Tolkien, Shakespeare and Virtuality

From Edward Castronova:

What about immersive? Tolkien argued ["On Fairy Stories", 1939] that drama was not a proper modality for the delivery of fantasy: you have to believe the actor before you can believe the world he is in, and that second layer of disbelief, not present in literature, prevents the viewer's immersion. And surely, if average people cannot play Elves, they certainly cannot play Hamlet.

Yet this overlooks the possibility that viewers, indeed a whole society, could become the actors. Not too many writers considered this, before the era of computer networks, anyway. But Shakespeare did.

Yes: Many of his plays consciously invoke the notion of virtuality. In As You Like It, folks escape to the Forest of Arden to change their social status, their names, even their sex, prompting the forest-philosopher Jacques to note that "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Meanwhile, after The Tempest drops off some real-world folk on a mysterious isle where everything is different and magic is king, its owner declares that everything is an image, indeed, that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" (emphasis added). Macbeth sums up the absurdity of his situation by declaring "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more." Going the other way, Henry V's Prologue wants to make a whole kingdom into a stage, so she can enact fake battles upon it. And poor Prince Hamlet spends a considerable amount of time working with actors who will play parts related to those being played by the real actors on the stage, a telescoping effect that, according to Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom [Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, chapter 23], gives you the overwhelming impression that Hamlet's principle suffering is not that he's got weird parental figures, but that he is a real person trapped inside a play.


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