Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Dr. Erin Sullivan, a Reader at the Shakespeare Institute, about her research on Shakespeare and digital technologies as related to the novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.
I’ve spent much of the last decade thinking about the interconnections between Shakespeare and digital culture. It all started with my work at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I was helping develop distance learning masters courses for students around the world. How can you take the kinds of intellectual engagement, community, and intensity that students experience in-person and meaningfully translate them to an online realm?
Then came the steady growth of live theatre broadcasting, which saw theatres like the National Theatre in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada live recording and in many cases transmitting their stage productions to cinema audiences near and far. Did it still feel like theatre, and how did the camera angles and editing shape the emotional experience of the spectator?
After that point, it was a deliciously slippery slope, and I found myself looking at augmented reality on the stage, social media adaptations on Twitter and Instagram, virtual reality experiences, and – inevitably during the pandemic – Zoom performances of every last play by Shakespeare. The explosion of digital creativity in Shakespearean performance over the last decade has been amazing, and I’m proud to have discussed so many inspiring projects in my book, Shakespeare and Digital Performance in Practice.
The Show Must Go Online
Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 154 March 2020. Theaters were beginning to cancel ongoing and upcoming productions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Glasgow-based actor Robert Myles had just lost a gig that would have taken him through April. One night,…
“In the brave squares”: The Show Must Go Online
One of the lasting achievements of the extended COVID quarantine will surely be an extraordinary archive of the complete works of William Shakespeare performed on Zoom by casts from around the world, under the umbrella title The Show Must Go…
One thing I discovered through this research, however – part of which I was lucky enough to undertake at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2017 – is that many people still have an aversion to putting the words ‘Shakespeare” and “digital” together in the same sentence. Even worse, if the digital project in question is a videogame, the reactions become even more scathing. If Shakespeare represents the highest of high culture for many people, then videogames represent the lowest of low.
Which is pretty incredible, I think, given that more than one third of the world’s population plays videogames, and that the gaming industry is larger than the film and music industries combined. A huge amount of time, money, intelligence, creativity, and all-around talent goes into designing and playing videogames. Considering that Shakespeare was both an extraordinary artist and savvy businessman, this seems like a scenario he could only have admired.
This is why I was so delighted to learn about Gabrielle Zevin’s engrossing, best-selling novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and to be invited to talk about it with the Folger’s online book club. One of the many things to admire about this book is the way it celebrates the artistry of videogames and the endless worlds of imagination they encourage.
For the central characters, Sam and Sadie, videogames are not just a hobby but a way of finding meaning and solace in their own lives. “Virtual worlds can be better than the actual world,” Sam comments at one point; at another, he thinks about how much he wishes he could exist in a videogame and enjoy “a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and the evidence of having lived.” For him, videogames represent a purer world of imagination and possibility, liberated from the emotional and physical pain that has plagued him all his life. They offer, in the words of Shakespeare, “a world elsewhere.”
The most obvious connection between Zevin’s novel and Shakespeare is of course its title, taken from Macbeth. The “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech is quoted at length in a chapter about a videogame that Sadie has created, called Master of the Revels, in which players travel through Elizabethan London as they try to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe. Sam is skeptical that Shakespeare and gaming have any chance at success together: “You can’t be serious, Sadie. People hate Shakespeare. People hate history. And the world you’re proposing is so dark.”
Sam’s pessimism is not entirely unfounded. In real life, designers of both digital and analogue games have frequently looked to Shakespeare for inspiration, but none has achieved the runaway success that Master of the Revels enjoys in Zevin’s world. One of the most ambitious—and notorious—was Arden: The World of William Shakespeare, a multiplayer online game launched in 2007 by a media studies scholar named Edward Castronova. Set in the Elizabethan town of “Ilminster,” Arden invited its players to interact with characters from several of Shakespeare’s plays. They might strike up a conversation with Mistress Quickly about Falstaff, ask Perdita questions about farming, or undertake a challenge linked to Richard III.
Unfortunately, the game struggled to find an audience. As one tech journalist put it, Arden was “the most ambitious and costly game project to ever come out of academia,” but there was “just one problem: it’s kind of dull.” Too much attention to historical and literary detail and not enough attention to fun made for a dry, uninspiring gaming experience.
Other videogame experiments with Shakespeare have been more successful. Rebecca Bushnell has explored indie videogames based on Hamlet and their ability to help players (and readers) think more seriously about choice and its consequences in tragedy. In my own work, I’ve looked at live performances of Shakespeare staged in gaming worlds, such as a participatory, virtual reality Tempest in the surreal world of The Under Presents and a post-apocalyptic Macbeth in the ragged, violent landscape of Fallout 76.
Both issues—choice and its reversibility, and the forging of community through play—are central to Zevin’s novel. Sam and Sadie’s friendship is born when they start playing Super Mario Brothers together as children in a lonely hospital ward, and it is salvaged when they reconnect as avatars in an online, open world game that Sam has designed called Pioneers. Playing, in Zevin’s novel, is an act of hope and a path to community: “Maybe it was the willingness to play that hinted at a tender, eternally newborn part in all humans,” she writes. “Maybe it was the willingness to play that kept one from despair.”
In Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, games are a way of surviving life—of dealing with loss, pain, and the deep grief both bring. They also prove a way of evading death, if only temporarily. As Zevin writes at one point, “What, after all, is a video game’s subtextual preoccupation if not the erasure of mortality?” Sam and Sadie are both drawn to the way games allow them to jump back in time before death, to replay, to re-choose. They offer the possibility of second chances in worlds that are more fathomable, controllable, and comforting than the brick and mortar one in which we live. Ironically, perhaps, Zevin’s vision of a land of infinite tomorrows is much more hopeful than what Shakespeare conveys at the end of Macbeth. But that, of course, is the prerogative of all artists—to take what is inspiring and useful, and to make it their own.
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