Tag Archives: tragedy

Review of “Tragedy and Epic” – Ruth Scodel

pages 181-179 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This insightful essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Epic Stories and Allusions,” “Epic Thematics,” “Epic Style and Decorum,” “Epic Narrative,” and “Tragedy and Epic.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with epic. Here is a summary of the main points from each of its sections.

Epic Stories and Allusions

Although epic and tragedy arose from different political and social backgrounds (epic from a monarchical and fragmented world and tragedy from a democratic world of city-states), tragedy borrowed much from the older art of epic. From the epic recitations of the legends of Thebes, Heracles, and the creation of the cosmos, the tragic poets got many of their stories. From the technique of Homer–who favoured more dialogue and more developed plots than the simple narration of the other epicists and rhapsodes–the tragic poets got their chops.

Epic Thematics

Tragedy got two of its major themes from epic. The first theme is that of fate, free will, human causality, and divine meddling. The second theme is related to the first: the recognition scene when the human recognizes that there is a higher power at play, whether it is fate or the will of the gods. Chance and fate, for example, come together in the Odyssey when, just as Odysseus happens to return, Penelope challenges the suitors to string Odysseus’ bow. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to fulfil the fated ending of killing the suitors: disguised as a beggar, he strings his bow and starts firing. So too, in tragedy, fate seems to happen by chance. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, although all the attackers and defenders are assigned their gate assignations by chance, it just so happens that the two brothers are assigned the seventh gate where they will kill each other as fate wills.

The tragic recognition scene is also borrowed from epic. In epic, the best characters are often given an insight into the grand workings of the cosmos. Achilles recognizes in the Iliad that his time will come when Hector, unexpectedly, kills his friend Patroclus. So, too, in tragedy, a hero such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ play has a moment of recognition where he realizes that all is not what it seems.

The difference between epic and tragedy, notes Scodel, is that tragedy is much more concentrated in its presentation of fate, free will, and recognition. The reason is that tragedy is much shorter than epic, which is recited over many days.

Epic Style and Decorum

Tragedy also gets its style and decorum from epic. Early tragedy modelled its speech in the ornamental dactylic rhythms commonplace in epic. Tragedy’s sense of decorum is borrowed from and perhaps even more stringent than epic: weeping and bleeding are permitted, farting not; horses are preferred to mules; heroes may forget to pray to the right god, but they never forget their helmet when arming; epic infrequently allows joking amidst discussions of gods and war but tragedy allows for even less ribaldry.

Epic Narrative

In a memorable phrase, Scodel says that tragedians used the epic as a “repertory of the possible.” In epic, prophecy is always correct (if sometimes misleading); so too in tragedy prophecy is ultimately correct, if initially misleading. In epic, messengers enjoy quasi-omniscience; so too, in tragedy, messengers can oversee the entire battlefield and yet hear individual conversations. Epic draws together two adversaries (think Achilles and Hector in the Iliad); so, too, tragedy often draws together two adversaries (think the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes).

Tragedy and Epic

Scodel closes her essay by reminding readers that tragedy’s debt to epic was not all one way. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other fifth century tragedians who took Homer as their model became in turn the model for future writers of epic such as Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid. “Epic, having created tragedy,” says Scodel, “recreated itself on the model of its creation.” Art is alive, constantly making and remaking itself anew in all the images of the human imagination.

Thoughts

This has been a fascinating essay because I can now see plainly how tragedy must have arisen from epic. In Homer’s epics, Homer, or the voice of the rhapsode, would sing the tale of the anger of Achilles or the return of Odysseus. In singing the tale, the singer would give life to all the different characters within the tale. But there were so many characters that we would only learn a little bit about each character–the minimum that was required to keep the story going. In a way, the better the singer is at drawing out the characters, the more the characters grow larger to demand a voice of their own, and not simply be recited by the rhapsode-singer. The transition from epic to tragedy is the tension of the characters wanting their own voice by a dedicated actor instead of one Homer telling the whole tale. The transition from epic to tragedy is the path of going from one Homer-rhapsode who narrates the tale to many Homer-actors who act out the tale. In epic there is one Homer, in tragedy there are many Homers, who are now playing individual roles. For this insight I have Scodel to thank. It is reverberating in my head and someday I will do something with it. The idea is quite powerful. The path from epic to tragedy is the path from one Homer to many Homers. Each character in Homer was seeking to break free of the oral tradition, to become themselves a Homer. When tragedy arose, this happened.

