Can a Monkey Write Better Plays Than Shakespeare?

All over the news the last week is Jesse Anderson, a software developer in Reno, Nevada, who’s created a computer program  that will type letters at a very fast rate. He claims that, in time, those random letters will type the complete works of Shakespeare accurately, word for word, and that, in fact, his program has already completed many of the poems and plays.

I don’t know what to say, except that I don’t believe it. My scepticism has nothing to do with my regard for Shakespeare as a genius whose plays can’t be subjected to any experiments, which they can be, of course: it’s more to do with the improbability of it, which amounts to impossibility, or, not to be closed-minded, near impossibility. Perhaps, if Mr Anderson were in possession of a quantum computer, that may happen, but, even then, not in his lifetime, and not in the lifetimes of his descendents, even unto the third and fourth generation or, indeed, the hundredth generation. In any case, scientists are still working on the holy grail of the quantum computer, which is in its infancy. The problem of the unstable photon and its weird behaviour hasn’t been overcome and the only calculations it can do at present are very simple ones that could be done in the head of a child. So I doubt whether Mr Anderson’s computer is of the quantum variety.

The idea comes from the ‘infinite monkey theorem.’ It’s a mathematical concept, put into metaphorical form, which is the only way to describe it to the layman, who doesn’t understand the pure mathematical explanation which would consist of a vast display of formulae and squiggly scratches which, as Shakespeare would say, is Greek to me. The theorum states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of Shakespeare.

The term ‘almost surely’ is not just sloppy language – it’s a precise mathematical term that means that there is a possibility but it is so remote that the chance of the thing described happening during a period of time as long as the age of the universe is so tiny that it amounts almost to zero, although it is not zero. And the monkey is not intended to be a real monkey: it’s a metaphor – a pictorial representation of an abstract device that produces a random sequence of letters, for perpetuity. That device, even Mr Anderson’s, has no chance of reproducing even one play –Hamlet is the one used in the theory. Or shall we say the chance is near zero, but not zero, if we are being mathematical about it.

The infinite monkey theorum has been used by mathematicians through the ages to explore timescales in a branch of  mathematics – statistical mechanics – and can be traced back to Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption. Various mathematicians have thought about it using several variants, for example, different numbers of monkeys, and different types of texts, ranging from single sentences to whole libraries. It is a vast topic so we won’t go any further with it.

Far more interesting to me is the idea of anyone or anything reproducing a Shakespeare play word for word without actually copying it out, which anyone can do. Read this story by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer – Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. A twentieth century writer immerses himself in the culture of sixteenth century Spain, reading everything Cervantes might have read, putting himself in the mind of Cervantes. He then sits down and writes a fictional book called Don Quixote, which turns out to be exactly the same as Cervantes’ novel, word for word. Borges speculates about which of the two books is better. With four hundred years between the two books, a lot has happened: there have been several wars, changes in national identity, the advance of science and technology and so on. Pierre Menard’s book is an historical novel, throwing light on a previous age, viewing it in hindsight and taking into account the changes in the world over the last four centuries. In some ways of looking at it it’s a better book than that of the great Cervantes.  Borges’ story is a fascinating read.

Imagine if Hamlet were to be repeated in that way in the twenty-first century. The same conditions would apply and perhaps one would have to say that finally we have a better English writer than Shakespeare, even if he is a monkey.  It’s all ridiculous, isn’t it? A bit too philosophical for me.

1 reply
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    I still don’t believe he wrote the plays. There is a lot of evidence building up against him. A new film will center around it having been the Earl of Oxford.

    Reply

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