In his 1939 poem In Memory of WB Yeats, WH Auden described the strange immortality of literary legacy: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems. / But for him it was his last afternoon as himself... he became his admirers.”
Admirers die just like poets, of course, and most authors can hope for only a brief literary afterlife. A few, however, become something else: a permanent part of culture and language. The mightiest of all such figures is William Shakespeare, who since his death at the age of 52 in April 1616 has become the closest thing the English language has to a presiding deity.
This April, the launch of the World Shakespeare Festival brings the greatest celebration yet of “the world’s playwright”. And alongside its readings, performances, commissioned art and gatherings, an intriguing digital counterpoint to events is taking place: My Shakespeare – a site dedicated to “measuring Shakespeare’s digital heartbeat” some four centuries after his actual one stopped.
What, then, does an author’s digital heart sound like – and how, in the words of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Michael Boyd, “can our understanding of a 17th century English playwright be transformed by new media”?
Above all, these questions are connected by the new kind of relationship being established online between artists and audiences. The theatre is, itself, a space defined by an audience: its energy and ritual driven by live performance. On the page, even words like Shakespeare’s are only half alive.
Online, however, a work comes alive in quite a different sense: not in performance, but in the drama of action and reaction that is the texture of 21st-century lives. If Shakespeare has, in Auden’s phrase, become his admirers, then he is a composite of many millions of modern lives: taught in half the world’s schools, performed more than any living writer, and quoted more than any other English language writer other than those who penned the King James Bible.
It’s this audience that – along with artistic commissions, blogs, videos, discussions, and much else besides – the My Shakespeare site has set out to map, through an intriguing data visualisation tool dubbed Banquo (after the ghost in Macbeth). Where the original Banquo silently stalked the man who commanded his murder, however, his digital descendant is considerably more articulate, plotting Shakespeare-related keywords from Twitter, Flickr and eBay in real time onto a colour-coded graph.
My Shakespeare describes its Banquo as a ghostly emblem of the way “social media leaves a lasting impression of our comments, ideas, thoughts and activity that remain in cyberspace long after they initially existed”. And there’s certainly something uncanny about the waves of interest it charts, with captured images drifting against a background of mentions and invocations: book covers, pictures of castles, quotations, comments on performances, links, debates (dominated, the digerati may be interested to learn, by Twitter).
What this quantifiable sense of a work’s passage through the world most suggests to me, however, is something that has always been true, but until recently never spelled out quite so bluntly: that even the greatest art and ideas are part of a vaster human ebb and flow; and that perhaps the most important way in which new media can transform our relationship with Shakespeare is, ironically, by taking him off the pedestal erected beneath his legacy, and restoring him to the present as an embodiment of what a truly vigorous creative culture should like like.
London’s theatrical world was less than two decades old when Shakespeare began his career, with the first successful purpose-built theatre (called, simply, “The Theatre”) opening outside the city walls in 1576. The medium was unruly, unstable; closer to the mob delights of bear-baiting than high literature.
It was a time, in fact, not entirely unlike our own: a volatile age of new words, new technologies and new ambitions. Between them, printing and playhouses were set to transform the way a nation delighted and described itself. Relationships between authors and audiences, creators and consumers, were profoundly in flux. The English language itself gained over ten thousand new words during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras – not to mention some of the greatest literature in history.
Yet none of the young playwrights of the early theatre would have considered themselves “authors”. They were actors, scriptwriters, entrepreneurs, innovators and crowd-pleasers. Shakespeare’s own ambition and prolific rate of production meant much borrowing, adaptation and recombination. His plots and characters were brilliant mash-ups of recent, classical and European sources. His took universal human themes and reimagined them for his time – playing fast and loose with history, probability and conventional creative assumptions. He scarcely took any interest in his own literary legacy. And though he won fame, fortune and royal favour, he continued to be dismissed by some after his death as ill-educated, provincial and insufficiently aristocratic even to have written his own plays.
The lessons and opportunities for today, as the World Shakespeare Festival and its cornucopia of commissions suggests, are immense. His plays themselves are constantly reimagined, reworked and transposed – whether it is Richard III set in World War II or a Maori version of Troilus and Cressida complete with a Haka. New media, however, grant entirely new levels of freedom: not only to share the greatest works and words of all time instantly and universally; but to respond, remix and recreate, whether that means Othello through the Simpsons or Macbeth through the songs of Jonny Cash (you can find other mash-ups here and here). It’s this that the My Shakespeare project promises most enticingly to tap into – from artist Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Nicely Turned tumblr blog, clothing Shakesperian lines and allusions in a 21st-century cultural context, to Will Power’s forthcoming fusion project Hip Hop Shakespeare.
For some people, art shorn of old boundaries and hierarchies is a dangerously cheap commodity: devalued and debased to the level of the mob. This was the argument levelled against actors and playhouses four centuries ago by those who wished only the best possible taste to prevail. And it remains an argument we should gleefully ignore, delving instead into Shakespeare’s work much as he delved into his sources: borrowing, adapting and augmenting; determined both to innovate and to delight; unafraid to be judged by popular taste.
Not every artist will win admirers, let alone become a Shakespeare. Yet perhaps the best lesson to take from the 17th century is a bluntly timeless one: past glories are little use unless you’re prepared to grasp the present moment by the scruff of its neck.