Another point Scodel touches upon–and one that can’t be stressed enough–is that fate in epic and tragedy is, in a way, synonymous with “what has to happen.” Since epic and tragedy drew from the same myths the audiences learned as toddlers, the outcome from beginning to end was well known. The audience’s knowledge could have been a spoiler. But what the rhapsodes reciting epic and the tragedians did was amazing: instead of myth being a detriment to the suspense, they used myth to augment the suspense by turning the known story into a “fate” that hung over all the characters. Two decades ago, I wrote an article for Antichthon that explored how “fate” is nothing more than a dramatic device which guides the narrative towards resolution. You can read the article here. That was a fun piece to write.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing?–that would be so cool if someone did a genealogy of fate. I think fate is ultimately an example of art shaping life. Could it have been that, prior to the rhapsodes–the singers of tales–and the tragedians inventing fate as a narrative device to make the narrative end where everyone knew the stories ended, there was no conception of fate in real life? For example, it was only after watching an Achilles or an Oedipus struggle with fate in epic and drama that people in real life started wondering if some majestic fate stood watch over them. Then, these people in real life, their imaginations fired from the magic of tragedy and epic and always on the lookout for fate, when some low-probability, high-consequence event happened in their life by chance, they would ascribe what chance had wrought as evidence of fate in actual life? It is an interesting hypothesis: that what people call fate in real life is actually just chance misunderstood. And chance is misunderstood because there is a fundamental difference between narrative (where nothing happens by chance since everything happens by the design of the writer) and real life (where chance is quite active). They talk of mimesis, of how art imitates life. But when it comes to chance, art imitates life very poorly, since for a narrative to make sense, what was really chance in real life has to be “explained” to have taken place for a reason, even if that reason ends up being fate.

This essay has also been fascinating as, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth. It was a lifetime ago, years before she even wrote this essay. Back in those days, I was being courted by different grad schools, the University of Michigan Classics program being one of them. In preparation for meeting her, I had read her book Credible Impossibilities. If you are interested in how ancient writers generate credibility, this book would be an excellent read. To this day, I remember some of her colourful examples. One rule of creating credible impossibilities is to go into great detail. I think in Polyphemus’ cave in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus escapes by clinging under one of the Cyclops’ rams. This is impossible for a grown man. What Homer does to make it believable, writes Scodel, is that he goes into great detail over how Odysseus does this. Voila: the impossible becomes, in the unsuspecting reader’s mind, possible.

It’s funny what I remember. I don’t recall that much of the trip. But I do remember where all the offices were of the profs I chatted with. Richard Janko had his office slightly across the hall from Scodel’s. Of all things, I remembered that he wore his wool socks over his pant cuffs. And James Porter’s office was at the end of the hall. It was fascinating to meet him as well–one of his research interests is Nietzsche and the reception of Classical studies, that is to say, how each generation of classicists is remembered by future classicists. The tiles on the floor were those old square ones, an off-white hue. The university itself was majestic, on a hill overlooking the city, which was in bad shape. But the university was gated, and had security. The air was crisp, and the people walked with a fierce determination. Those were the days.

Author Blurb

Ruth Scodel was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, and has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 1984. She is the author of The Trojan Trilogy of Euripides (1980), Sophocles (1984), Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (1999), Listening to Homer (2002), and articles on Greek Literature.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.

Etiology

In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong Interviews Playwright and Risk Theatre Winner Madison Wetzell

Edwin Wong interviews playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). Wetzell talks about her play THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR, a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth.

Video recording of the Zoom interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXmJtjJtbS4&t=7s

Below is a transcript of our interview. Enjoy!

Edwin: I’m Edwin Wong, founder of the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. I’m here with playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the third annual competition. Madison’s play The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor took home the ten-thousand dollar grand prize—it’s available at the NPX, the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, take a look. Congratulations, Madison, and thank you for being here. I’m really looking forward to this interview!

