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All the world's a stage: Shakespeare and the story of technology

This week sees the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and we are rightly focusing on the immeasurable influence of Shakespeare on art and culture over the past four centuries.  Shakespeare’s genius for dramatic clarity has made his writings the perfect base for a vast range of artistic forms including opera, film, animation and visual art, but it is also worth pausing to think about Shakespeare’s role in the development of technology.

At Nesta we think a lot about the relationship between art, culture and technology and one thing we are certain of is that amazing technology needs amazing content - in the world of arts and culture nothing has created a platform for new technology more than the works of William Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice. Image courtesy of RSC

Shakespeare has inspired more films than any other writer in history and to mark the anniversary of his death, the BFI has launched its biggest ever programme of Shakespeare plays on film, including clips from the first ever Shakespeare movie, a silent version of King John, first seen in 1899.

The Bard’s work also features in the story of the early days of radio and television broadcasting; in 1960 the BBC aired An Age of Kings, an impressively cast 15-week series that included Richard II, Henry V and Richard III. Between 1978 and 1985 the BBC undertook the enormous project of televising the entire 37-play cannon, and for the first time, such rarely performed works as Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VIII became accessible to a large audiences for the first time. This week the BBC will launch a huge season of programmes that will trace the impact of Shakespeare’s work from the earliest days of broadcasting through to today.

This drive to use technology to make the works of Shakespeare even more accessible has led The Royal Shakespeare Company to allow audiences from around the world to enjoy their productions through live cinema broadcasts; from their base in Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC has also started to create special live broadcasts exclusively for schools accompanied by a huge range of online resources.

As technologists seek to show the power of the internet, Shakespeare provides the perfect platform and again the RSC has been at the forefront of innovation. In 2012 its myShakespeare project commissioned artists, poets, technologists, coders, writers, musicians and students to create new work that interpreted Shakespeare online. The team created a data aggregator called Banquo, which showed Shakespeare’s world through Twitter, Flickr and eBay.

At the moment the dominant technology causing most excitement in the technology sector is virtual reality (VR) – and the universal nature of Shakespeare’s works provide the perfect base for these new immersive experiences. Convrgency, an experimental VR lab formed by Harvard Students, recently translated Macbeth, into an immersive version. The team refashioned the play to be centred on a 360 degree camera that serves as the viewer’s perspective, bringing them closer to events. In certain moments the characters even address the audience directly, peering into the camera as if to make eye-to-eye contact with them.

Google Cultural Institute has also worked with the RSC to create an impressive 360-degree version of Henry V's famous battle speech. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon tasks Puck with finding a rare herb with magical love-inducing properties…

“I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes”

Puck replies that he will search across the span of the globe in a little over half an hour; although what would have sounded like total fantasy to audiences in Tudor England, in our high speed connected world, it now feels woefully slow.

David Tennant in RSC production of Hamlet. Image courtesy of RSC.

It is a reminder that in the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death technology, and the internet in particular, has allowed anyone in the world to enjoy his works; so it is entirely fitting that on Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd April, The British Council working with the GREAT campaign, the BBC, The RSC and a huge range of content partners will mount Shakespeare Day Live – an unprecedented live digital broadcast featuring a dazzling array of actors, musicians and artists including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, David Tennant, Dame Carol Ann Duffy, Adrian Lester, Germaine Greer, Ralph Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale. Audiences around the world will be able to follow it through BBC iPlayer and on Twitter at #ShakespeareLives

The divergence of art and technology is what has helped to keep Shakespeare's legacy alive over four centuries and looks set to help it grow in the future.

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Tim Plyming

Tim Plyming

Tim Plyming

Director, Digital Arts & Media

Tim was a Director in the Innovation Lab where he oversaw Nesta’s portfolio of work supporting digital arts and media.

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