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Shakespeare & Beyond

To play’s the thing: Shakespeare and gaming in Gabrielle Zevin’s "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow"

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin book cover
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin book cover

I’m not a gamer, so it was a delight to discover how much I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s 2022 page-turner of a novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which depicts the thirty-year relationship between two video game designers. Part of my surprise was that, while the title promises an obvious Macbeth influence, the novel incorporates allusions to many other Shakespeare plays, as well as positing a world in which Shakespeare’s life and work becomes the perfect setting for a murder mystery video game.

Zevin’s novel begins with Harvard student Samson Mazer encountering Sadie Green, an estranged childhood friend who’s now at MIT. As he pines for her at a distance, Sam cuts a sad and pathetic figure, but when he finally screws his courage to the sticking place and speaks to her, the book comes to life with the energy of their instant rapport. The electricity of their banter calls to mind both Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing and the undeniable (though problematic) connection between Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. They are clearly kindred spirits and the charming wit they exchange is, in Zevin’s description, “an invitation to play.” To put it another way, game recognizes game.

Having bonded over a shared love of Super Mario Bros. as children, Sam and Sadie decide they should create a video game together, and their first effort (partly inspired by both Twelfth Night and The Tempest) becomes hugely successful. Zevin frequently adopts the omniscient voice Shakespeare employs in his Histories and Romances, jumping us around in time as necessary and presenting a mosaic of events and character growth instead of a strictly chronological progression. “There is an order to any victory,” one game designer declares, and the same is true for stories. The novel’s leaps in time allow Zevin to speculate alternate futures for her characters, reimagining Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy about the brevity of life and inevitability of “dusty death” as representing “endless possibilities of rebirth and renewal,” tomorrows both real and imagined.

Two lines before his famous speech, Macbeth speculates about the possibilities of an alternate timeline when he says of Lady Macbeth, “She should have died hereafter.” The games Sam and Sadie create — both with and despite the other — reflect their individual sensibilities amidst emerging themes of moral complexity, complicated dualities, and the appeal of constructing your own narrative. When players die in a game, they “can always go back to the save point and start again,” but as another character observes, actual non-virtual “life is rarely so binary.” Seen in this light, Shakespeare’s most famous speech about a stark choice — “to be or not to be” — becomes less about Hamlet choosing between living and committing suicide, and more about him wishing things were genuinely that simple. In our complicated world, the fantasy of an easy choice, free of complications and repercussions, is “devoutly to be wished” — and also impossible.

“To make a game is to imagine the person playing it,” Sadie says to Sam, a message of which, as a playwright and world-builder myself, I heartily approve. To write a play is to imagine not only the actors playing it but the audience watching it. It’s both a selfish gift, wanting to create an imaginary world for others to enjoy — hopefully with you — and an escape where one is grateful to be in the world of the play (or the game, or the novel) rather than the real one.

While there are a handful of video games influenced by Shakespeare, the world of his plays has been re-created in surprisingly few virtual settings, but three stand out to me. Elsinore, an adventure game released in 2019, follows Ophelia as she relives the same four days and tries to prevent the tragic deaths in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company created Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, which puts a player wearing a virtual reality helmet in the center of Shakespeare’s tragedy. And finally, the Wasteland Theatre Company is a group of gamer/thespians from around the world who gather to put on productions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the virtual reality of the game Fallout 76.

But Zevin creates the most interesting (albeit fictional) Shakespeare game in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (and this is your mild, non-plot-related spoiler warning). Late in the novel, Sadie designs Master of the Revels, a game set in the world of the Elizabethan theatre where the player attempts to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe. She gets pushback from her collaborators that her richly imagined game, set amongst Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, won’t appeal to enough potential buyers, and though they may be right, I’m ready to play it right now.

Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a Romance in the Shakespearean sense: not romantic, but an epic journey spanning decades, depicting longtime relationships tinged with regret, tragedy, comedy, heartache, and redemption. To borrow a phrase from the novel, it’s “the story of failure and of perseverance, of the discipline of a craftsman, of the life of an artist” — which also, for my money, describes the works of William Shakespeare.