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  • Shakespeare's Imitation Game:How Do You Solve A [Problem Set] Like Katherina?
  • John Freeman (bio)

[Compared to a computer programmer…]

No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or a field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.

—Joseph Weizenbaum (1976, 115)

The playwright is a kind of god in that he writes words for imaginary people which then cause real people (actors) to bring those words and those people to life.

—Julian Hilton (1993, 161)


Perhaps Shakespeare's most programmatic as well as problematic play, The Taming of the Shrew1 operates as a formal system, set up and "run" as a program with its own special set of "functions" and "scripts" specifically designed to process "problem sets" encoded as plots and subplots (literary variants of the computer's routines and subroutines). In performing these operations, the play extends the systematic parameters of conventional Renaissance comedy in its engagement of the audience in those operations. Traditionally, these parameters restrict interactions to those occurring among the characters, with little or no outreach to the audience. The fourth wall or screen between the representation and the audience is not breached. Unlike the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor in computer programming that allows the user to generate the programming code [End Page 267] while simultaneously viewing the end-product of that code, such comedies offer no behind-the-scenes views or opportunities for interaction. As such, these comedies constitute closed systems.

No doubt, dramatists have available some means for stretching these parameters and creating more open, if still limited, systems. These meta-theatrical strategies include prologues and epilogues which directly address the audience; plays-within-plays operating as metatheatrical devices and commentary; soliloquys revealing a character's thoughts; and even punning, self-referential markers of place, such as Hamlet's pledge to remember the Ghost "whiles memory holds a seat/In this distracted globe" (1.5: 96-97). Of course, prologues and epilogues are situated outside the play proper, limiting the audinece's engagement in its action. Plays within plays, such as The Murder of Gonzago, are focused more on eliciting a response from the character, in this case "catching the conscience" of Claudius. Soliloquys offer privileged, if momentary and one-way, glimpses into a character's psyche; and Hamlet's fleeting pun on the Globe functions more like a temporary crack than a breach in that fourth wall.

In contrast, what particularly distinguishes Taming from other comedies is how it engages the audience in its complex and sophisticated programming strategies. As in Espen J. Aarseth's description of computer programs, audiences encounter a play that "generally consist[s] of collections of interdependent fragments, with repeating loops, cross-references and discontinuous 'jumps' back and forth between sections" (1997, 11). For example, Sly not only appears in the Induction but crops up in the play proper and, in the Quarto, at the end as well. The two scenes of the Induction constitute both a play-outside-a-play as well as interdependent fragments whose premises are integral to the larger play's functioning, its program. Their contents not only frame but are also enframed in turn, the kind of nesting witnessed in computer programs. Thus, Sly's problematic transformation into a Lord loops and cross-references into Kate's own problematic re-fashioning into a gentlewoman. Audiences are called upon to engage in dynamic programming, a bottom-up approach in which the solving of larger problems is accomplished by first dividing them into subsets of a similar type (e.g. Sly's social elevation correlated to Kate's taming). As Michael Shapiro demonstrates, the play employs metatheatrical strategies in fostering the audience's awareness of female impersonation in its recursive, looping recycling of boy actors in female roles as it constructs Kate as at one moment the ideal gentlewoman and, at the other, its unruly anti-type. Like the relays and switches in the plugboard of a computer or a cipher machine, the play consists of multilayered, shifting encodings that the audience must constantly process and negotiate.

As an open system, the...


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pp. 267-292
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