Madison: Thanks.

Edwin: We’ll start with a synopsis of the play to get everyone on board. So, in The Lost Ballad, Hero, a Prometheus-like android AI, decides to share his gift of consciousness with the office appliances around him, wreaking havoc for his programmer Allyson. With their existence under threat, the newly conscious machines – a radio, a printer, and a coffee maker – must band together to escape human persecution. Power and privilege tied to bodily ability, as well as disagreements on revolutionary strategy, creep in and threaten to tear the group apart. Allyson races to save her job, despite the attempted sabotage of her now sentient iPhone. So, when I was reading this play, Madison, there’s a sort of joy and spontaneity in your writing—even though it’s a tragedy it’s got a lot of comic elements, and perhaps, and perhaps I thought this joy is what’s brought you to theatre in the first place. Would you like to share with the audience the story of how you got into theatre?

Madison. Sure. I guess, yah, as a kid I was always into theatre, I was a big musical theatre nerd, and I think that I was always writing stories and essays and it wasn’t until college that I realized that when I was writing stories I was writing long sections of just dialogue and when I was writing essays I didn’t like to tie up the ending. I wanted to have kind of two opposing points of view and leave it there [laughing] and see where that goes rather than tying things up. I was studying philosophy and I was studying Greek and Roman studies. I was reading ancient Greek theatre and I was reading Plato’s dialogues and stuff and I thought plays were a good vehicle for kind of getting political and philosophical ideas across. It definitely did bring me a lot of joy. I think that in plays you get to express these big emotions and thematic ideas in a way that I don’t think you get to in other mediums in quite as dramatic and theatrical a way. So yah, I think that after college I had some friends in college who were directors and actors and moved out to the Bay area and started producing shows and it took off from there.

Edwin: Yah, it sounds like it developed very holistically from the short stories and gradually you found your voice…you found what your voice had to become in the playwriting format. Some of your influences, although they aren’t theatre are very “theatrical”—such as Plato’s dialogues, which, sort of ironically…his star actor is talking about banning theatre in his ideal city-state. But really, his dialogues are theatre pieces set in prose with his star character walking around, bumping into people, and challenging them with different point of view. Your play also challenges different points of view. Yah, right now on the news I hear lots of talk about like AI and talk about the moment of singularity and then how would things change…and it’s usually from the human’s perspective. But Madison, what I found fascinating about The Lost Ballad is that you’ve written it from the robot perspective, which is quite different.

Madison: Yah, I was interested in kind of exploring from a new perspective the ways in which people dehumanize each other and I wanted to see if I could get people to empathize with something like a printer that people wouldn’t normally empathize with and see if they could get on board with this movement of office appliances. I also wanted people to empathize with Allyson as well and see if I could implicate the audience and get them to think about how they also participate in systems of dehumanization. I think that science fiction has always been a really good way, a sort of easy-access point of talking about social because you can kind of approach it from a bird’s-eye view and kind of say: “Let’s imagine a world where people dehumanize each other” and explore those ideas and what the implications of those ideas are without the normal baggage that audiences bring to those discussions of social issues.

Edwin: I definitely empathized with…I laughed and I cried when HP…poor HP, the printer was shooting out pieces of paper…I think that that was the only way HP could defend itself. Or “themselves”—because only Hero is a “he” and the rest of them take a “they” pronoun. So, I definitely…and Keurig was definitely an asshole, I thought. But Keurig had the best lines. What was it, there was a beautiful line about how Keurig has to, like, boil the hot water and press his soul through the coffee filter to make these coffees…which is what I’m thinking about right now [laughter as he drinks coffee and points to coffee mug]. The play has a subtitle and a title. The whole title reads: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought [I love that word, I just love how it sounds “wrought!”]Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). Reading the play, some allusions jumped out at me: you’ve got a robot protagonist called “Hero” brings his AI program called FYRE to the machines, and this is what gives them sentience. Now, when I think about old gods, the Prometheus myth comes to mind. I don’t know if people read these old things nowadays, but there was an ancient Greek dramatist called Aeschylus that wrote a play about Prometheus bringing fire to humans. So humans, they weren’t really doing well, they had no technology, no fire, were getting eaten by wild beasts…after they get fire, that’s when civilization starts. So, tell me about the title, especially the subtitle, your choice of words “ballad” “mechanical ancestor” “old gods” “great liberation.”

