All’s Well That #Trends Well: Shakespeare in the Technological Era

Why is William Shakespeare suddenly the most popular guy on the tech art beat?

In 2013, the world's stage is cast with countless assailants who champion the death of old ways, and specifically, old words. Those who fight under the banner of language are harangued constantly: reading is dead, publishing is all but a dirty word, and the literary arts, in a world full of appropriators, “remixologists”, and other such phenomena, have all but dissolved into too many shades of grey. Will it all burn in an infernal heap as we run askance into night, all beeping and blinking and tweaking?

Could it be? Something is rotten in the state of TechArt.

Whether or not one chooses to believes the hype, there’s a sizable trend among the tech-minded to experiment with literature’s vast canon and giving some much needed face time to arguably its mostcolossal, perplexing, and momentous writer to date--William Shakespeare. 

Whether it’s resuscitation of his plays, sonnets, or even a computer's "de-coding" of the Bard's words themselves, it seems we've an insatiable interest in how Shakespeare resonates within the high-tech advancements of the day. 

Websites like myShakespeare, created in promotion of the World’s Shakespeare Festival in 2012, boasts “the measuring of Shakespeare’s digital heartbeat”; literally charting each bit of gossip and chatter about the man from Stratford. Banquo, a similar, if not more aptly named feature, allows you to watch online mentions of the playwright and his works in real-time. While one can imagine this online archiving is of the best intentions, its hard not to feel an element of icky morbidity in watching a disembodied “pulse” rise and fall with the related posts, tweets, and likes that litter our age.

myShakespeare is a real-time feed of Shakespeare mentions from around the web.

Strange as it sounds, tech-savants taking interest in the Bard makes a kind of sense. The sheer number of variables in Shakespeare’s work: the neologisms, the playfulness, the stuff that baffles us as sheer acts of randomness, provide a genius type of game theory any programmer would delight in toying with.

Sculptor Ben Rubin’s Public Theatre installation “The Shakespeare Machine” is a fine example of such potential. The luminous, many-armed, chandelier-like design uses algorithms to lift epithets, phrases, and snips of prose from Shakespeare’s inventory, reassembling them to dazzling effect, even when ripped (perhaps especially so) from context and place. Besides, with origins as mysterious and notoriously up for grabs as Shakespeare’s, what’s more deliciously compelling than a techno-probe into the very nature of his originality?

The Million Monkeys Project, a 2011 study by programmer Jesse Anderson, is such an investigation. Originally created as a test of the Hadoop programming system, Anderson’s was an experiment in what’s called The Infinite Monkey Theorem (IMT): If infinite “monkeys” sat at infinite “typewriters” for infinite time, wouldn’t a “monkey” inevitably recreate the works of Shakespeare, based on probability alone? 

To find out, Anderson wired up millions of computer programs (affectionately labeled “virtual monkeys”), to re-write “A Lover’s Complaint” through random keyboard mashing. 

“Shakespeare is a commonly used dataset in Computer Science,” says Anderson. “In my field of Big Data and Hadoop, his corpus is used as the dataset for a ‘Hello World’– or, a very beginner’s understanding of Hadoop. You can find how many times Shakespeare said ‘zounds.’" Or any other word, for that matter–“It turns out Shakespeare said ‘therefore’ a lot.”

So, datasets in hand, did Anderson’s monkeys do the job? Yes and no–it turns out that under some imposed constraints, Mr. Anderson’s computer monkeys eventually rewrote “A Lover’s Complaint." Not only that, they went on to recreate Billy’s entire body of work. 

It made people look at Shakespeare's works a little differently,” muses the programmer. “Can a computer really randomly recreate Shakespeare? What does it mean to really create something? How does one know Shakespeare has been recreated if Shakespeare doesn't exist? Those are the existential questions of creativity and authorship.” 

Anderson’s triumph was not without a good dose of backlash– some detractors found Anderson’s experiment too restricted, too manipulated, or simply too ambitious to be taken at face value. Yet Anderson insists his limits were only performed in the interest of time.

“Yes, I put the project under some constraints. I changed it to recreate Shakespeare 9 characters at a time. I also kept the dataset to only the 26 letters of the alphabet. If we were to recreate all of Hamlet in one fell swoop, it would take longer than the life of the universe. I'm patient, but not that patient. Some people like to say the universe is out to get them. I'd say the universe is out to not have Hamlet be recreated.”

