Four times Shakespeare inspired stories about robots and AI
Science fiction is a genre strongly associated with technological marvels, innovations and visions of the future. It may therefore be surprising that so many of its writers are drawn to Shakespeare – he is a figure associated with tradition and the past.
Sometimes his pieces are reworked in a science fiction setting. The 1956 film Forbidden Planet is just one of many variations on the “Storm in Space” theme. Sometimes the playwright appears as a character caught up in a time travel adventure.
The Dr Who episode, The Shakespeare Code, is a well-known example. Here, the Doctor praises Shakespeare’s genius, describing him as “the most humane human”.
I explored this topic in my recent book on Shakespeare and Science Fiction. Here are some of my favorite examples of how science fiction has embraced — and transformed — Shakespeare.
Titus Andronicus in Space In Esther Friesner’s 1994 humorous short story, Titus! an AI simulation of Shakespeare prevents a disastrous musical version of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, from alienating a cultured pangalactic federation through its sheer bad taste.
It was a strange example of life imitating art. Around the same time Friesner dreamed up his delightfully dreadful version of Titus Andronicus, Steve Bannon, who would later become Donald Trump’s chief political strategist, co-wrote an adaptation of the play set in outer space with ectoplasmic sex scenes.
King Lear and the Sentient Computer Program Science fiction writers often offer new twists on Shakespeare’s question whether the Bard wrote all of his plays. Was he a man from Stratford-upon-Avon? While conventional candidates like Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford have been offered by some, science fiction offers more imaginative solutions, including the claim that the playwright was really a Klingon.
In Jack Oakley’s 1994 story The Tragedy of KL, a computer program is designed to establish the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays once and for all. The program begins to become aware of itself and decides to leave its daily tasks to its subordinates.
It soon becomes clear that the program is in fact re-enacting King Lear – the play in which a king tries to step down from ruling his kingdom, with disastrous consequences. A rebellious piece of code stars as Lear’s loving but stubborn daughter, Cordelia. Eventually, the program implodes – and its creators never suspect that anything more mysterious than a virus was at work.
Commander Data plays Prospero Star Trek is one of the richest sources of allusions to Shakespeare in science fiction. In the 1994 episode Emergence, the android Lieutenant Commander Data plays the role of exiled magician Prospero from The Tempest on the holodeck.
Just as he cites Prospero’s mysterious claim that he brought the dead back to life, the Enterprise’s journey is interrupted by an unexpected storm.
The Storm also begins with a ship being thrown off course by a (magical) storm, and a curious connection is implied between Data’s performance and the discovery of a strange new being on the ship, and the emergence of a consciousness artificial.
And Robots Play Hamlet Nick O’Donohoe’s novel Too, Too Solid Flesh centers on a robot theater troupe programmed to play Hamlet to perfection for the amusement of near-future New York City. When their inventor (the aptly named Dr. Capek) dies, the robot playing Hamlet sets out to uncover the truth and – just like Shakespeare’s original prince – avenge his creator’s murder.
This is just one example of a strange apparent association between Hamlet and robots. The earliest example is probably WS Gilbert’s play The Mountebanks (1892), which features a sentient Hamlet and Ophelia as an automaton. More recent examples include Louise LePage’s Machine-Hamlet, a short film in which a robot called Baxter plays the Dane.
Why does Hamlet – apparently one of Shakespeare’s most three-dimensional characters – invite so many robotic reinventions? Is there something almost computer-like about the character’s incredibly quick intelligence? He strikes many readers as remarkably “real”, seeming to jump off the page (or stage), aware that he is trapped there as well as at the Danish court.
It is perhaps this sense of struggle to escape that best explains his uncanny affinity with robots. The illusion of self-awareness created by Shakespeare serves to align the prince with the many sci-fi androids who seek to escape their limits and achieve sentience.
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