Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays in the era that the American futurologist, Alvin Toffler, dubbed ‘the first wave.’ That was the agrarian period between the hunter-gatherer era and the industrial revolution. Toffler’s most famous book, The Third Wave, published in 1980, predicted the digital world that we live in today, where tiny bits of information are the basic units of life.
In our post industrial third wave universe information flies around the world and, indeed, through space, at the speed of light. What would Shakespeare have made of it? His imagination, huge and universal as it was, could not have imagined it. Even some of us, living right in the middle of the great digital revolution, regard emails and texts as magic. As I do. If I needed to, I could send an instant message to someone living in China but although I know how to do it I have no idea how it works. But just think about how one of the great tragic moments of literature would never have been written if the Elizabethans had had cellphones. Friar Lawrence’s message to Romeo, sent via a monk on a donkey, that Juliet is not dead but just drugged, and waiting for him to wake her up, goes undelivered: the monk is intercepted and quarantined and is therefore unable to deliver the message. It’s a great dramatic device that leads directly to the tragic outcome of the play. Imagine, though, if Friar Lawrance had had a cellphone. He would just have sent a text. Romeo, a teenager, would, of course have been joined to his cellphone and received the message instantly. The tragedy would have been averted.
It’s not how Shakespeare’s plays would have been different if emails and texts had been available to their characters that is interesting, though, because the plays were rooted in a pre-third wave age and are what they are. More interesting is how Shakespeare relates to the digital technology of our time:
Filling the London theatres in the sixteenth century provided a remarkably large audience for Shakespeare’s plays. And when the plays were published in book form it created the opportunity for a wider audience. Some time after Shakespeare’s death his plays began to be performed in theatres that had no connection with those for which they were written. Performances spread to America, and then other countries – the British colonizers took Shakespeare with them wherever they went. And then the plays were taken up by the film industry and, after that, television, with increasingly bigger audiences.
Shakespeare was, by now, the biggest thing in the global culture but he was to become even bigger with the advent of the internet. There’s no stopping him, of course, and he’s become just about the biggest thing on the Web as well.
And now apps designers are working overtime on developing Shakespeare Apps. You can already get the complete works with the most up-to-date interactive technology, so now it’s all there on your Smartphone, available with a whisk of a finger.
You can get any sonnet as you wait in the doctor’s waiting room, together with unfathomable amounts of information about it. If you need more you can ask questions and get answers before you’re called in to the doctor. You can listen to bits of text read by the world’s greatest actors as you walk to the bus stop. By the time the bus comes you could have heard a host of experts telling you why that bit of poetry is so wonderful. You can get a virtual tour of Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon and an actual guided tour of Stratford as it is today. And the designers are creating new Apps every day.
Writing about the views he expresses about love in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare concludes: ‘So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ Little did he know the full truth of that, his works travelling triumphantly through every era’s technology, becoming new and fresh with each development. There is technology to come, well after our time, that we cannot imagine, but we can be sure that Shakespeare will live on in all of it.