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Digitally Deconstructing Shakespeare

Posted: 09/23/11 05:47 PM ET

What do you get if run the works of Shakespeare through a computer program that randomises the dialogue, then reconstitutes it again in a different order? This was exactly the task I undertook in the gestation of my new eBook, The Shakespeare Mash-up.

Inspired by the mash-up's I'd heard over the years in rap and dance music, I wondered what it would be like if I applied the same creative process to literature. In 2009, author Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, plus its later spin-offs, provided great examples of what was possible.

But things didn't start there. As early as the 1920's, members of the Swiss anti-establishment Dada movement practiced cut-ups -- slicing up sections of text, and then randomly juxtaposing segments back together to create absurd poems that dispensed with conventional narratives. Later in the century the technique was appropriated by a range of musicians, artists and writers, from William Burroughs to David Bowie. Indeed, it was Burroughs who contended that his cut-ups were more realistic than the work of Jane Austen, because their random nature more closely mirrored the disjointed narrative of everyday life.

Inspired by all this history, I wanted to take things one step further. First, for my mash-up experiment I decided to use Shakespeare, as the work is classic, and crucially, copyright free. I selected two of his most well known tragic romances -- Othello and Romeo & Juliet -- as raw material, as I knew there would be many similarities and parallels within the themes, which would make remixing them somewhat easier.

To begin, I downloaded both plays and copied them into a single word processing document. The next task was to find a way to deconstruct and then reassemble the text to see what new juxtapositions could form between characters and pieces of dialogue, just like a remixer does with music. I talked the problem over with a software buddy, and we came up with a plan to run the text through a simple computer program that would deconstruct all the elements and then reconstitute them randomly. This proposed interface between the human and the digital, the ancient and the modern, excited me. I asked myself, what would happen when the selected works of Shakespeare collided with modern computing technology?

The result was fascinating. The remixed dialogue threw up some amazing accidents. A statement by Othello, for example, was answered perfectly by Romeo instead of Desdemona, in a way that seemed to make sense, almost as if Shakespeare himself had conceived it that way. Other juxtapositions were funny or absurd. I ran the text through the software several times, and on each occasion I got a totally different set of volleyed exchanges between the characters. I realized that the computer's randomly reorganized sequences were not simply mechanical. They were creative, albeit accidentally so.

These prototypes were fascinating, but I was still dissatisfied. The sections of text where the mash-up actually worked were very small, and more often the software threw up vast swathes of Dada-like sequences, which were difficult to follow. I decided that the concept needed human intervention. I selected the pieces of the computerised mash-up that had worked well, and then I began cutting and pasting other sections of dialogue alongside them that seemed to fit. I isolated the speaking parts of the four main characters -- Romeo, Juliet, Othello and Desdemona -- and edited out the remainder, plus all superfluous scene directions. This way, the mash-up would focus tightly on a small number of characters that the reader would recognise and could follow easily.

At first I cut-and-paste the dialogue with no thought of a plot, just to see how many consecutive juxtapositions I could create. Very soon a loose narrative began to present itself. Unlike the Dadaism of old, my objective was not to destroy a linear narrative, but to create a new one from the deconstructed components. Eventually I formulated a plot in which all four characters were entwined in a tragi-comic bi-sexual love story loosely based on Othello. I put new scene directions in and included a summary plot brief enough for readers to interpret further ideas and meanings within the text.

In the final remix, all the repositioned pieces of dialogue are untouched, exactly as Shakespeare wrote them, with no other elements added or altered. None of the selected lines run in the same order as in the original works. The result is a radical new narrative. What was most exciting for me was the idea that, four hundred years after he wrote them, Shakespeare's words could be imbued with a brand new set of values, simply by re-arranging them on the page.

The whole exercise of creating The Shakespeare Mash-up represented a new kind of 'writing' for me. I was suddenly the literary equivalent of a remixer or DJ: someone skilled, not in creating prose, but in stitching pieces of other people's dialogue together -- like a kind of digital crochet -- for consumption on the printed page instead of the dance floor. Nevertheless the process felt as creative as anything I have ever done.

 

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