

Scott Newstok: I think they can be. I think that if you go into them in the spirit of, “This is part of the creative process,” and rather than thinking of, “This is something that I have to do. But actually, this was one of the things that led to this great thing that I’m reading in the first place, and it could lead to me in all kinds of unexpected directions.”

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned earlier, one sort of way of Shakespearean thinking you see show up in his plays is this dialogue, conversation. How do you think conversation can help with an education or help us learn?

Scott Newstok: Well, there’s a great phrase from W H Auden where he talks about reading as breaking bread with the dead or there’s a writer who was contemporaneous to Shakespeare who called reading a kind of conversation with the deceased where you listen to the dead with your eyes. I think it’s remarkable that we have that capacity to engage with previous generations who have entirely different life experiences from us in all kinds of unimaginable ways, and yet, they still speak to us across the time, and we have a great example of this in James Baldwin discussing reading 19th century Russian novelists and thinking that, “What do they have to say to me? But in fact, wow, they have an amazing way to articulate human suffering and responses to human suffering that are not dissimilar to my own frustrated attempts to articulate human suffering and responses to human suffering.” So I think the more you can imagine… And imagine’s even the wrong word. The more you can recognize that reading is a form of conversation and writing is a form of conversation, the more you feel like you’re an active participant in an ongoing larger conversation of intellectual history rather than…

Again, I think one of the frustrations I feel with the students coming into college from their high school experiences is that I don’t think they feel empowered in that way, that they are in conversation with a larger intellectual tradition that it seems like… Again, it’s more that “I need to read this thing in order to pass this quiz or to pass this exam,” but the writing itself that they’re reading seems like it’s so abstracted from why any human being would have written it in the first place. Like going back to your Texas poet, that poet did not write that poem to be on that exam, she wrote it for all kinds of complicated reasons that she might not even understand herself, fully. But the task was not to create an object that would be kind of dissected in this way, the task was to create an object that was legible to other human beings in different spaces and in different moments in time. So the pedagogy in this period really emphasized that sense of conversation by placing the students in conversation with writers from all kinds of other eras and all kinds of other traditions, and I think that’s just a healthy thing for all human beings to do as much as possible.

Brett McKay: And I think the idea that you feel like students don’t feel empowered to take part in conversation contributes to this dynamic… I think everyone’s experience it, that have been to college or in high school, or the teacher is trying to get a discussion going and the teacher throws out a question and no one says anything because maybe they think, “Well, there’s a right answer. I don’t know what the right answer is, so I’m not gonna say anything ’cause I’ll look stupid.” But I’m sure you, genuinely, you throw a question out there ’cause you’re trying to get a conversation going and see where it goes.

Scott Newstok: Yeah, I think the best questions there are live questions. I don’t really know why this word works way in this particular speech, and I’m eager to hear what they have to say and every class… This is a cliche, but every class that I have, I learn something new, I see something that I had not seen before, I hear something that I had not heard before. And that’s one of the many pleasures of teaching, and I think you’re right, if it feels to the student that the question is thrown out there for, “What color am I thinking of?” or “What number do I have in my head?” That’s not a fun question to answer and it doesn’t feel empowering. But the more you can stage education in this form of reading as an ongoing conversation, the more I think you enable everybody to feel like they’re participating in that. There’s a great metaphor for conversation that Kenneth Burke, one of my intellectual heroes, comes up with, which is that intellectual history is like a parlor conversation. You arrive late, the conversation’s been going on before you arrived, you don’t really know what’s going on when you first walk into the room, people are chatting.

But eventually, you kind of figure out what’s at stake in the argument, and ultimately, you start to make your own claims, and someone comes to your defense, and someone else knocks you down, and you kind of leave in a heated moment and the conversation still goes on after your departure. You’re not the first person to have had that conversation and you’re not the last person to have that conversation. In some ways, that’s very much like the model of the Socratic platonic dialogues where they almost always start in the middle of a conversation. Someone walks in and says, “Hey, what are you talking about?” And like, “Oh. Well, this guy here thinks he knows what justice is.” “Well, what do you mean about justice?” “Well, I think justice means this.” On the other hand, he thinks this and it gets heated, and then it ends inconclusively. And that might be frustrating if you’re used to feeling like you wanna be told the answers. But if you wanna engage in intellectual exchange, that really is the model of how it works.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I like when things end inconclusively. [chuckle ‘Cause then you can pick it up later on. I love this conversation where you have with your friends where it just goes around in circles, and then, you kinda feel like you’re getting somewhere with it, but then you don’t, and then you’re like, “Well, we’ll pick this up next time we convene together.”

