I just had an idea in the comments, maybe it will help me explain my position a little better. Bear with me for a second.
Once upon a time a man by the name of Joseph Weisenbaum wrote a book called Computer Power and Human Reason. In it, he described something he called the “compulsive programmer”, someone who we would now call a “hacker”. I cite this example because this is very much my life, I identify greatly with his description and when I stumbled across this particular analogy it stuck with me for life.
What he said (and this is drastically paraphrased) was to imagine computer programming like a chessboard. You’ve got a finite space, and a fixed set of rules and logic for the interaction of entities within that space. It is a closed universe. And yet, it is effectively infinite, and the chess master is god over that space. That is how the compulsive programmer feels about his computers.
I know *exactly* what he’s talking about there, but maybe that’s just because I’m one of them, so I hope I haven’t lost people already. Still with me?
Compare that analogy to the study of Shakespeare the man, and the body of Shakespearean work. We end up with three different universes in which to work.
The words we have (and their punctuation!) are the first finite space. Which words were used, how often, in what combinations? When is punctuation the core of an idea, and when is it used more or less at will?
The second “finite” space is the world described by those words. The characters are the pieces, the words determine their moves. And it is only our understanding of what it means to be human that we take it to the next level, making the difference between “Hamlet said this because Shakespeare said so” and “Hamlet said this because Ophelia died.” (I imagine asking a computer AI that question and getting the first answer.) Much like a chess set there are still effectively infinite interpretations (which is why I said “finite” like that), but they all have to be prefaced with a “maybe…but there’s my evidence why I think that.” It is a world that still presents itself as having a finite set of rules. Does that make sense?
The third space is infinite – it is Shakespeare the man. We don’t know why he did anything, or what he meant. Technically we don’t even know if he existed in the form that we know as the Author. As soon as a sentence starts with “Shakespeare meant…” or “He did this because” or “He wanted to show…” then you are in this space. There is nothing finite about the world of Shakespeare the man. We are playing with a partial set of rules on an infinite space. Some people are comfortable with theorizing about how to fill the spaces, some are not. That’s why things like the Authorship question exist (not to mention the whole sexuality thing, etc etc …)
Phew. That’s a lot to type. Having done so, I can say it simply – it is that second space where I live. 99% of the time I see the plays as something like a roadmap / recipe of what it means to be human. Sure, sometimes I dabble in that first space, mostly because as a software guy I have the ability to make a computer analyze the work on that level. Almost never am I comfortable in that third space. While it may be true that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for specific reasons having to do with his political affiliations, that is simply of neglible interest to me other than as a curiosity. It in no way changes my view of the play, any more than if you told me that we were all just puppets being controlled by some alien race.
There, how’s that? Bigger can, more worms?