Virtual Reality and also Shakespeare

Hello friendly friends, I had many ideas for bold and substantive blog posts, but find myself with no desire to write them, so I’ll just do what I always do, which is that I start typing and see what happens.

One outgrowth of having my new office is that I’ve been experimenting with the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset that I, along with a bunch of other people, bought during the pandemic. For a long time, I only had a tiny swathe of floor in the bedroom to use as a VR environment, and it wasn’t really working. Here, I have slightly more room–not really as much as you need, but a workable amount. So yeah, I’ve been playing a few games. I beat Superhot–a bullet-time shooter where the enemies and the bullets only move when you do. I’ve been playing a lot of Pistol Whip–a rhythm game disguised as a shooter. And I recently booted up Vader Immortal and Arizona Sunshine–immerse VR experiences where the focus is more on making you feel like you’re really an evil Jedi or really in the zombie-ridden Arizona desert.

And I have to say…VR is pretty cool. It’s a little astonishing how far the technology has come. Like, there’s definitely room for improvement–VR environments aren’t really as crisp as playing a game on a screen (much less real life). But the sense of reality is overwhelming. The game really does trick your brain into feeling like the objects in space are there, that they’re in the room with you. Yes they’re blobby, and they don’t look like anything in real life, but they have an undeniable physical presence. And the headache factor is also reduced (I think it could be reduced even more if the headset wasn’t a bit heavy and poorly balanced, so it weighs a bit on your brow). I also play while wearing glasses! I have a feeling it’d look even better if I used contacts.

It’s pretty special! Personally, I think VR is great. I don’t see how spending ten hours in VR is any worse than spending ten hours looking at our tiny phone or computer screens. I do think, well, it won’t happen today, and it won’t happen tomorrow, but in ten years this technology will be here. We’ll have the treadmills, we’ll have the gloves, we’ll be able to mimic the feeling of walking through an endlessly variable and life-like environment. And it’ll provide employment too. So far as I can tell, it’s immensely labor-intensive to create a VR environment. To do it right, you need buildings full of coders and graphics specialists.

I mean, the dystopia is here. We’re crammed into tiny houses and apartments. The sky outside is smoky and unbreathable (we’ve had red skies for the past few days in SF), and the temperature will be increasingly unlivable in many parts of the world. Might as well have VR while we’re at it!

Ummmmmmmm…in more analog news, I’ve been reading more Shakespeare. My issue with Shakespeare has always been the ornate, flowery language and the contrived, arbitrary storytelling. But there’s a definite difference between mediocre Shakespeare and good Shakespeare. For instance, I’ve been reading the history plays. I read Henry VI p2 and p3 earlier in the year. They were fine. Nothing to write home about. But I just read Henry IV p1. I already knew I’d like the play, since I’ve seen it performed before, but it’s really special! I was highly impressed by the subtle characterizations and the finely-modulated language.

For one thing, it’s the first Shakespeare play I’ve read, at least recently, that contains long prose passages: Falstaff, Bardo, Poins, and all the low company speak in prose. Prince Hal speaks in prose when he’s with them, and he speaks in verse when he’s with higher companions. He’s the best character, in my opinion, far surpassing Falstaff (who can be tedious at times), since you can sense how conflicted he is, such as when he delivers a slightly condescending and yet, in some sense sincere, oration over Falstaff’s body when he thinks the man has died.

What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spar’d a better man.
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity
Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
Embowell’d will I see thee by and by,
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.

In the version of the play I saw, they played Prince Hal as a schemer–someone who was always planning to cast off his poor companions and become a wise and stern King. But reading the play I see that there’s room for other interpretations. Personally, I favor the reading that he’s just genuinely someone who’s drawn to jokes and to low company, but who also longs for a chance to prove himself.

But the other characters in the play are equally well-drawn. I thought the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwyr stole the show. That guy comes off totally nuts! At one point he’s talking to Harry Percy, and Owain is like, bro, when I was born, the earth quaked and the heavens quailed. And Harry Percy (Hotspur), who is Prince Hal’s foil throughout the play (and is finally killed by him), refuses to take this, and he’s like, if the earth shook, it was just by chance, and if the heavens quailed, it was because they were scared by the earth’s shaking, not because of you. And Glyndwyr is like…bro, I can do MAGIC. He’s so irrepressible. What a card!

And even the wild storytelling has charm. I kind of like the undisciplined way Shakespeare told this story. For instance, Glyndwyr basically only shows up in one scene! This is a very common Shakespeare thing–to have someone come in and be a really big personality and get set up for a long role, and then he’s gone. During the big battle, Glyndwyr simply doesn’t show up. Also, at some point in the fourth act, Harry Percy and his rebels realize, essentially, that they have very little chance of winning. It’s a cunning trick! Normally you’d ramp up the tension by making Prince Hal’s side seem outmatched. Here, though, Percy is such a strong character that you feel sorry for him, especially since the audience knew from the start of the play he was going to die. And it allows you to focus more on the human element: will Prince Hal prove himself? What happens when the two Harry’s finally meet?

Even the language felt much more disciplined than in the earlier Henry plays (Henry VI p2 and p3 were written before Henry IV). Hotspur spoke in a much more direct, plain register. The King ranged between a higher and a lower diction. All of the characters clearly had moments when they were speaking ex cathedra–speaking in the full awareness of their high authority–and moments when they were speaking in camera, as private individuals. I thought the restraint played up Shakespeare’s talents.

Shakespeare is an excellent writer, but I don’t think he is merely an excellent poet. At his best, he wrote character who were full of life–people who could sustain multiple interpretations. The earlier Henry plays didn’t really have that. Even their most interesting characters, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, seemed a bit more on the one-note side.

But maybe I shouldn’t be judging Shakespeare by the lower half of his ouevre! The problem is I’ve already read all the better plays! And I read them long before my judgement and critical abilities had matured. Like, I haven’t revisited Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Midsummer, or Julius Caesar since school. And I read Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Macbeth, As You Like It, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado during my last Shakespeare phase, almost ten years ago. I think it’s probably time to revisit them all. Maybe in virtual reality.