Reading Shakespeare = Playing Chess ?

So I’ve been discussing quite a bit lately. I’m finally getting into a stride where I have a number of sources of good discussion to keep me going and not just lecture my coworkers. I also started playing SuDoku this week as well, which has gotten me thinking about chess and “game trees” (have I mentioned how much of a geek I am?)

What I thought of last night is just how similar “analyzing” Shakespeare is to a good game of chess. Mathematically speaking, the number of possible positions in a chess game is effectively infinite. Much like, say, the number of interpretations of Hamlet. The so called “best” positions, though, are the ones that have been travelled the most and studied for years by the masters. They have come to be the best not because it’s been proven to be so (otherwise there would never be any upsets in a chess game, it would be ‘solved’ as we say in computerspeak). Part of chess is to listen to the experts all look at the same board and say “Here is what I would do in this position, and why…” and “Past masters in this situation did the following.” The only definition of a “wrong” move is one that can be demonstrated to be wrong, aka one that loses the game for you. Even if all the masters say that the right move is knight to d4, and you opt instead to go Queen to b6, then you certainly have that option. But you’d better be in a position to prove why your move is better than the recommended one. It might seem impossible, since there is such a vast body of knowledge already in place that tells you to do something else. But if you believe strongly enough that your move is correct, then go for it. You might be right. You might change the wisdom.

The parallels to thinking about Hamlet are just outstanding. Is Hamlet insane, or not? There’s no right answer – there’s just the answer that the “masters” have for the most part come to agree upon. If you feel that there is sufficient evidence for both options (or branches of the game tree), then it is up to you personally to decide which you feel is stronger. The same strategy can be applied throughout the whole play. Whenever there is a crucial question, you can say “What does popular opinion say?” and simply take it using the “Others know better than me” approach, or else you can peek under the covers and realize that there are actually many options at each of these points, and you can find a substantial bit of evidence for all of them. Then you get to decide which you like better.

Who knows, you might suddenly discover that an idea has come to you based entirely on how you’ve read the play thus far, and now you go from the other direction, you ask yourself “My idea is X, what’s the popular opinion on that?” Not “is it right or wrong”, but “what have other people thought about it?” And, again, you decide for yourself whether you buy it or not.

In chess, there is an “end game”. That is, the final sequence of moves where you have less and less choice about what is going to happen. If you’ve played well thus far, you will be on top during the end game and hopefully be victorious. If you have not, then you’ll suddenly discover that you made a mistake a dozen moves ago and it’s been inevitable ever since. (This is almost exactly where that sudoku puzzle thing I mentioned resembles chess, you fill in a square that you think is right but only 12 moves later do you realize it was a mistake and you have to go all the way back). The interpretation of the play is the same way. If you hit your first crucial question and choose an interpretation, but then by the end of the game you’re saying “Wait, now, that doesn’t make sense….” then you have to consider going back and revising your answer.

The crucial difference, of course, is that a chess game must end, and there is a winner and a loser. Technically, I suppose, you could have winners and losers of Shakespeare interpretation if you staged all the various combinations and then looked to see which ones bombed at the box office :). But that’s pushing my metaphor a bit.

Just something to think about when you’re cruising through the plays looking for the “right” answer to some fundamental question. Chances are there’s no right answer any more than there is a “right” move in the middle of grandmaster chess game. Is Hamlet insane or not? Does Gertrude know about the murder or not? What do *you* think?

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