By John Kendall Hawkins
Living near London back in 2001, several months before 9/11, I took my family on a driving tour to Northwest England, up to Windermere in the Lake District. We spent a night in a quaint thatched cottage and drank deep wine by a smoky fire. We trod on trails, along with a multitude of others, along the lake Wordsworth was said to have wandered lonely as a cloud. On the drive home, we stopped at the Ruskin museum, and I, despite tired protests from the kids, went inside and considered the exhibits of his genius, and revelled in flashes of the cathedral moments Ruskin once inspired in me.
But the highlight of our trip, not so far from home, was stopping in at Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace and burial site of William Shakespeare. We strolled the streets, checked out Anne Hathaway’s digs, and watched, inside Holy Trinity Church, as my young son slipped under a barrier and commenced a horrid iambic tapdance on Shakespeare’s grave, if it was Shakespeare’s grave: a sign read his skull was missing, which made me picture some nob out there playing Alas, Poor Yorick with the Bard’s head. I thought I recalled some cheekery out back in the yard, facing the Avon, another sign, near a pauper’s grave, suggesting that Will had been given the ol’ heave-ho into the lesser bric-a-brac of bones — a la Mozart.
More recently, I’ve learned that a ‘non-intrusive’ radar scan has been done of his grave — and that nothing’s there under the slab my son had jigged on, not even iambic dust — a whole TV special was done on the anniversary of his supposed mortal death 400 years earlier. Nobody really seems to know where his restless bones reside. Other scans have followed — both science and psychological: An anthropologist thinks the Bard must have been smoking “compounds strange” when he wrote; some homosexuals require that the Bard be gay (“Google any famous name plus the word gay and you’ll find that someone’s beaten you to the speculative punch.”!). Agendas everywhere.
Postmodernism used to be fun. I felt privileged, as an undergrad, to be part of the carnival of delight that academic relativists brought to course methodology, freeing minds everywhere from the cultural battlefields where once they were mere Canon fodder in shoot-outs between Great Men too big to fail. Once unheard, unsung voices from the wilderness were emerged from a countercultural revolution — Black voices, Feminist dialectics, multiculturalism up the ya-yoo, and new ways of seeing — helpful critiques of the male gaze and reader-response theory — all for the betterment of humankind. I loved the way Angela Carter made a basket case of the Big Bad Wolf. Who doesn’t like claiming to have read Foucault? We hate torture, because it’s not who we are, but academics spend all their time interrogating geniuses to get at their dirty little secrets.
No canonized writer has suffered more up-digs over the centuries than the Bard. Was he really Christopher Marlowe (or versa visa)? Could a working class kid really write about the Royals? Really? Did he rely too much on Plutarch when he penned Henry V? Shakespeare Analysis became a thatched cottage industry. A lot of it legitimate scholarly interest. As Harold Bloom, and others, have pointed out, there was a “School of Resentment,” overcompensatory in its nature, that rigorously stripped ‘the Greats’ of their excessive influence on culture, and became the new orthodoxy. But things really got going when the resentimentalists unloaded on Shakespeare and the Western Canon shot its last wad.
Speaking of cannons shooting worthy wads, the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613 during the premiere of Henry VIII — originally known as All Is True — after a cannon was fired marking the entrance of Henry VIII and a bit of wad landed on the thatched roof and started a fire that consumed the Globe. Shakespeare had begun collaborating with a writer named John Fletcher, accounting for the inconsistencies of language in the reading of Henry VIII.
Most recently, Smithsonian magazine reported on Petr Plecháča, a Czech Republican scientist, who took a special interest in identifying the separate threads of language between Fletcher and the Bard in All Is True, and, using artificial intelligence (AI), he was able to determine their separate voices. Kind of like an academic exercise in intertextuality. Except using a Support Vector Machine to scan and deconstruct the play instead of relying on scholarly conjecture. In essence, the AI performed a danse macabre across Shakespeare’s grave and found two sets of bony algorithms. Hackles happened. I went to Plecháča’s study and ran for my life when I seemed to be reading that Henry VIII aside, the SVM may have proven that Fletcher virtually wrote The Tempest alone. Gulp.
I wrote a letter to Petr:
Recently I read an article that featured your algorithmic study of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Interesting.
Sounds a lot like the plagiarism application Turn It In and its scanning features. Is there a difference between your method and the method used by software to analyze the typical suspicious (and they all are all plagios until proven original by Turn It In) undergrad?
Can we expect a comprehensive scan now of the Bard’s entire works? In short, will you be taking off his gloves? Where does Christopher Marlowe fit into all of this?
Also, many academics (with agendas) have been making passes at the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexual onaccounta his sonnets and certain coy-boy references in his works. Can we expect an algorithm to “out” the Bard once and for all?
Thank you so much ahead of time for your consideration of my thoughts (I claim) on the matter. I look forward to your keened and advanced counterpoint.
He never replied.
O, the evil that algos do. Like postmodernism (and maybe only possible because of such thinking), algorithms possess a kind of built-in scientific rationalism that denudes human perception, even as it unravels the mystery of our discrete object of desire. Imagine looking at a rose, wafting in your nose, absorbed by its mystical complexity — when you are interrupted by a voice in your head that describes that object as a function of parts, a mechanical plaything of your synapses, and nothing more. You can have it both ways, but only one way seems human. Call me a romantic if a rose has me swimming with endolphins and giddy with new porpoise.
If Google, Amazon and Facebook, along with the surveillance state, have shown us anything with their algorithms, we are in danger of passively accepting our human processes as mathematical formulas controlled by centralizing forces that shape the way we see and feel. Control us, by knowing how to stimulate us, bespokenly. It’s subtle now, but it’s there, in the tea leaves of the time we spend on line, our synapses symbiotically fired by the ons-and-offs of the InterMind. Are we the assimilatos for, or the accommodators of, the New Machine Age?
I wonder what Shakespeare, if he were alive today, would make of our burning globe. Would he be able to handle the rhythms of modern English — its natural mythopoesis absorbed into the jingles and jibes of end-stage capitalist decline? Or would he, like Abu rolling over in his shallow Ghraib, be just another voice lost in the Age of Terror?
No wonder his grave is empty.