Tag: Shakespeare

Ikea Effect and Difficult Reading – Shakespeare and Game of Thrones

WILSON: Right. Exactly. There’s just a certain type of reader who loves these sprawling, sociological narratives that have massive casts of characters. That have these interweaving stories, and they’re just epic in scope. They go on and on and they expand outward. George R. R. Martin is clearly one of those people.

I often have to remind my students. I say, “You know, Shakespeare’s supposed to be hard.” Right? It’s supposed to be difficult to understand what’s going on in these texts, but I think we can forget how extremely difficult these texts are—Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, “A Song of Ice and Fire”—for first time readers to come to these texts and just try to understand what is going on here. But then I also think that there’s a connection between the labor that we have to do to understand what’s going on in these texts and the love that we have for these texts. In the book, I theorize this as an example of the Ikea effect.

Some researchers did this amazing experiment where they had people put together some Ikea furniture, and then they had a professional carpenter put together the same furniture, and then they asked people, which of these pieces of furniture do you want? The one that you built or the one that the carpenter built? And most people chose the one that they built. And so the Ikea effect means, for example, we don’t work so hard to raise our children because we love them so much. Instead, we love our children so much because we’ve had to work so hard to raise them.

And when we return to the literature, I think just the immense amount of labor that is required to understand what is going on here and to enjoy these texts spills over into just the intense passion that fans of Shakespeare, fans of Martin, show for these texts. You have these amazing fan cultures that grow up around Shakespeare’s history plays, so there’s @HollowCrownFans on Twitter…

Shakespeare and “Game of Thrones”
Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 159

Based on his knowledge of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, Harvard’s Dr. Jeffrey R. Wilson knew just how HBO’s Game of Thrones would play out. Jon Snow, the illegitimate son, was a Richard III type, who would win the crown (and our hearts, in a love-to-hate-him kind of way). But Daenerys Targaryen, as a kind of Henry VII, would defeat him in battle and win it back, restoring peace and order. Turns out he was wrong about all of that.

But as Wilson kept watching, he began to appreciate the other ways Game of Thrones is similar to Shakespeare—like the way that both Shakespeare and George R.R. Martin’s stories translate the history of the Wars of the Roses into other popular genres.

Wilson’s new book, Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, explores some of the ways that Shakespeare influenced Game of Thrones… as well as some of the ways that Game of Thrones has begun to influence Shakespeare. Wilson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Pascal’s Wager and Hamlet

Pascal and Hamlet both struggle with the question of how to act under circumstances of constant uncertainty. Hamlet deeply desires conviction before he acts, while Pascal argues that our actions will lead to belief. And, since we can never be absolutely certain, only the highest in a set of probabilities should dictate our actions. Though they try to weigh finite probabilities against the infinite, both Hamlet and Pascal recognize that the human condition limits our ability to know the infinite consequences of our actions and choices. To understand these probabilities, Pascal reasons through rigid, calculable steps. His process contrasts sharply with Shakespeare’s representation of temperamental human logic in Hamlet. Hamlet’s distorted reasoning highlights our mortal tendency to fixate on even the smallest risks in the shadow of vast gain. As Shakespeare writes, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”.


Regardless of the strength or weakness of one’s conviction, acting with confidence (even if insincere at first) creates a stronger, genuine belief. Uncertainty, according to Pascal, can be overcome through action and outward show.

Conversely, Hamlet is immobilized by uncertainty. Unlike Pascal, Hamlet needs to believe in his choice of action before he can perform it. He is thoughtful to the point of obsession, and constantly puts off action for the sake of having a more solid reason to do it. Hamlet recognizes his own hesitancy, and often berates himself for not being as passionate and resolved as the actor is in relation to the fictional Hecuba, or as Fortinbras’ soldier is over an inconsequential piece of land. All the while that he, Hamlet, has the strongest reason to act – his father’s wrongful death and his mother’s disgraceful marriage – all he does is complain:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A stallion! Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brains.