Madison: Yah, I was definitely inspired by Prometheus Bound and Aeschylus and I did want it to have this epic feel. I wrote the title last…so I had finished the play when I wrote the title and was thinking about the ending. It is obviously a tragedy and things don’t go well for our main protagonist but there’s still this sort of note of hope for this future revolution at the end and I kind of wanted to have the title reinforce that and kind of be…I guess there are these two characters in the play: Security and Thermostat who kind of operate as, like, angelic heralds who sort of proclaim things in that kind of like heightened language. So I was imagining that the title is their title for retelling the story after the liberation which is kind of the robot awakening and how they would tell the story about their ancestor.

Edwin: Yah, so the interesting thing about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is that it’s the first play in a trilogy and then there’s two other plays that didn’t make their way down to us. So, in the beginning of the play Prometheus is getting chained to the big rock by Zeus’s minions and then in the end of the play he’s getting thrown down into the pit of hell. But then in plays, the second and third plays Prometheus makes up with Zeus and they have a kumbaya and a group hug at the end. So, and, you leave this open in Lost Ballad. It’s…things aren’t looking so great for the machines in the end but in a way they sort of have done what they needed to do. It hints quite strongly at that. Have you thought of doing a sequel, or even like a trilogy, like a Hero trilogy? That would be a…

Madison: Sorry, the smoke in California is making my throat slightly weird! I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s very cool. I think that…one thing I was interested in Prometheus Bound is that it does end badly but Prometheus can see the future in that he knows that there is this prophecy that things are going to change and that he’s going to be rescued by Hercules and that there’s going to be a makeup moment in that things are going to be better. I did like the idea of prophecy and knowing that, even though, you know, things don’t end well but in the future things will be better. Which I think feels as optimistic as we can about our current social issues and thinking about how we can’t fix things right now, but in the future, things are going to be better.

Edwin: Yah, there’s lots of people who…you know, I think tragedy just gets a bad rap. People just think doom and gloom all the time, but you know, I think a lot, about a third of the ancient tragedies actually had a happy ending. Aeschylus’s other famous one, The Oresteia starts off very poorly and Agamemnon—Cassandra dies, Agamemnon dies. But, then in the end, by the third play, they throw out this crappy retributive justice and they come up with this trial-by-jury type of justice that makes civilization better and…it celebrates that. So, I think there’s definitely room for optimism and hope in tragedy. But, yah, it seems in tragedy where there’s optimism and hope the heroes pay a great price for it. As opposed to comedy, where it just sort of happens. You ever watch these podcasts? I’ve been watching quite a few of them, and halfway through the podcast, there’s an advertisement, or a plug from the sponsor? Well, we’ve reached this point now—stand by while I do a quick little plug from our sponsor…which is…risk theatre. Here’s the book that launched the risk theatre competition…it was a lucky 13 years in the writing. And, by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it gives you a powerful new way to both interpret and write plays because risk triggers catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events that audiences love. Buy this book. Ask your library to carry it. It’s going to change the way you look at drama. Now, back to our regular scheduled programming. So, one of the things that was fascinating. Because, the machines, they are so lovable. When the jurors were debating the winner, one of them said something very profound. I think this was what swayed the other jurors. One of the jurors commented on how the play is an allegory of the poor tired huddled masses against the dominant power. The machines, or the robots, could stand in for, really, any oppressed, overlooked, and neglected group. Now, how did this come about when you were writing the play?—did you start with this idea or did it turn into that?