Scott Newstok: Absolutely, absolutely. And a good class feels like that too.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I would say that’s right. The college classes that I enjoyed were like that. You looked forward to going to class ’cause then you could talk about the stuff you were chewing on from the last class. So besides writing plays, something else Shakespeare’s famous for, I think gets overlooked often times, is that he wrote poems, he wrote sonnets. He made the sonnet a thing. For those who aren’t familiar with sonnets, what makes a sonnet a sonnet, and then how do you think a sonnet can spur creativity?

Scott Newstok: Sure, so a sonnet initially means something like a little sound or a little song, but eventually the form become stabilized as a 14-line unit of poetry. So even that, once I say that, I have to start qualifying that because there are 15-line sonnets and there are 12-line sonnets and there are 28-line sonnets and seven-line sonnets. So already in some ways, the very abstract notion of the form is playing with the boundaries of attending to the form or ignoring the form or stretching the form or rebelling against the form, but the form is a 14-line poem. And in some ways that’s about as arbitrary as you could get. I could say it, You should write this 27-line poem, or you should write a five-line poem, but it settles into this 14-line unit. And then it’s invented in Italy and refined in Italy and across Europe, and then translated into British writing in the 16th century.

So by the time Shakespeare’s writing sonnets, he is writing in a very old form, in fact, there had been a kind of fad for sonnets about a decade before he wrote sonnets and they were out of date by the time that he was composing his sonnet sequence. So in some ways, this invites all of these larger conversations about what is literary form, what are literary constraints, how are constraints enabling, how do you revive a tired form, a tired genre? This is like the equivalent of cinema history. Once film noir kind of has its day in the 1940s and ’50s, and then it gets exhausted, how do you revive film noir in the ’70s, ’80s and up until this day. So in Shakespeare’s case, what’s the form that he’s inherited? He’s inherited this 14-line form. The poems were often about a man idealizing an unattainable woman, a female beloved object. How does he revive that form? One of the ways he revives it is by not having the sonnets, the first 126 sonnets that he writes addressed to a female, they’re addressed to a younger male friend who he’s encouraging to get married. That’s already… He’s kind of taking the form in a new direction. That’s not something that many other writers had done before him. So you feel like the more you read any writer and you realize who they’re responding to, the more you see their innovation in inheriting a form and then making it original or making it new for their moment of renewing it for their particular moment.

Brett McKay: And then another aspect of the sonnet is that there’s a constraint to it. As you said, there’s caveats, there’s like seven-line sonnets, five-line sonnets, but there’s also… Ideally there’s a number of lines you’re limited to and people might say that, “Well, that’s just not gonna… That constraint is going to not allow me to be creative.” But as you make the case, that can actually make you more creative, ’cause you have to work within those constraints.

Scott Newstok: Think about the way that sports have constraints that we say, “This game should last for 60 minutes.” or “This game should last for nine innings.” And that’s artificial, and it’s arbitrary, and maybe it was invented in the 19th century, but we still do it today because that’s the constraint. How well can you play within nine innings or within 60 minutes? Or if you think about those cooking shows where you’re given a set of five ingredients and you’re given a time limit, of course, you could make something different if you had different ingredients, or if you had a different time limit, but the idea is that how well can you play within the constraints that we have given you? What marvelous dishes can you create given that I say, “These are your five ingredients, these are your tools you can use, and this is your team. Go.”

So the sonnet is kind of like that. What can you do in 14 lines? Well, you can do anything really. And what can you do within a very tight kind of rhyme scheme? It really enables all kinds of ingenuity in terms of working within those forms in order to make new things that were unexpected before. In some ways the formlessness… If I said, “Write a poem of any length that you want about any topic that you want.” In some ways that’s the paralyzing thing. It’s almost more helpful if I say, “Write a 14-line poem.” Or on a more practical level, if I told my students, “Write a paper about any topic, any length, I don’t care.” That would be stultifying. But if I say, “I want you to write the best paper you can, that’s only 300 words long about this one word.” That’s constraining, but all kinds of wonderful things emerge from that constraint.

Brett McKay: And yeah, many people have seen how constraints can help in other facets of life besides thinking, reading, writing. Like in businesses, typically businesses, you have to bootstrap and figure out how can I get this thing going with my limited budget? They come up with some creative solutions compared to the VC that has millions of dollars, so much money that they gotta blow it on ping pong tables and massages.

Scott Newstok: They end up burning through it. This is not to glorify impoverished conditions, but it is the case that all kinds of ingenuity emerges from working creatively within limited constraints and with limited resources, and we have numerous examples of people doing amazing things with limited resources that are kind of, as you said, the opposite of burning through millions of dollars, because in some ways you don’t have a constraint that would have been more productive for you.

