Here’s a lovely blog post by Philip Graham, the sort of text that gets me inspired about writing, about form and pattern.
What’s Structure Got to Do with It?
More years ago than I like to count, when I was but a first year graduate student in creative writing, I came upon a slim volume in a bookstore titled Shakespearean Design, by Mark Rose. I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a glance, because I was taking a summer literature course on the Bard and soon found myself deep in a book that would influence me as a writer for the rest of my life.
Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.
So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?
It turns out he was influenced by late medieval and early renaissance diptych and triptych paintings. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, as an example of a triptych,