Merry Little Christmas to Me!

A joyous Epiphany to you all! I didn’t think I would have anything to post this holiday season, but it turns out I got some Shakespeare stuff after all!

Be these the wretches that we play’d at dice for?

My oldest told us all ahead of time that college had been particularly busy this year and that everybody would be getting their presents at some point after the holiday. This added a level of fun because each person got their present separately instead of getting lost in the chaos of the big day.

Both my daughters, at one point or another, fancied themselves writers — my oldest won NaNoWriMo at one point, and her younger sister is in fact, a published novelist. So we have a collection of story cubes scattered around the house. You’ve perhaps seen them, each side of each die has an icon – a man, a woman, an alien, a weapon, an animal … – and you use them however creatively you like to take turns making up stories.

You see where I’m going with this? Behold, from the brains behind Upstart Crow Creations … Shakespeare’s Plot Device Dice (which I’m inevitably going to continue to call Shakespeare Story Cubes)!

Five dice and six sides yield thirty symbols. Luckily there’s a guide to them all because some of the artwork does make you go, “uhhh…??” But how would you iconically show madness? or fate?

My only nitpick is the Death face which is labeled “Only Mostly Dead”. Don’t you be sneaking Princess Bride references into my Shakespeare toys 😉 Just kidding. I get it, and I appreciate it, but it is definitely out of place. There’s also “The Mighty Pen”, which I hope isn’t a reference to “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Because, you know, Shakespeare didn’t write that.

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice, which is the better man?

Like so many of my Shakespeare toys, I have no idea what I will do with this. But I’m happy to add it to my collection! I prefer to think of myself as more Smaug on his horde of gold than Gollum and his precious. My wife thought it was a game to play. I suppose technically it is, just not in the competitive sense. It’s more about storytelling. In theory, people go around the room and build a story collaboratively using what the dice tell them. My daughter chose it for me for inspiration because I, too, have attempted the NaNoWriMo challenge in the past. She thought I could use them when I get stuck on plot ideas.

I’m thinking about a game where you guess the play based purely on the dice (like with emojis). If I get any good results, you’ll be the first to know!

Christmas in Shakespeare’s Plays?

I continue playing with ChatGPT in as many varied ways as I can imagine. Last night I asked it to write me a blog post on “Christmas in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Here’s what I got. Let’s dissect!

The celebration of Christmas has a long and varied history, and it has been depicted in literature and art for centuries. In the plays of William Shakespeare, Christmas is often portrayed as a time of joy, celebration, and reflection.

Fine, I guess. Generic.

One of the most well-known references to Christmas in Shakespeare’s plays is in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this play, the character Bottom describes a dream he had in which he was transformed into an ass and danced at a Christmas feast. This humorous portrayal of Christmas is a lighthearted example of the way in which the holiday was often depicted in Elizabethan England.

…what? After all these years I’ve still got some pretty hefty impostor syndrome when it comes to Shakespeare, so whenever it said Bottom references “dancing at a Christmas feast” my first thought was, “He does? Why don’t I remember that?” So I went looking:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

I even went into the Quarto versions. I’m aware that just searching “Christmas” isn’t going to yield a hit, but so far I see nothing even close. I asked on Twitter, and others didn’t seem to know, either. Hmm. Ok, moving on.

In “Henry V,” Shakespeare references the Christmas season in a more serious manner. The play takes place during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and it tells the story of King Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt. In one scene, the king speaks to his troops on the eve of the battle, reminding them that it is Christmas time and encouraging them to fight for their country.

It’s Christmas Time? <asks Google to remind me when St. Crispin’s Day is> October. Again, I’ll plead ignorance and ask, is there a connection here? Would you call Agincourt “Christmas time”? Ok, one more.

“Twelfth Night” is another play that features Christmas as a prominent theme. The play is set in Illyria during the Christmas season and follows the misadventures of the character Viola, who disguises herself as a man after being shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. In one memorable scene, the character Sir Toby Belch gets drunk and sings a song about Christmas, declaring it to be “a time for joy, a time for love, a time for peace on earth.”

