Shakespeare’s Floppy-Disk Future by David Pascoe

David Pascoe

Shakespeare’s Floppy-Disk Future


‘I see a voice,’ says Bottom as Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it’s meant as a joke at the expense of artisans dabbling in a form of entertainment about which they know dangerously little, but about which Shakespeare knew much, and from which, even as early as 1595, he had made a great deal of money. Four centuries on, however, the outlook for Shakespeare in performance is bleak; it soon may depend on amateurs, for money is scarce, the government is unsympathetic, and arts funding, so long a lottery, now depends on the National Lottery. So we must accept that the future of the national writer may lie not in the hands of the cash-starved national companies such as the RSC (many of whose recent productions have shown that most of the younger – and some of the older – actors it employs are unable to speak a line of Shakespearean verse more sensibly than Bottom); nor can we rely on Ken & Em’s celluloid excursions to offer anything more than advertisements for holiday homes in Umbria. In future, to see voices live in ways which do not disgrace the spirit of Shakespearean performance, we may well need a personal computer.

There have been many products vaunted as the next big thing in home entertainment: Betamax, VideoDisc, DAT, etc. They all failed, either because they were out-marketed, or because their raison d’etre was unreasonable. In recent times, CDs have succeeded not inasmuch as they sound better, but because in an increasingly cramped country they take up less space than vinyl. Recently, however, it has become evident that a spin-off from this technology, CD-ROM, has the potential to change the way we apprehend our culture. CD-ROMs store information in the same way as CDs, only instead of holding eighty minutes of music, a disk can hold about 600mb of data. Hence, the complete Oxford English Dictionary – over half a million words, with detailed etymologies and 2.4 million illustrative quotations – can appear on one disk; Shakespeare’s works would take up only a tenth of the space. At the moment, the medium is in its infancy, but it is possible to divine certain areas which will be revolutionised by the technology.

A recently released CD-ROM entitled Discovering Authors includes detailed biographical and bibliographic material, along with half a dozen chunks of lit crit, on a couple of hundred of the most studied authors. The programme ranges from Sophocles to Stoppard and great critics excerpted include Eliot, Leavis and Steiner. Another title, The Library of the Future, contains the texts of more than 2,000 ‘Great Books’ from Homer, Beowulf and Chaucer through to Dickens and Conan Doyle; moreover, it has search facilities so that spotting allusions – that favourite academic pursuit – will never have seemed so easy.

The software-industry giant Microsoft, whose programmes run most of the personal computers in operation today, has just begun to explore the entertainment possibilities of a form which, after all, began life as a musical medium. Generically, the new development is spoken of as ‘Multimedia’, and its distinction lies in the fact that it is, to use the jargon, ‘interactive’, meaning that audio and visual are combined in a single entertainment package, which, crucially, can be controlled by the user. The most interesting products on the market so far are multimedia versions of famous musical works, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in which the user follows the score on screen, and reads a note-by-note commentary, whilst a recording of the work is played through the computer’s speakers.

Even in the 1590s, Shakespeare knew the usefulness of computation. In Richard III, the Crookback realises ‘by true computation of the time’ that he cannot possibly be his father’s child and so must be a bastard, while in The Comedy of Errors ‘by computation and mine host’s report’, Antipholus of Syracuse makes sense of the chaos of information around him. I think that if he were alive today Shakespeare would have been at the forefront of developments in popular entertainment, just as he was 400 years ago. However, contemporary film-making would not have interested him; as a medium, he would have thought it as hackneyed as a Mystery Play, the same old plots coming round year after year. On the other hand, computers and video games would have excited him, since all his work seeks to create a virtual reality, a simulation of life, where individuals attempt to emerge from the ‘quaint mazes’ of circumstance. The tenor of Macbeth’s question ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ is recognisable today in the networks of artificial intelligence which give structure to our lives, but Macbeth’s horrified realisation on the stage is our suspension of disbelief before the cathode-ray screen.

What divides our world from Shakespeare’s is the inexorable rise of the concept of a private life and the corresponding diminishment of public apprehensions of live entertainment. Many people now feel awkward seeing Shakespeare in the playhouse. This phenomenon has three causes. Firstly, there is the audience’s embarrassment at not understanding the words, so distant are they from our stunted conversations; secondly, there is the discomfort which comes from realising that today’s actors don’t comprehend them either (even John Gielgud admits to bafflement in this regard); and thirdly, there is a sense that we have lost the habit of sitting together en masse. In the last twenty-five years, television, an inherently intimate and informal medium, has almost destroyed the communal energies which fuelled the English theatre for 350 years.

Rather than complaining about the state of affairs, it is up to publishing houses, and to theatre companies, to embrace the new technology to produce interactive Shakespeare editions for both educational and recreational purposes; editions which revivify great performances of the past, but which also encourage new ones for the present. Imagine how a CD-ROM of A Midsummer Night’s Dream might look, how the voices might be seen. The screen would be bisected (the split corresponding, perhaps, to the left and the right lobes of the brain, the reason and the senses) and, on the left, the text of the play would appear. Using a mouse, the interactive reader might ‘click’ on to a difficult word or phrase and, instantaneously, an explication would appear on screen; click on again and there might appear several interpretations from great critics or previous editors. At this point, there would be little difference between this electronic text and a good paperback edition. But remember that the screen is bisected, and so as one scrolled through the passages, one would have the option to view video clips of performances of that section of the play. One might see footage from Max Reinhardt’s film version, or images from Lindsay Kemp’s 1984 production, or Brian Glover as Bottom in the BBC Shakespeare production of 1981, or, if the CD-ROM was being produced in conjunction with a progressive contemporary theatre company, one might be able to replay a performance by, say, the Cheek by Jowl Company. Clearly, there might be copyright problems, and Equity might huff and puff, but the technology is imminent, and needs to be met and moulded to humane ends, not those of the global entertainment industry.

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