Can A Computer Recite The Sonnets?

Here’s a challenge for the programmers out there. Once upon a time, when I was a younger man with “hacking” time on my hands, I would have already been all over this. Instead, now I’ll put it out into the universe in the hopes that someone else is in a position to take up the challenge.

A recent post on Reddit claimed to be a recitation of the sonnets over some video from one of the Halo computer games. The problem, it was just classic computer “text to speech (TTS)”. Which, you’ve probably experienced, is painful to listen to – no pacing, no inflection, no sense at all of what it’s reading. I suggested to the original poster that it was like listening to somebody read the dictionary.

But then I got an idea. Text to speech technology has actually gotten much better than it was in the old days. Machine learning has given the engine some degree of understanding of how words go together, and the whole point of punctuation. In fact, Amazon offers a cloud service known as Polly that is specifically all about “lifelike speech”.

So now I’m wondering, what would it take to tweak a TTS engine to make a reasonable recitation of the sonnets? Something that feels the iambic pentameter, and sounds like it’s actually reading poetry as it was intended to be read. Of course, it’s not going to be Alan Rickman’s quality, I get that. I’m just wondering if it can be better.

There are a couple of ways to go about this. One obvious one is to pick a sonnet, and then manually create a transcription of the text into the special codes that tell the TTS engine exactly what to do — emphasize this syllable over that one, pause longer here, make an “oo” sound here instead of an “oh”.

That by itself is maybe a couple of hours of work. A proof of concept, as they say in our biz. Tweak it, play it, go back and tweak it some more.

But then, can we learn from that? Can we bring machine learning into it? You’d probably need to do this for more than one sonnet, but I think you could train something fairly easily to look at those few, let’s say half a dozen, and extract the underlying patterns. Then turn it loose on the next couple and see what you get.

Like all machine learning, it would be an incremental exercise, constantly going back and throwing more training data at it until you start to be happy with the results. But how cool would it be if you had to train it on less (substantially less) than the entire 154, and before you were done it was reciting the remaining ones on its own?

Then, for the real fun, switch gears and throw some soliloquies at it and see how it does!

Who’s up for the challenge? The more I described it the more I wish I could tackle it myself. Maybe I’ll end up trying a manual transcription job anyway, just to kick it off and see where I get?

Ok, Anybody Out There Know How To Draw?

I had an idea for a new merchandise design – a very simple “All the World’s a Stage” font with a prominent display of the iconic tragedy/comedy theatre masks in some nice bright colors.

There’s about a zillion t-shirts out there that just show the quote, and maybe throw some clip art on it. I thought it would be fun to do something with actual original artwork. Something unique that someone else can’t easily rip off.

And, I thought, where better to get such artwork but an audience of Shakespeare geeks? I can’t draw. My visual skills are limited to taking other images and playing with them in photoshop until they get some interesting (eh) twist.

I’m wondering if there’s somebody out there who might be able to draw something like that for me? I’m putting it out there, it’s something I want to put on merchandise. I’m happy to send you a t-shirt (or coffee mug or tote bag or whatever you pick) as payment, if you like. And I’ll credit you accordingly, both in a specific blog post thank you as well as in the actual product description (to the extent I am able).

You know the image I’m talking about, right? Something like this…

But, you know, more interesting. The two should overlap a little. Definitely want the ribbon/string, it’ll give another element to color. The faces can have more personality, but should retain that minimalist, iconic representation so it’s more about the image as a whole and not about looking at the details of each individual mask. Personally I like big black outlines emphasizing the image, as if it could easily be represented as a pure line drawing – but that’s just my personal style, and like I said, I’m not the one drawing it. But it’s got to be something that really pops on merchandise and separates itself from background colors.

Any takers? I know I’m probably asking a lot but you never know unless you ask,maybe there’s some folks out there that love doing stuff exactly like this.

Thanks in advance! I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Maybe we can have a contest 🙂

When You Have No Mind’s Eye

Not how I would have pictured him, but that’s not saying much.

I’ve long been fascinated with “visualization,” mostly because I discovered that I can’t do it. You know that thing when someone says, “Close your eyes. Picture yourself standing on a beach. A woman approaches, carrying a box…?” I have no picture in my mind. I can’t tell you whether there’s other people in the scene, or how old the woman is or what she looks like, or the color or size of the box. It’s more like my brain just establishes the connected concepts and says, “Ok, yup, on the beach, woman carrying a box. Next?”

I learned in college that people actually *do* see a picture in their head. Maybe you, dear reader, are one of them (you probably are). Consider the scene I described. What does the woman look like? What color is the box? Are there other people around? What’s the sky like? You probably have answers to all of those things.

My kids recently taught me the word “aphantasia” to describe this. They’re fascinated with it. “You have no mind’s eye!” they’ll tell me, astonished. Whether they realize they’re borrowing from Hamlet, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it. When we talk about math I’m astonished that they tell me they literally visualize numbers lining up in columns, and when they say things like “carry the 1” they really see the 1 moving over to the next column. I get none of that. Numbers to me are just quantities, they have no visual component. They can’t imagine it working like that.