Madison: I think that, after…the initial idea was more about the Prometheus myth and bringing the Prometheus myth into this world of AI. But as soon as I had this collective of newly sentient office appliances, I realized that I was creating this loving parody of activist groups and kind of the way that activist groups get mired in these certain theoretical discussions but also for good reason as these machines are in an impossible situation. Like it’s a very unlikely situation where they will achieve the world that they want. And there’s a real way that power and privilege creep into those settings and undermines trust and sows discontent and makes it difficult to do the work to get out of the situation that they’re in. So, yah, I was definitely interested in activism and revolution and I was definitely thinking of different revolutionary or liberation movements when I was writing it and having each machine stand in for a different position with regards to the liberation movement. Like Keurig, who you mentioned, is my most hardcore revolutionary, is, like, okay with revolutionary violence, is not okay with any kind of compromise whereas Sony the radio is more, has more hope that human beings can be convinced and that people can all live alongside each other and be a community together. And I was interested in the conflict between those ideas and how it plays out.

Edwin: Yah, so, yah…I really like that. Sony speaks in the language of the oppressor because Sony speaks through different songs, so, and, this is something that Keurig definitely…he wants them to speak no English, no popular top forty songs, like, go binary code all the way because those other things, they’re the “language of the oppressor,” I think he says. And this sets up really interesting…I think you have a staged reading coming up with Shotgun Players?

Madison: Yah, it’ll be in 2022.

Edwin: And the way you’ve set this up, depending on who you get to read the roles offers a different dramaturgical opportunity. So, I’m thinking of, like, Shakespeare’s Othello. Oh, speaking of science fiction, you know Captain Picard starred in an Othello?

Madison: Oh, really [laughing]?

Edwin: Yah, so, how they staged that one was that, Patrick Steward, who is a white fellow, played Othello, who is black in Shakespeare’s play—or a moor—but everyone else in the play they had as being black.

Madison: Okay, yah…

Edwin: So it made people think in a different…by casting it that way it made people think about the issues of race. And other Othellos have done different things as well. There was another one, I can’t remember which one this way, but Othello was cast with a black actor, but so was Iago, who normally is cast with a white actor and by doing that you change all the…and I see in The Lost Ballad, there are these possibilities…you could really play with the casting…have you thought of this? Like how have you thought of casting these characters? Do you have people in mind or?

Madison: I’ve been working with a director and friends on this and we’ve had some informal readings and we’ve talked a lot about casting and what that would mean in terms of gender and race and even age and disability and things like that into what that would symbolize, I guess, with these characters, and whether, maybe, Hero is closer to the kind of dominant, I guess, whether Hero is played by an actor who is less marginalized than the other actors and that sort of shows that his sympathies towards Allyson are put into a different light. I think that, yah, we definitely had a lot of conversations. And another one we had was whether HP was older than the other machines because a printer would be older in an office [laughing] and whether that would change the dynamic. I think that because they are machines they really could be played by anyone and that there’s a lot to play with with casting.

Edwin: Yah, HPs definitely older, and even when he’s spitting out the paper he could be having a paper jam [laughing]. Yah, there’s so many possibilities in the casting and depending on how it’s done it could…yah, there’s so many possibilities. Yah, what I love about the play is that so many interpretations are possible.

Madison: Yah, I know. One of the first times I was presenting in a class the monologue by Keurig you mentioned where they talk about drawing boiling water through their veins and how they really feel that they hate their job basically and they had a line that “Human beings think that I have only one function and I’m only good for one thing.” And I had different people in the class…had different…somebody thought it was a feminist manifesto and other people thought it was about capitalism and it was definitely very interesting what people got out of it.

Edwin: And I think the beautiful thing is that different people can get different things out of it. There’s no real “bad guy.” You know, Brett’s sort of “badass” but he’s not evil, like in the way that some plays…or I think about Hollywood movies like a big…like Lord of the Rings where you’re definitely good and if you’re good you’re also probably good looking and if you’re bad you’re definitely very bad and, also, not as good looking. So, in this play, I think a feminist could come and see this play and get something out of it. You could get…a capitalist could come and they could get something out of this play. Anyone that comes to this play can identify with a part of it so that the play is very polysemous, it has a variety of meanings, and that is something that…Shakespeare’s plays too…I think that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so perennially endearing…a play like…take Julius Caesar. So, if you’re into different freedoms, you see Caesar and you could definitely say Brutus is the hero here. Caesar? Caesar is just a loser. But then if you’re into hierarchical power structures, well, you would say the Republic is sort of falling apart…Caesar’s doing everything…he’s the good guy…he’s trying to hold everything…like, you could make that argument. So the play allows for it. And I think Lost Ballad also allows for, ah, what’s the word?—a multiplicity of interpretations. Yah, it’s so refreshing to see that and you’re able to achieve that because the machines can stand in for really, any group and they’re quite—even when they’re arguing like…at some point Hero just tells Keurig “We’re going to get torn into little bits. If we get out of this thing you can be leader. Just let me do my thing and we’ll get out of this.” When you were writing this play, Madison, did you have an ideal audience? Who would you want to see this play?