This is just a no. Twelfth Night is named for when the play was performed, not for the plot. It doesn’t mention anything related to Christmas or the Christmas season at all. And, much like Bottom’s Dream, I have no clue what song of Sir Toby’s it’s talking about. The word “peace” pretty much only appears in the play when people are saying “Hold thy peace.” Joy doesn’t appear at all. No version of “a time for” anything appears at all.

Overall, Shakespeare’s plays depict Christmas as a time of joy, celebration, and reflection. Whether it is through humorous references or more serious themes, the holiday is an important part of the fabric of Elizabethan England and continues to be a beloved tradition today.

And we wrap up with the generic, basically repeating the intro paragraph. This is what I used to teach my kids as the “middle school format”. Make a statement, say what your essay will show. Three paragraphs demonstrating your point. Conclude by restating your original argument.

At first glance I only picked up on Bottom’s Dream and thought, “Oh, interesting, I wonder what bug caused that.” But upon further reading and realization that it’s entirely wrong and just flat out making stuff up, my whole attitude toward the program has changed. A student tasked with looking for Christmas references in Shakespeare’s works could be given this response and assume every word of it is true. I sent me feedback to the creators (which you’re supposed to do, that’s one of the reasons it’s free for people), but I don’t expect it’s something they can address. Where do you even look for the source of something like that?

On that note, Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope everybody gets lots of Shakespeare Geek Merchandise!

The Story of Hamlet and the Eunuch

David Garrick as Hamlet, hearing what ChatGPT has in mind.

When people talk about using ChatGPT to write your content for you, I don’t think this is what they had in mind. But it sure is fun!

I’ve never been tested for ADHD, but if you asked me I’d say that I have what I’ll dub “rabbit hole ADHD.” That’s when I’m sitting behind the computer trying (claiming?) to work, while there’s a tv show on in the background that I’ve seen enough times that I have the dialogue memorized, when all of a sudden I’ll say, “Hey, that character that just delivered pizza, I wonder if she’s ever been in anything else?” And then it’s off to IMDB I go to see who she is, read her bio, check out her filmography, and generally start reading the trivia pages. Joey’s grandmother mentions Capricorn One, that starred Elliot Gould, who played Ross and Monica’s father? Oh, wow, the woman who played the grandmother played Mother Superior in the 1980s Christmas-themed horror movie Silent Night, Deadly Night. I remember that one! Apparently they wanted to call it Slayride, which is funny because years later professional wrestler Goldberg would star in a similar movie called Santa’s Slay…”

You get the idea. So if that didn’t set your head spinning yet, brace yourself.

Bardfilm and I are talking about the sonnets, and he provides an academic citation for an argument that I like, stating that it “cuts it off at the source.” This leads to a handful of stream of consciousness jokes, and I want to make a eunuch joke so I go do some quick scanning of Antony and Cleopatra to make sure I have my references right. Because while it’s fun to be quick with a joke, you still have to be accurate.

Bardfilm turns our back and forth into a poem. I know that people have been having fun with ChatGPT asking it to write poems, so I ask it to write a poem about eunuchs. I keep trying to catch it off guard. Nope, it gave me a poem. A bad one, but, you know. Still.

I asked it for a limerick instead, and got one. Again, a bad one.

I then asked it if there are any eunuchs in Shakespeare and it not only told me about Mardian in Antony and Cleopatra and Aaron from Titus Andronicus, but also a reference to Dromio Comedy of Errors where it made it a point to comment that that last one’s probably not true, and just a joke. Impressive.

Then I asked where a eunuch might fit in Hamlet. It gave me a dozen ideas:

For example, the eunuch could be a servant in the royal court of Denmark, where the play is set. They could be a confidant or advisor to one of the main characters, such as Hamlet or the king. Alternatively, the eunuch could be a member of a foreign delegation or embassy, visiting Denmark and bringing news from the outside world.

How far can we push this thing? I asked it, “can you write a scene between Gertrude and a eunuch envoy from Norway?” and it said sure, no problem, and gave me one. Then I said, “now add polonius.” And it did. This thing never blinks. I have yet to get a “I have no idea what you just asked me” or “I don’t know how to do that” response. A lot of “I understand what you asked for and I can’t do that” but never a “I don’t know what you said”.