This isn’t just a random rant about the inner workings on my brain. I’m wondering whether or not it’s precisely because of aphantasia that I’m interested in theatre, and Shakespeare specifically. See, I don’t know or care about how anything looks. I have no picture of Hamlet or Ophelia or Gertrude. People talk about “a director’s vision” and I think, “Nope, I could never be a director.” All I have, and all I care about, is the words. So the words are 99% of the experience for me, and the fact that every production of the play brings forth a new visual interpretation just adds to it.

Audio is excellent, too, by the way. This is not a “read only” type of thing. I’m perfectly happy to have the words acted out for me, to put all the emphasis in the right place. But literally at no point do I picture a snivelly little hunched Claudius or a big fat Claudius. He is entirely defined for me by the words that come out of his mouth, which are what define him in relation to the other characters. So when someone else puts a visual to him and I get to see Claudius? I never, ever think, “That’s not how I pictured him.” I almost always think, “Ok, interesting, let’s see how well the visual connects to the words.”

Ok, that’s it for a Sunday night. Just something I’m thinking about, with no pictures.

What Are Your Top Five Shakespeare Plays?

Yeah, that’s right, I’m doing one of these. But, there’s a twist!

I think it’s impossible to take a list of 38 plays spanning tragedy, comedy and history and compare them equally. It’s like asking your favorite food, or song. You need some sort of context. Favorite for what? Relative to what?

Here’s mine:

Hollywood called. There’s a new rule that nobody can make any more Shakespeare movies without the approval of actual Shakespeare fans, so it’s up to us. We’ve got to make a list of the most desired “Please make a modern movie version of <play>” plays, and they get to choose from that list.

Go. Everybody gets 5, in order of preference. Feel free to elaborate whether you want to see a particular kind of adaptation / interpretation, but it’s not required. If I get enough people to play I’ll crunch the numbers and post the final list. Who knows, maybe there really are some movie producers out there looking for a new project? You have to put it out there in the universe if you want to see it exist!

My Selections

5) Much Ado About Nothing

I think the two most well-known movies we’ve got, Kenneth Branagh’s and Joss Whedon’s, are excellent. But I’ll take more. I think Much Ado is as close to the modern “romantic comedy” as any of Shakespeare’s plays might get, and it’s a perfect date night introduction to an audience that might not otherwise think about going to see Shakespeare.

4) Twelfth Night

I think the time is right for someone to really get in there and explore all the issues of gender and sexuality found in this one.

3) Hamlet

What can I say, I’m a bit of a purist. I don’t really need to see another Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, but I can pick apart Hamlets all day. Look what David Tennant did, look what Benedict Cumberbatch did, look what Kevin Kline or Derek Jacobi or Laurence Olivier or Mel Gibson did. Where does it work, where does it fail, and why? Does this Hamlet love his father or fear him? Does this Gertrude know about Claudius’ guilt or not? There’s nearly infinite variety. As I write that I’m imagining some sort of “express Hamlet“, like a one-man show version, that all young up-and-coming actors must tackle so we have a baseline for how they do it.

2) King Lear

I want a modern retelling of Lear. This play is as much a challenge for the audience as it is for the actors. While I consider it a masterpiece and a true honor to witness a production, I am still hesitant to say to any friends and family, “Hey, come see King Lear with me.” Hamlet has been approachable enough for so long that it’s been stripped down to its elements and built back up. I want that for Lear, so more people can experience even a part of it. I hesitate to say it, but yes since people are no doubt thinking it, I’m open to a “Lion King for King Lear.” (And yes, for those others thinking it, I’ve seen A Thousand Acres)

1) The Tempest

So I’m predictable, sue me. I’ve loved The Tempest since my children were little. You can tell it as a fairy tale, as a romance, as a comedy, as a revenge (forgiveness?) story. I’ve written for years that I think Disney could do a version. I understand that it’s got some issues around “colonialism” but I’ve just never really chosen to look at the play that way. For me, it will always be primarily about a father literally positioning himself as a god over the bubble universe that he created for his daughter’s well-being and his realization and acceptance that he has to relinquish that power and let her go. I think we’re still waiting for a definitive version of this one.

How Out Was Kit Marlowe?

I asked a variation of this question a few weeks ago on Twitter and Facebook but nobody took me up on it. Since those two channels are very time-sensitive (if you’re not there when it’s posted you’ll usually miss it forever), I thought I’d post it here as well. I still get traffic on posts from ten years ago.

The question is this. We love to debate whether Shakespeare was gay. But from everything I’ve read we all seem to be in agreement that Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s popular contemporary, definitely was. Can somebody who is expert in this area elaborate a little bit?

Do we have actual evidence in Marlowe’s words? Or just an interpretation of his work that’s a little more on the nose than Shakespeare’s?

If it is somehow obvious now, was it also obvious then? What would it have meant to be a gay man in Elizabethan England?

And the most interesting question to me, would Shakespeare (and Marlowe’s other fellow writers) have known? How exactly would that play out? Maybe it’s one of those “poorly kept secrets,” where he was never really “out” to the world, but only his inner circle?

Of course, this is all based on my assumption that Shakespeare and Marlowe knew each other quite well. Marlowe didn’t die until Shakespeare was something like 29 years old. Aren’t there parts of Henry VI that are direct homages to Marlowe? I could be entirely wrong here.

I hope somebody out there knows what I’m trying to say. It feels like what we “know” about Marlowe must open up more questions than it answers. But I’ve never really seen much discussion about the answers to those questions.