Negative Capability

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been hanging with Will Shakespeare the last couple of days. No. It’s true–I have. I’m listening to a University course on CD taught by Professor Grant Voth from Monterey Peninsula College titled “The History of World Literature,” and it’s Shakespeare we’ve been visiting.

When I was in High School, we weren’t really taught Shakespeare; at least that’s how I remember it. It was more like having Macbeth and the Merchant of Venice and I don’t remember who else shoved down our throats. I can’t say that anything of this brilliant writer struck me as something I would want to carry with me into adult life. If he made his way into college or graduate level studies, I must have tuned out, but I rather suspect he was not deemed critical for the practice of nursing or health care administration. So now I’m catching up and falling in love with his work for the first time.

Professor Voth admitted that it would be hard to give much due to the man in a half hour lecture (the series is a total of 48 sessions) so he chose to home in on a specific aspect of Shakespeare’s use of language. I’d like to share one little tidbit that struck me: negative capability. The poet Keats, known to most of us who crawl around in our poetry communities, offered the term to describe Shakespeare’s ability to empty himself of his ego in order to identify totally with the over 1000 characters he developed. Voth asserts that if you were to receive a quantity of character monologues without knowing the plays, you would be able to sort them by character. They are that distinctive. People of multiple professions will swear that Shakespeare was one of them: lawyer, sailor…you get the idea.

For today’s prompt, I suggest this: Make an effort to so completely enter the persona of a character you create, whether in prose or poetry. Try to make it so real that your readers will believe that it’s really a part of your experience.

I will link a Sestina I previously posted titled “Addiction.” Throughout my life I’ve had contact with people who are addicted to substance or process: loved ones, patients and colleagues. I myself have not had to go through the depth of pain I describe in the poem. Both of my novels also have alcoholics in them and, for whatever reason, they have been among the characters I most enjoyed developing.

I hope some of you will take up this challenge. If not, perhaps this short article will encourage you to play with negative capability in your own writing. If you would like to participate, here’s how:

  • Write your flash fiction or poem and post it on your blog or website–a novel or short story excerpt is fine, too;
  • Access Mr. Linky at the bottom of this page. Add your name and the direct URL of your post in the areas indicated;
  • Take a few moments to read other entries, especially those of bloggers who’ve commented on your work;
  • Be creative and have fun!

Image: Public Domain


13 thoughts on “Negative Capability

  1. I am glad to be following your writing blog, as it always keeps me finding something of new interest. Even having noticed this negative capability involved in many stories, I never really thought much about the concept. No wonder writings can be so relatable which touching on the human experience tends to be, it’s almost like taking a walk in someone elses shoes. Seems there are many aspects to writing, now I know the name vs.just a feeling for this one. Well, have yourself a good week, I’m off to check out some links(“-“)


  2. Shakespeare has been always my very favorite author, mostly because of his sonnets and Romeo and Julliet! At high- school we had quite a few lessons dedicated to him, not only to his work, but to his life. Maybe because our literature teacher was obsessed with Shakespeare we learnt a lot about him …


  3. markwindham says:

    Finally got one, or at least the start of one. I think there is more to my bartender…..


  4. The Bard, eh? You are, indeed, a lifelong learner. I bow to you, fair maiden.


  5. markwindham says:

    like this very much. I love this whole concept; make them feel it is you, even if it isn’t. Now for a character idea….


  6. i too have read very little of shakespeare, in one of my schools we had a collection of shakespeare’s plays squeezed into short stories and written in easy english- but being a child i let that book slip out of my collection. shakespearean english is too tough for me, so i always keep looking for his works in easy english but yet to get one.


  7. vivinfrance says:

    I’m full of negative capability. You get an old one, more cliché even than Shylock or Romeo, so mea culpa.


  8. […] theme: to create a character and inhabit it trying our damnedest to emulate the Bard.  My character is hardly heroic, written in response to this photograph as a prompt on a creative writing course.  My fellow students saw him as a drunk, and viewed my poem as a cliché. (no holds barred  critiquing was the order of the day then)  My interpretation was very different.    He’s a Depression era Geordie (from the NE of England.)  Think Jarrow marches. […]


  9. claudia says:

    this is way cool victoria… interesting thought with emptying oneself totally of the ego to make us really feel the characters we write about…this will stick with me..some good thoughts that will give me food for thought for a while..


  10. Negative capability is a new concept for me. Thank you!


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