Brett McKay: Yeah, going back to, I think about writers who did this when they first started. Stephen King talks about when he was first starting to write, it was just like he was in this cramped kitchen, his wife…

Scott Newstok: It was his laundry room even.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the laundry room. He was writing this stuff, and I feel like… And he was writing great stuff, I feel like a lot of people and like, “I’m gonna be a writer. I gotta get a writing cabin, and I gotta have my pens and paper and lots of time.” And Stephen King would say like, “No, that’s ridiculous. If you’re gonna write, just write. You gotta work with what you got.”

Scott Newstok: Yeah, we have beautiful examples. Emily Dickinson writing on the back of an envelope and these little scraps of paper here and there, and in some ways, those small units of paper constrained her, but they also liberated her in other really remarkable ways.

Brett McKay: Alright, so this is… We’ve had a wide-ranging, I’d say Shakespearean conversation. We’ve talked about tradition, craftsmanship. We’ve talked about conversation. We’ve talked about constraints. I’m curious, your college professors, the people you work with are… They’re young people in college, and you’re trying to shape those minds. What about people who… They’re done with college, they’re in a career, but they still… They miss that life of the mind, and they want to kinda get a taste of that college experience again where you’re talking to friends, 2 o’clock in the morning about some platonic dialogue or piece of literature. How can those people start thinking Shakespearean in their day-to-day life?

Scott Newstok: Well, you know that many people have their own ongoing reading groups, there are also continuing education courses at many colleges and many community colleges across the country. Basically, I would say work backwards from thinking about the kinds of environments that you either have enjoyed or are yearning for and feel like you’re lacking in your life, and then find ways to construct those communities. So what does that look like? Like-minded other people who are eager to read things along with others and be in conversation about them. So again, that can be as informal as a reading group or something that’s organized online to something that’s more formally structured through a continued education course at a local university. But I think the idea is what are the conditions that would allow those kinds of conversations to flourish or those kinds of conversations to take place? In some ways, they’re really basic, like you need time, and you need space, and you need a forum or a platform. That will allow those conversations, the time and space to unfold.

Sometimes it means having someone else that has done the reading before and can help spur that conversation, but sometimes, it’s just peer-to-peer, and its lateral, and it doesn’t need a larger organizing principle or a teacher figure to come in there. But one thing I do recommend, really, is start with something that you love, or a figure, or a writer whom you already admire, and work your way back into their own intellectual formation. That could be a musician, that could be a painter, that could be a poet, that could be a novelist. But think through… I think that’s just incredibly enriching to try to work your way into how did George Eliot become such a great writer? Who were the contemporaries that she was engaging with? Who was she in conversation with? Who was she reading? We actually have her notebooks and her commonplace book, she called them her minds for her work, like she was minding this material for later refinement.

And in a way, a favorite thinker, or artist, or figure can become a kind of syllabus for you, it can become an inspired nodal point for you to move in other directions and think about their influences as well as the people who succeeded them who have responded to George Eliot or Emily Dickinson, or James Baldwin, or whomever you’re picking up on. But I think that’s a good way to structure a reading or a series of conversations is start with something that you love, and then work back to their roots, and then think about their branches that emerge out of them.

Brett McKay: That’s a fun one. We do a series on the site called “The Libraries of Famous Men,” where we find people. So we’ve done Bruce Lee, we’ve done Jack London. I think it’s interesting ’cause I think, oftentimes, when people… This is… I don’t know what this quote that I heard from somewhere, I can’t remember where it was, but it was like, “Don’t read your mentor.” Like, “Don’t read your mentor’s books, read what your mentors read.” Or something like that. It’s the same idea, you can really figure out the people you admire by reading what they read, inform their mind.

Scott Newstok: I love it, and it’s an incredibly enriching experience. It doesn’t take away from those mentors or those people whom you admire, it makes them all the more fascinating and it makes their achievement all the more intriguing because they weren’t making up something from nothing, they were synthesizing an amazing series of books, and figures, and inspirations that preceded them, and they made them fit for their moment. They translated them or they turned them into the honey that they needed to have for their particular moment in time, their task in their lives.

Brett McKay: Well, Scott, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Scott Newstok: Sure, I teach at Rhodes College in Memphis, so I’m on the Rhodes College website there. I also am the director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes, and we do a lot of free public programming. Some of which has been online or been broadcast online, so that’s available to everyone. And then I also have a website,, that describes my books.

Brett McKay: Fantastical. Well, Scott Newstok, thanks for time. It’s been a pleasure.

Scott Newstok: Thank you, Brett. This is a great pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Newstok, he’s the author of the book, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” it’s available on You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of “The AoM” podcast. Check at our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousand of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code “MANLINESS” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give is a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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