Ready for the scene it wrote, now featuring Polonius? Here you go!

Gertrude: Welcome to Denmark, honorable envoy. How may I assist you?

Eunuch: Your majesty, I am here on behalf of the king of Norway. He has heard of the recent events in your kingdom and wishes to offer his condolences.

Gertrude: That is kind of him. Please convey my thanks to your king.

Eunuch: I will do so, your majesty. However, there is also a matter of great importance that I must discuss with you.

Gertrude: And what is that?

Eunuch: The king of Norway has received a proposal of marriage from your son, Prince Hamlet. He wishes to know your opinion on the matter.

Polonius: Your majesty, if I may interject. I believe this is a matter that requires careful consideration. Prince Hamlet has been acting very strangely lately, and we must ensure that any decisions made are in the best interests of the kingdom.

Gertrude: Thank you, Lord Polonius. I will take your advice under consideration.

Eunuch: I understand, your majesty. The king of Norway is aware of Prince Hamlet’s reputation and does not wish to cause any trouble. He simply wants to know if the marriage proposal should be considered.

Gertrude: I will discuss the matter with my advisors and the prince himself. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Eunuch: Of course, your majesty. I will await your response.

Gertrude: Thank you, envoy. You may take your leave.

Eunuch: Thank you, your majesty. I will return with your answer in due time.

Polonius: I will make sure to inform the prince of this development and advise him accordingly.

Gertrude: Thank you, Lord Polonius. Let us hope that this matter can be resolved peacefully.

King of a Romeo and Juliet “unite the warring families” sort of ending, if you ask me!

The Merch(andise) of Shakespeare(Geek)

Straight Outta Birnam Wood - ShakespeareGeek Merchandise

The following post is pretty much blatant product shilling for Shakespeare Geek merchandise, so if that’s not something you’re interest in, here’s your chance to just skip this one!

‘Tis the season, everybody! I haven’t blatantly shilled any Shakespeare Geek Merchandise lately, because I always feel very uncomfortable doing that. But then I remind myself that you can’t buy Shakespeare Geek merchandise if you don’t know about it, and this is the perfect time of year when people will be thinking, “I wonder what I can get that Shakespeare-crazy friend of mine that they don’t already have?” and that’s where I come in.

Let’s do this in two steps. If I were indeed in this to make money, I’m sure by this point, I could have gotten much better at this. But I’m not, so it’s still a little haphazard.

First — I have a storefront on Redbubble. This is where you can get a wider variety of *types* of merchandise – stickers, phone cases, tote bags, hats, face masks … but t-shirts are there, too. Not all of my designs are up there, but they have a cool way of writing directly to the shop owner (me!), so I can take requests. I just filled two this past week.

Click Here to Shop Shakespeare Geek Merchandise on Redbubble!

Second — Ok, now let’s talk about Amazon, the gorilla in the room. Clearly, Amazon is a merchandise creator’s dream, bringing all the traffic volume (it goes up to 11, you might even say). My biggest problem with Amazon has always been that they do not offer a one-stop “Here’s a link to all your merch” solution. It’s spread out not only across product types but across international domains! So if you see something on Amazon.com, chances are it’s on Amazon.co.uk as well, but there’s no easy way for me to get you there.

The closest I’m able to provide is this Amazon Search of the ShakespeareGeek Brand, but it’s only for the US site, and I’m still not sure it represents all of my stuff (and it’s definitely not ordered in any useful or interesting way).

Click Here To Shop Shakespeare Geek Merchandise on Amazon!

To make this a little easier, here are direct links to some of my recent best sellers! Note that all of these links will show men’s t-shirts, and I can’t always pick what color to highlight. But just about every product is available in various styles of colors, including women’s and children’s. Some are available as sweatshirts. You just kind of have to click around and explore. Note that all of my stuff is branded “Shakespeare Geek” – there’s a lot of Shakespeare merch on Amazon, and it’s not all me.