Student Essay
Brumbaugh, Victoria. “Action and Uncertainty in Pascal’s Wager and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”

The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability
https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/literature/21l-017-the-art-of-the-probable-literature-and-probability-spring-2008/assignments/

Course Description
“The Art of the Probable” addresses the history of scientific ideas, in particular the emergence and development of mathematical probability. But it is neither meant to be a history of the exact sciences per se nor an annex to, say, the Course 6 curriculum in probability and statistics. Rather, our objective is to focus on the formal, thematic, and rhetorical features that imaginative literature shares with texts in the history of probability. These shared issues include (but are not limited to): the attempt to quantify or otherwise explain the presence of chance, risk, and contingency in everyday life; the deduction of causes for phenomena that are knowable only in their effects; and, above all, the question of what it means to think and act rationally in an uncertain world.

How chance the King comes with so small a number?

Fool
And thou hadst been set i’ the stocks for that
question, thou hadst well deserved it.

KENT
Why, fool?

Fool
We’ll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee
there’s no labouring i’ the winter. All that follow
their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and
there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him
that’s stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel
runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with
following it: but the great one that goes up the
hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man
gives thee better counsel, give me mine again: I
would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.

King Lear

Diderot, Garrick, King Lear

ROACH: Yes, well Diderot comments on that in the Paradox of the Actor, which you alluded to a moment ago. It was a demonstration of facial physiognomy, of control over the face and its expression, that paralleled a pianist playing scales. Garrick started on one emotion, and then ran his face through nine distinct emotions, recognizable, stopped, and ran his face back down through the same sequence, but in reverse, just as you would play a scale on the piano.

BOGAEV: Wow. And these two screens are kind of like a frame, a picture frame or a door frame?

ROACH: Yeah, they’re like a proscenium to frame his face. So it was just the face coming through. And that—to your point about did he need a full-body posture or movement to work his magic—the answer is as long as it was close enough, he could do it with his face alone.

BOGAEV: So, talk about a rubber face. So Diderot, as you say, wrote these passages in the Paradox that he attributed to Garrick and Garrick’s voice. He has Garrick talking about acting and also about the type of person that an actor should envision himself portraying, and he talks about an ideal man, as opposed to playing oneself. Garrick says that if you play only yourself, you’ll be a crappy actor, a mediocre actor.

ROACH: Yes, yes. That’s exactly…  You’ll be mediocre. It is a being that you imagine, that you bring into being, by the force of your creative imagination. And when you think of it, it’s an extraordinary thing to, as it were, give birth to a human being who’s not yourself, but the distillation of all that you have observed and remembered and felt, and then can recombine to put it into the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

BOGAEV: Can you give us some examples of where you see this in action?

ROACH: Diderot…

BOGAEV: For instance, he did Lear.

ROACH: Yes, yes. So that would be a good example because it was one of his most famous and successful Shakespearean roles. And he left a note behind, it was actually to the French when he was giving his parlor exhibition of Lear, and he explained how he came to his understanding of the crushing tragedy of Lear’s loss of his daughter. Garrick had heard tell of a madman who was kept confined in a private home nearby where Garrick lived, and he got permission to study the gestures of this madman, which consisted of an impassioned reenactment of a terrible event. And again and again and again, this poor man would go over this, a traumatized memory that he kept repeating and repeating. Evidently, he’d been holding his child in his arms on an upper story window while a parade went by outside, and he lost his grip on his little girl, and she fell to her death in the street below. His tragedy was reenacting this. Garrick had the insight that this was the Lear action. Garrick would reenact this madman’s gestures and then coolly step back and say, “Thus it was I learned to imitate madness.”

Joseph Roach interviewed by Barbara Bogaev
Shakespeare Unlimited

https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/joseph-roach-acting

Hamlet as improv part …

Hamlet is a tragedy where there is a part left open, as a part is left open for an improvisational actor in farce. But here the part is left open for a tragedian.

He is fundamentally bored, and for that reason he acts theatrically. The play is written entirely out of spite against actors, and by its nature the role of Hamlet cannot be done by an actor. An actor can act everything except an actor. Hamlet should be played by an actor brought in off the street, and the rest of the characters should be professional actors. The point about Hamlet is that he is an actor and you can’t act yourself. You can only be yourself.

W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare

Rosalind on travel, As You Like It

ROSALIND. A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

ROSALIND. Farewell, Monsieur Traveller; look you lisp and wear strange suits, disable all the benefits of your own country, be out of love with your nativity, and almost chide God for making you that countenance you are; or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola.

As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 1