Why would anyone waylay some techie’s attempts at computer-penned Shakespeare? And furthermore, why would anyone care about the implications of a poet so un-analog in this digital era? The answer has everything to do with language, and technology’s relation to it. 

Language, in its many forms and dialects, is a beguiling scientific notion: an innate, thoroughly unique human capacity that allows people to form complex and unending grammatical relationships. And as mathematical as language sounds, no calculator or computer has come close to comprehending language so quickly and expertly as human beings. Like having thumbs, language is just something humans have without knowing they have it, and it’s one of the most distinctive upper hands we’ve got– and realistically, maybe the only one.

As for Shakespeare? Well, for better or worse, he holds the WWE championship belt (or codpiece equivalent?) as mega-king of language. At his worst, Shakespeare’s repertoire is a hoax, a conspiracy that’s come to symbolize modern literature only by default. At his best, he’s hailed as nothing less than “the creator of language," as Ludwig Wittgenstein once praised. Either way, the guy remains the apotheosis of the English literature; one imagines his words certainly set the bar high in a test of a computer’s language abilities. 

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s words are more than just fancy; they are a wealth of human narratives that have nourished us more than 400 years after his death. Save for ancient theater, Shakespeare’s lines and dramas are some of the first dramatic examples of human cognition, action, and feeling. To borrow from the great literary critic and Shakespeare expert Harold Bloom, “This is not just a question of rhetoricity or word-consciousness; it is the essence of Shakespeare’s greatest originalities in the representation of character, of thinking, and of personality."

An equation emerges. If Shakespeare is language, and language is proof of humanity, then technology’s understanding of the Bard’s books is more than just novelty. Instead, it’s a chance to prove a computer can understand language, can think– or at least appear to think well enough to fool us humans. In other words, Shakespeare is the ultimate Turing Test.

Though if that’s all true, how does this knowledge serve us in our own life’s theater? How do we keep the cyborg ships at bay? As A.I. academic Sherry Turkle once asked, “If the mind is a machine, who is the actor?”

If Dan Gallagher had his way, “the actor” would quite simply be another machine. He’s the force behind The Robot Shakespeare Company, an online theater company gaining widespread attention for its CGI interpretation of Macbeth, performed by– you guessed it– android actors.

The robots rehearsing their roles as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

For Gallagher, the concept was like a bolt of lightening: “I started developing the idea, and it just made more and more sense: sci-fi robots and subtitles could make fun, accessible Shakespeare that anyone could get into.”

The result of his efforts is a charming and disarming foray into a new, peculiar kind of virtual theater. Equipped with modern subtitles, kid-friendly, cartoonish cyborgs traverse the darker purposes of Macbeth, orating within well-manicured, animated settings that are equal parts medieval and MMO, drawing from video game and comic mythology as much as anywhere else.

“As far as the environments go, I just wanted each Castle to have its own ecology,” recalls Gallagher.  “Macbeth's [Castle] is on a lake. Macduff's is in a desert. The battle in the beginning is in a barren, craggy mountain range. And the Palace floats in the clouds. This was in service of making their Kingdom a planet. So when Macduff and Malcolm go off to England to get help, it's the first time the 'bots are actually shown in space. The idea being that each ‘kingdom’ is a planet.”  

The project’s grown into a commercial success, with plans for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear already in pre-production. What’s perhaps most fascinating about the project is not the concept overall, but what Gallagher’s robots have done to humanize the literature itself. 

“My favorite thing about the robots is that they have no nationality. A robot is a robot for everyone. All of us can relate to any one of them.  It actually ends up helping give the show humanity because you can project yourself onto all of these blank slate robots.”

These Shakespearean trial-and-errors might one day tell us why we do that we do, though much is speculative. What remains clear is the necessity for humans to  learn of themselves by any means necessary.Just as Hamlet and Cleopatra, Lear and Juliet, confront us with ourselves, so too does technology, with its dizzying multiplicities and potentials. As the arts and sciences persist in confounding and confronting each other, sparks of humanity are igniting, set afire by prose and program alike. 

Will programmers be the poets of the future, or is Shakespeare perhaps one of the world’s first programmers, debugging life’s quandaries before we even knew we had to upgrade? And though our conflicting preoccupations with art and technology appear to contrary run in this digital era, an interest in words endures in these innovators, at least for now. Leave it to a programmer like Gallagher to put it best: “People really want to like Shakespeare. They want to like all sorts of fine art. They just need a place where it's okay to be a noob about it.”