When my beautiful sister and ace editor Stephanie sent me an editorial from The Washington Post about Shakespeare and artificial intelligence, I was intrigued — and concerned. Here’s why: Google has gifted us with Alexa, which it turns out may be spying on us and eventually, it looks like it may even take over our lives and start giving us fashion advice on putting together just the right shoes and slacks for that all-important meeting. Where, oh, where is the Internet not – that is the question!
Even the Bard of Avon isn’t immune to the adventurous souls bringing us artificial intelligence. A Microsoft researcher recently created a scheme that goes way beyond simply analyzing phrases and topics: it graphically charts the emotional highs and lows in some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. A few of the insights gleaned from mapping the Bard’s emotional terrain:
Romeo, according to the charts, is actually more emotionally intense than Juliet, who’s upset — but apparently not as upset as he is — about their romantic woes.
King Lear’s narrative arc is one of relentless decline: Once he gives up his power to his greedy daughters, everything quickly goes to hell.
Macbeth has a different, roller-coaster narrative arc: Things go well for him for a while and then they start going wrong, disastrously wrong.
Mmmm…Interesting. Sort of. Can a computer really read Shakespeare with any true understanding? Just in case you might be worried about this, here’s a heartening blooper the Microsoft tool made: According to its charting system, The Comedy of Errors was flagged as a tragedy. How did this happen? It confused playful teasing with hurtful mockery. What a relief! Subtlety or the difference between truth and lies apparently can’t be charted. And sarcasm still remains way beyond a computer’s ken.
Thank goodness! While interesting tidbits may be gleaned from this computerized foray into Shakespeare’s emotional landscape – it seems that, just as there are in life, there are plenty of minefields that can’t be charted.
So here’s the rub: Let’s make our characters as human as possible. Let’s give them narrative arcs that might confuse a computer. Let’s explore the impossible-to-map realm of the human heart. And hopefully, we’ll all be on creative terra firma –the solid ground of emotional upheaval and confusion. Who knows, in the end, just as Shakespeare’s gorgeous writing is saved, for the moment, from computer analysis, maybe he’s the one who’s truly charting the emotional ups and downs of the human condition – maybe he’s saving us. Write on!
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