Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Of Shakespeare and Giant Intelligent Squid

On a recent episode of Science Friday that had the story of the scientist who claims to have found evidence of the mythical Kraken.  His evidence is patterns found in a "midden", an undersea pile of bones.  He argues that a creature of some intelligence organized the bones into patterns on purpose.

Debunkers of his evidence point to that bit of our brains that likes to find patterns in things.  When you see a cloud that looks like a kitty, it's not because some magical being in charge of clouds shaped it like a kitty on purpose, it's simply because that particular random combination of particles made your brain think, "Kitty!"  It is exactly the same as playing the lottery, watching "1 2 3 4 5 6" come out, and thinking, "Wow! What are the odds?!"  Exactly the same as the numbers coming out 35 17 3 4 22 30, actually.  We just don't attach any significance to that sequence like we do to the other one.

What's this got to do with Shakespeare?  Well, what if everything that we've read into Shakespeare's work over the centuries is just that - stuff that we've read into it, rather than stuff that he deliberately put there?  What if he was just a guy who was just cranking out whatever got him paid, and he really and truly had no insight into human nature at all?

I often wonder about that. It's a pretty safe bet that Shakespeare never sat at his quill and thought, "If I write this, people will still be talking about it four hundred years from now."  But it's also unlikely that if he was just churning out the first thing that came to his mind that we *would* be talking about him 400 years later.  So the answer is somewhere in the middle.  But at which end?


Alexi said...

I'm not so sure Shakespeare never set out to write anything for posterity. He seems pretty confidant in the sonnets, for example, that his writing will last "so long as men can breathe and eye can see."

Duane Morin said...

See "immortality" post that went with this one, Alexi. :) In short, I suggest that perhaps all Shakespeare meant by that line was "when you write something down it basically lasts forever," and it was really not a commentary at all on his own thoughts about his work's longitude.

Alexi said...

Okay, that's an alternate reading of 18, but a large number of the sonnets express similar sentiments, often specifying the longevity of the verse itself. For instance, 55 says: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,/But you shall shine more more bright in these contents/ than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time." This indicates pretty strongly that Shakespeare intended or aspired to have immortal verses.

PS: Yeah, sorry, I didn't see the on "immortality" when I initially commented. :P

Cam said...

I don't think people have responded to Shakespeare like they do to curious lottery numbers. The reaction to the latter is visceral, the former rises from observation and analysis. Different parts of the brain are at work.

That said, a lot of critics latch onto particular ideas of what a play might be about and then become unconsciously selective when studying it, highlighting whatever contributes to that idea while failing to detect anything that might counter it. That might explain why a play like "Henry V" has been interpreted by some as patriotic pageantry and by others as subversively ironic. Once you get an idea of what a play might be about you risk missing the forest for the trees. (For the record, I think the play is a mixture of both those things).

PS: You totally should've worked Hamlet's camel-weasel-whale thing into the thing about the clouds. Somehow.

Sean O'Sullivan said...

Who decides how great Shakespeare's
work is...how do you decide if it
is great at all?
The modern Bardolator Harold
Bloom nails his colours to the
mast with the title of his book
"Shakespeare:The Invention of the
Human"...Wittgenstein thought
the plays were no great shakes..
Tolstoy held them in contempt...
Voltaire became highly critical
and Shaw considered his own mind
clearly superior to Will's.