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.