Saturday 7 January 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Completely raving, of course, and what on earth has it to do with wargaming? ‘Kiss Me Kate’? Has he gone mad?

Well, of course, the excesses of Christmas and the New Year may well have driven me over the edge, but to quote the Bard (my, how the girls will flock to the blog) ‘It may be madness, but there is method in’t.’ Yes. Quite. It might take a bit of digging to find it though.

Actually, the point I am trying to make with this sudden excursus into Cole Porter is about interpretation, again. In January 2017’s issue of History today magazine, there is a profile of Natsume Soseki, Japan’s Charles Dickens. He came to London in the early 20th century, sent by the modernising Japanese government to assess which bits of modernity Japan should assimilate, and which bits it should not.

Soseki was a scholar and author, and had studied English literature. However, he arrived in England full of English studies of Shakespeare. In his opinion, only an Englishman could interpret Shakespeare, so his interpretation of the Bard had to be dependent on English interpretations.

As Soseki lived in England and did English things (including trying to learn to ride a bicycle) he revised his opinion of how to interpret Shakespeare. His interpretation, he concluded, was as valid as anyone else’s. Meiji Japan’s assimilation of many things modern and western could be considered to be highly unfortunate for both Japan and the rest of the world, but that is hardly Soseki’s fault.

The point of all this is, of course, to ask the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare? After all, he lived 400 or so years ago and, as I tried to suggest last time, the past is different to the present. What his plays meant to the original audience may not be what they mean to us. Occasionally, of course, some bright spark of a theatre director has a go at doing something different, making, for instance, Macbeth set in 1920’s gangster led prohibition, or The Tempest on a Greek island receiving refugees or something (I have made those up, by the way, although I think someone might have tried the Macbeth thing). Immediately the critics are sharpening their pens, crying ‘It is not authentic!’

Who really knows, or cares, whether such an updated production is authentic? Or, in other words, why do people get so upset when a Shakespeare play is “updated”. A classic, after all, is a classic. Part of the definition of a classic is that it speaks afresh to each generation, and that each, returning to it, can find something else in its depths. If we can interpret A Winter’s Tale as a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopian warning, then who, really, is there to object?

Nevertheless, people do object. The authority to make these objections comes from an idea of what an authentic production of a Shakespeare play should be. Similarly, I suppose, wargamers have an idea of what an authentic wargame might look like. New interpretations, new ideas, tend to be rejected initially. Max Planck once remarked that new ideas in physics are only accepted when the current crop of professors either retires or dies.

No-one, therefore, really has the authority to interpret Shakespeare. His plays are a gift to the world, for the world to make of them what it will. That does not mean, of course, that a scholarly community cannot make some sort of general introduction or guide to his works. Nor does it mean that any interpretation goes. New ideas, new concepts, new interpretations have to be tested and accepted by a wider community. The claim that ‘They laughed at Galileo’ does not mean that my new ‘theory’ of gravity should be taken seriously. Galileo, after all, was steeped in the physics community of his day. He knew what he was doing, and what he was rejecting. I would need a thorough understanding of the present state of research in General Relativity before I could claim a new theory of gravity of which the community should take note. So it is with Shakespeare; new interpretations do not emerge from a void.

In these communities, then, there is some sort of authority, derived from the group think of relevant people. So it is in wargaming, of course. Even for us solo wargamers out here on left field of the community the authority of the rest of the wargaming world has an impact. Only by recognising and understanding the thinking of the community, and the reasons why the community thinks in that way can my ideas have any sort of impact. The main vehicle of this impact is, of course, the wargame rule set. Rules are accepted or not by the wider community. They can become, in some sense, currency for discussing wargaming, as DB* did, for a while.

This is no bad thing, of course. We need a language to discuss the hobby, and successful languages will tend to come to the fore. Paradigms tend to change, of course, and what was acceptable wargaming language in the (say) 1970’s may well not be (except in some quarters) today. The evolution of wargaming can, probably, be traced through the popular sets of wargame rules. But no-one makes anyone use this or that particular set. There may be popular rule sets, but there is no authority, no verifiable claim to authenticity that a particular set can make.

And so we return to Bill S and interpretations. A Japanese interpretation of Shakespeare is quite likely to look very different from a performance staged in Stratford-Upon-Avon. One cannot claim more authenticity than the other. Similarly, a battle of Waterloo wargame performed with one set of rules cannot claim greater authenticity then the same battle under different rules (assuming that the rules pertain, of course). In that sense there is no authority of interpreter or interpretation. After all, someone pointed out here once that the accounts of Waterloo vary over what time the battle started, to say nothing of the events.

The authority, such as it is, in the world tends to arise, ultimately, from the nation state and the control of violence. Where who controls violence is disputed, civil wars (which are among the most uncivil sort of conflict, of course) tend to occur. But in areas where the state is not interested, or which it has relinquished control over (such as wargaming and theatre), there is no authority beyond the interpretative community (or communities) involved. Exactly where that leaves us, as wargamers, interpreting our texts, is a subject for another time.

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