Discover more from Papyrus Rampant
Showing Shakespeare's Talent Without Meaning To
"A Chooseable-Path Adventure" and Tragic Flaws
Some time ago, I came across and read To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure, by Ryan North, which's a choose-your-own-adventure book set in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It was written to be fun, and it is. It wasn't written to be a serious analysis of Shakespeare's play, but we can use it to springboard one anyway!
This book lets you play as any of three people (Hamlet or Ophelia or Hamlet's father's ghost), making any number of choices springing the plot in any number of directions. You can investigate the ghost world, you can join the pirate crew and raid England, you can actually kill Claudius quickly and avenge Hamlet's father's death... or you can play through the narrative of Shakespeare's play. There's always one choice that takes you in that direction.
Of course, taking that choice might seem counterintuitive, counterproductive, and just plain stupid.
This's because Shakespeare's tragedies are tragedies of character. The protagonist is mostly a good, wise man - but he has one tragic flaw. He's unlucky enough to be in just the wrong plot, which presses on that flaw until it brings him to disaster and death. As Aristotle put it, the tragic hero is someone "whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty". Romeo and Juliet are impetuous; Macbeth is overambitious; Othello is oversuspicious; Hamlet is indecisive. The particular "frailty" or tragic flaw is matched to the particular plot: if Macbeth and Hamlet were in each other's plays, they would've settled everything without any problems at all.
In the same way, if you the reader are in Hamlet's play, you're going to solve the problem quickly. You're quickly going to either kill Claudius or decide not to; either way, To Be Or Not To Be lets you do that and then sometimes run off to other events in the world. In real life, you might be more cautious, though probably not in the same ways as Hamlet. But this's a book; you want to choose and read about exciting events. A reader will instantly take the ghost's charge as the call to adventure which it is, and press on to kill King Claudius. As the book testifies, this gives a much shorter and less-satisfactory story than Shakespeare's.
Against such a contrast, Shakespeare's actual tale can hardly but seem silly: the result of weeks of meticulous, unnecessary stepping and confirmation. The book plays this silliness up in tone, phrasing, and structure. And it's not totally wrong - from one angle, Hamlet's repeated testing and dallying is stupid. It is, literally, his tragic flaw.
Unfortunately, To Be Or Not To Be doesn't mention or reflect any of this. It's an unfortunate missed opportunity. Instead, the book doesn't just poke fun at Hamlet the character - it also pokes fun at Hamlet the play.
I'm not saying this's necessarily a bad thing. It is a fun book in its own right, though I hope that it doesn't discourage anyone from seeking out or appreciating Shakespeare. In our modern day, we don't need any more discouragement from that.
And frankly, even if North had wanted to point to Hamlet's tragic flaw, he still would have only caught half of the beauty of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plots are, frankly, mediocre by modern-day standards. (Though even then, having read his contemporary Marlowe's Faust, I'm convinced Shakespeare's plots were good for his day.) Half of Shakespeare's real talent was a good appreciation of what was essential in the tragic form, as opposed to what wasn't - for example, Aristotle's other admonition about "union of time," which had been misinterpreted to say that a tragedy should take place within a 24-hour period. This can be easily carried through to any adaptation of Shakespeare, should the adapter care to. West Side Story, for instance, did it beautifully.
But Shakespeare's other great talent was for language. His blank verse has beautiful language, including so many turns of speech that Shakespeare coined himself or at least wrote down the earliest surviving references to. Beyond that, it paints marvelous word-pictures. The beauty was there, rather than visible on the stage - he had next to no backdrops or props, which is why so many scenes are recounted through messengers (who could use language) rather than seen onstage (where they would have to be visible instead). As he puts in the mouth of his Chorus in Henry V:
Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder: Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; Into a thousand parts divide on man, And make imaginary puissance.
His audiences clearly took his invitation; they loved his plays. But this whole style feels weird in the modern day. And beyond that, language has moved on beyond Shakespeare. My quote from Henry V doesn't contain any words whose meaning has changed, but even so, its whole construction and usage is far removed from modern speech. If you aren't used to that sort of language, you need to take a minute to puzzle it out. Shakespeare's beauty is now hidden.
Any adaptation of Shakespeare that tries to honor all his talent will have a very hard time with language. West Side Story doesn't even try. That was probably the right decision there. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does use some of Shakespeare's original language, but it does so to create a sense of artificiality and distance in those scenes. I'm not aware of anyone who's done it well for a general audience, which is a pity.
To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure isn't a bad book in itself. But, it's a great missed opportunity. It could quite easily showcase half of Shakespeare's talent... but it doesn't. Or if it does, it does so inadvertently and invisibly to the casual reader. It’s fun in its own right. But I wish it were more than it is.
Thanks for reading Papyrus Rampant! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.