Show some love for the Rude Mechanicals! I’m just now thinking, “Why didn’t I put Bottom on the Bottom???”
Everybody loves the “Straight Outta” shirts, I think all the versions I did are some of my best sellers.
I’m sad that this one seems to have poor reviews, but they are on the physical shirt that Amazon provides, not about my design. Looks like they might run small?
Pair this one with the Rude Mechanicals version and see how many people recognize it! I can’t remember if I made a fairies version, but if I didn’t, I will have to.
Click through this one to see the better color combinations, I don’t like this screenshot but I can’t easily change it. On this one, I deliberately put Bottom on top, both to emphasize that it’s Bottom’s Dream but also because I thought Puck would enjoy being the one who’s upside down.
Didn’t I say the Straight Outta shirts were best-sellers? This one makes the most sense to me, plotwise.

Wrapping It Up

See what I did there? While I’m wrapping up this post, you can wrap up all the great new Shakespeare Geek merchandise you bought for people! Ha!

Ok, that’s enough links. If you’re going to click, I’ve given you plenty to click. If I don’t get the chance later, let me take this opportunity to thank you all for your support over the years. The mission has been and always will be to get more Shakespeare out into the world – Shakespeare makes life better! But the reality of that world is that money makes it go around, so when you’re able to purchase Shakespeare Geek merchandise for yourself or as gifts for your friends, that helps me buy things for my family and my friends.

Even if you got this far and didn’t see anything fun to click on, you can still help support the site and get more Shakespeare out into the world by sharing this post! Thanks!

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!

ChatGPT: Somebody Call Alan Turing

One of the very first programs I “wrote”, and by that I mean “copied by hand from a book”, was a BASIC version of ELIZA, the famous “chat” program by Joseph Weisenbaum. I was a kid, just learning to program, and this sent me down a spiral into the history of artificial intelligence where I learned about the Turing Test, created by Alan Turing in 1950, which says, simplified, that the goal of natural language processing is to create a chat program such that, if a person is sitting at the other end, that person can’t tell if they’re talking to a human or a computer.

Well, it’s been 70+ years at this point and man are we getting close. There’ve been a million chat programs and competitions since then, I’ve played with a lot of them, and they’ve all been quite terrible. In fact if you’re trying to break one – after all it is a test, not a game – it’s usually pretty easy. But if you’re not? If you honestly just want the content that comes from a conversation, with back and forth question and answer? Wait’ll you get a load of ChatGPT.

As I always do, I just walked up and started hitting it with Shakespeare questions. I wasn’t trying to trick it, I was just asking what I thought might be interesting exploration of what it could be expected to do. What follows is unedited transcript.

I started out with an easy one. And I got back an easy response. It’s probably not copied from Wikipedia, but it reads like it could have been. I didn’t expect much.

That was kind of cool. I not only got an answer, I got a reasonable and grammatically correct answer. Often in the older versions of these chat engines, trying to express something in a different way meant just doing some dumb word swapping. This one’s maybe doing a little of that (“tragic” = “very sad”) but it does a lot more than swap out words.

Ok, let’s make it a little more challenging.

Fascinating. Again, like the first question it feels very Wikipedia-like. But it’s serving these answers up in a matter of seconds. And it’s not like this things got a database of what people might ask. I’m relatively certain I’m one of the few people drilling down on random Shakespeare combinations.

I don’t know what I expected here, but I like this answer. It implies strongly that this thing understood my question, understands not only the characters of Hamlet but the elements of tragedy and comedy, and makes a valiant attempt to offer suggestions about how they might fit together.

Ok, two more then I want to go back and play with it some more.

I don’t know why people keep getting so excited about using this thing to generate original content – it’s not going to offer opinions, and it knows when that’s what you’re asking. So this heavily suggests that all we can ever really get out of it (well, for now) is factual responses.

This is basically the same question, yes. But do you see why I left it in here? It literally tells me, “You just asked me the same question in a different way.” So not only is it doing a ridiculously impressive job answering the questions, but it’s keeping your conversation in context and using that as part of the answer.

I wasn’t terribly impressed by the art generators that were all the rage a few months ago. This, on the other hand. I could talk to this thing all day.