Thursday, August 16, 2007


With the Royal Shakespeare Company performing King Lear in NZ at present this pieice from the Chronicle of Higher Education is timely........

We may never know if Shakespeare had a sister, but we can be certain he didn't have a hard drive. What if he had? Details of his writing process and his life currently a mystery might be pitilessly exposed.

As scholars will tell you, there are no manuscripts of the plays surviving in the Bard's own hand. The text of King Lear, for example, comes to us from two published quartos and the First Folio (1623), with hundreds of lines and thousands of words differing between them.

In the so-called "bad quarto" of Hamlet, a certain soliloquy begins: "To be or not to be. Aye, there's the point, /To Die, to sleep, is that all, aye all." The speech is also placed differently, in Act II, Scene 2, rather than its accustomed place in Act III, Scene 1.

Today it is typically thought that the bad quarto is a memorial reconstruction of the play by an actor or spectator, but we can't be sure. In any case, the texts are rife with ambiguities. Which versions are right? What was closest to Shakespeare's own original (or final) intentions?If Shakespeare had had a hard drive, if the plays had been written with a word processor on a computer that had somehow survived, we still might not know anything definitive about Shakespeare's original or final intentions — these are human, not technological, questions — but we might be able to know some rather different things.

We might be able to know, for example, the precise date on which he began composing Hamlet indeed the precise minute and hour, time-stamped to the second. We would be able to know how long he had spent working on it, or at least how long the file containing the play had remained open on his desktop.

We would very likely have access to multiple versions and states of the file, and if Shakespeare had "track changes" turned on while he wrote, we would be able to follow the composition of a soliloquy keystroke by keystroke, each revision also date- and time-stamped to the second.

We might discover the play had originally been called GreatDane.doc instead of Hamlet.doc. We might also be able to know what else he had been working on that same day, or what Internet content he had browsed the night before (since we'll assume Shakespeare had Web access too). While he was online, he might have updated his blog or tagged some images in his Flickr account, or perhaps edited a Wikipedia entry or two.

He might even have spent some time interacting with others by performing with an avatar in Second Life, an online place where all the world is truly a shared virtual stage.

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