I don’t know how you were first introduced to Shakespeare, but it was probably taught to to you in school, and it was probably taught to you wrong.
The collected works of William Shakespeare is a pillar of english literature. That much is obvious. Literally hundreds of common words can be traced back to Shakespeare. These are things that we learn in high school. Just being taught Shakespeare can improve you, the english speaker, in some foundational way. Reading Shakespeare is a multivitamin for your teenage mind. Reading Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet will give you a love for all the better things in life. You will probably listen to Vivaldi afterward and do some whittling or something.
Don’t get me wrong here. I really like me some Shakespeare. But I was that kid. The one who was actually, legitimately, and without prompting, interested in reading Shakespeare. You know, a geek. A theatre geek even. I was also way into video games. Looking back, I’m surprised I made it out of high school alive. I really couldn’t have been a more perfect target.
Even back then I knew that we were being taught Shakespeare wrong. Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels. Sitting at a desk and reading through a play, even one backed up by a handy Coles Notes, is the wrong way to teach a play. You can either watch a play performed, or perform it yourself, but reading the script is absolutely, bar none, the most superficial way to experience a play. A script can be interpreted in so many ways. Every actor, every director, can take those raw words and interpret them in a completely unique way. A tragic line can be played for comedy in the mouth of a deft actor. The impact on the audience is profound. The context of watching actual people move around and say these words changes their meaning. Never, not for one microsecond, was the intention of those scripts for them to be read by a quiet person sitting at a desk. Teaching Shakespeare as literature is to reduce its impact. It’s teaching it wrong.
So I usually write about games here, because, as stated earlier I’m a geek. While there are very few people teaching games as cultural artifacts just yet, it’s coming. What got me thinking about Shakespeare was the some of the criticism around games, and how we deconstruct games to make criticism easier. We break down the parts, most notably the narrative gets excised from the gameplay, to make it easier to parse. Maybe there is some clinical value in that. taking each part, graphics, sound, action, writing, and dealing with them one at a time. But ultimately reduction is reduction, and the way we view a thing will influence how we go about making a thing. The only problem is that interacting, playing the game, influences how we view the narrative. As actors provide context for the nuances of a script, gameplay provides context for the narrative of a game. Thinking of them as separate in our evaluation of games can lead to people thinking that this is an okay way of doing things. It isn’t.
Plays have been around for a while. Like a dawn of civilization while. Shakespeare’s plays were written over 400 years ago, and we still haven’t figured out how to properly teach them. Video games are only a few decades old, and games with narrative are even younger. Maybe we can get a jump on teaching them a better way. It would be a shame if a hundred years out it became acceptable to have a kid read all the dialog for a game at a desk, and never have them actually play it.