Tweeting Shakespeare

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The idea of Shakespeare on the Internet seems paradoxical; that something so revered and often considered elitist can be suited to a medium so populist, so universal. The pillars of the Internet are not Royal companies or centuries of towering scholarship; instead, they are twitter, facebook, YouTube. But it is through these mediums, twitter in particular, that Shakespeare seems to come most alive in fresh ways; they simultaneously underline just how irreverent some of his writing was, and yet how profoundly it speaks to our current turbulent times.

Lonely in India while researching Shakespeare there, I took to twitter for the first time to try to process and share the variety and richness of the experiences I was bombarded with each day. Like most new users, I began by searching for groups and people to follow that chimed with my interests, and eventually stumbled across Willy Shakes, who tweets @IAM_Shakespeare. ‘Tweeting from beyond the grave,’ as the strap line puts it, is the brainchild of Internet entrepreneur Joshua Strebel (@strebel) who says the project simply, every ten minutes or so, posts, ‘the complete works of Willy Shakes on Twitter, line by line. All 112,000+ of them.’ He started in August 2009, he finished in August 2011, and then, 1600 followers later, (he now has 33,666) and because of popular demand, he started again from the beginning.

I got my first tweet in January 2012, when the Delhi nights were smothered in fog, fires burned on the corners as the chawkidars tried to keep warm, and the feral city dogs held a nightly choir to proclaim their precedence over the empty streets. ‘Tweeting from beyond the grave’ indeed, Willy Shakes’ postings seemed to reassure me that my research project, for which I had packed up my whole London life and moved countries, languages, and food cultures, was a worthwhile endeavour.

I became the kind of person who reads their tweets before getting up in the morning. My life and research began to merge as thoughts in my head as I began to read Shakespeare’s lines interspersed with Human Rights Watch comments on abuses around the world, with the latest article plug from the Guardian, with updates from my favourite fashion designers, with quotidian musings from my friends back home. A tweet on the preponderance of unprosecuted rapes in India from an Indian news magazine was followed by one from Willy Shakes saying: ‘DICK: Silence!’ (I assume from one of the history plays), seemed too apt to be the twitter coincidence it was. I retweeted it; reframing its context, and thus my first statement as a Shakespearean and a feminist scholar went live.

The way we read on twitter also frames Shakespeare’s words in new ways. Though the works are being tweeted as they were written, line by line, they drop on twitter vertically, each line on top of the other, like a play script being read backwards. When you try to connect the tweets and not read any other tweets in between, it makes perfect sense, but it remains counter-intuitive since we would usually read downwards and not just what is most recent. Reading this way, with more concentrated effort forced by the form, not the content, lead me to consider how Shakespeare constructed not just each scene or speech, but each line, which, on twitter, now has its own distinct weight. Nothing is wasted in the writing, it soon becomes clear.

Willy Shakes in a twitter feed demonstrates something Shakespeare himself was a master of: it constructs dialogues that transcend time. These seemingly nonsensical conversations form ‘Reason in madness’ (King Lear, IV.VI); they also capture the way people actually talk to each other, listening yet self referential; often and artlessly tangential. Here’s an example from my twitter feed from last autumn:

WILLY SHAKES @IAM_SHAKESPEARE:

Here’s Decius, Brutus, he shall tell them so

BOOK TWEETING SERVICE @TweetYourBooks:

Buy A BULLET FOR CARLOS and get MURDER TAKES TIME for free! http://amzn.to/UrmhpA 

GRANTA MAGAZINE @GrantaMag:

‘Excuse my dust’: epitaphs of writers incl. Keats, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf, Bukowski, & Dorothy Parker (quoted here) http://www.flavorwire.com/339429/famous-last-words-15-authors-epitaphs#1 …

DAN LEPARD @dan_lepard:

Soft sandwich bread, blissful autumn comfort. Milk loaf how-to in Sat’s @guardianweekend

PENGUIN BOOKS UK @PenguinUKBooks:

Looks like @StylistMagazine love funny restaurant names as well! http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/recipes/the-worlds-most-disturbing-restaurant-names#image-rotator-2 …

WILLY SHAKES @IAM_SHAKESPEARE:

DECIUS. Caesar, all hail! Good morrow, worthy Caesar!

Bookended by the announcement and entrance of Decimus, touching on murder, food, and the very Shakespearean sounding ‘milk loaf’, via Dorothy Parker’s epitaph which is something Caesar himself might have said in a very different, perhaps oratory context; ‘Excuse my dust,’ is a telling phrase for a Shakespeare meets twitter project. In essence, Willy Shakes is re-scattering Shakespeare’s dust into the ether to make new meanings; as the lines of each play and poem go out to those thousands of followers, who knows what traces will form? This is what makes the project so inspirational and so interesting to follow. As well as providing a free masterclass in dialogue writing, by forcing the reader to consider the story in 140 character lines; it also demonstrates, wonderfully, how completely fitted Shakespeare is to the digital age. As much, if not more, than any other age we might place and play his works in.

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Author:pretitaneja

Preti Taneja studied Theology at St John's College Cambridge and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the Head of Creative Submissions at Exegesis, the online journal for critical, creative and review pieces. Preti’s work has been published by the Guardian, Open Democracy and Reuters, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio Four and the World Service. She is currently researching the adaptation and appropriation of Shakespeare in the post-colonial Indian context.
  • Pamela Berkman

    I LOVE this kind of thing. I have known many people — writers, readers, actors, and all other types of folks — so intimidated by the Shakespeare that they couldn’t enjoy him. And of course the truth is that he was the popular entertainment of his day, the very opposite of elitist. Years ago some friends and I did a little show in a cafe, the 15-Minute Hamlet and a Shakespearean Mad Lib, and afterward several people said to me that they hadn’t realized Shakespeare could be fun! His strength is that no matter how many new ways his work is looked at, experienced, sliced, diced, translated, sampled, or riffed on, it still holds up. Hurray for all things, including all things Internet, that bring Shakespeare to us groundlings.

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