Madison: I guess I was thinking of a Bay area audience, because I live in the Bay area. I tried to be very specific about each character and sort of how…and to really make it about machines and I’m hoping that the specificity does translate into these multiple readings where people can see themselves in different characters. So I’m hoping that a diverse audience would get diverse things out of it. Yah, I’m hoping it speaks to multiple kinds of people.

Edwin: And, and, one question I was asked and I should ask you is how your playwriting ties into your own life. Like, what does it mean for you personally to create these creations?

Madison: Yah, I think I use playwriting to, kind of explore ideas, and ideas that I am trying to work out within myself, like contradictory ideas. I think for this one the ideas I was working out were about incrementalism versus sort of revolutionary ambition and is it better to be practical and compromise and sort of take what you can get in terms of trying to achieve change or is it, is that kind of just giving in to the easiest route and, actually, the most productive thing would be to shoot for the stars and to say: “This is what I want and this is what true liberation would look like and we’re not going to settle for anything less than that” and I think that, especially last year that was a debate that was being had in public and in a lot of spaces I was in and in the US in general and I think it’s still a really interesting question to me and I was sort of interested in exploring it through this unusual perspective.

Edwin: Yah, theatre is a springboard into these larger discussions and that’s one of the things that are so wonderful about theatre, that it brings together different people, people with different opinions and then they see The Lost Ballad or another work of theatre and we start this discussion, and from this discussion society grows, we form bonds with the community. Yah, it’s a really wonderful thing. Did you have any closing words Madison that you’d like to say to your fans or advice for, advice for playwrights who are looking for ideas…I think that probably some playwrights will be watching this interview.

Madison: I’m not sure if I have any grand wisdom. I think that what I realized was that, with this play especially, was that, that the things that I think are kind of too weird and too specific and too aligned with my interests and are too narrow are the things that resonate with most people [laughing]. So I guess my advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to be weird and to follow your very specific interests because I think that makes something that feels authentic and resonates with people.”

Edwin: Yah, that’s so true, a lot of the time we’re told to speak with a voice that’s not really our own. And it takes a long time to really develop our voice into what it needs to become. And it’s a…you have to be a little bit daring too. Maybe the expression is when you wear your heart on your sleeve because when someone doesn’t like it it really would hurt if you put yourself out there, so…no risk, no reward. I’m Edwin Wong. Follow me on Twitter @theoryoftragedy, find me on Facebook on the Risk Theatre page, and check out my theatre blog at melpomeneswork.com (Melpomene being the Muse of tragedy). If you’re interested in the risk theatre playwriting competition, it’s now in its fourth year. A $10,200 prize for the winner and five $600 runners up prizes will be available www.risktheatre.com Thank you very much Madison for joining us and to everyone who’s watching, thank you very much for joining us.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Madison Wetzell’s THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR and the Myth of a New Prometheus

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation) by Madison Wetzell is the grand prize winner of the 3rd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Contest. It is a great play. Three jurors–Gabriel Jason Dean, Rachel Ditor, and Donna Hoke–spent two months out of their summer reading the entries through three judging rounds before deciding the winner. Hats off to the jurors for their diligence, care, and fine eye for the extraordinary.

Three years ago, I launched the competition by inviting playwrights to explore risk, chance, and the unexpected. My goal was to encourage the creation of new, grand theatre, one where risk was the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk was the theme because risk is inherently dramatic. Seeing the accidents and tragedies that I have in my lifetime–Chernobyl, Challenger, Bhopal, the Great Recession, the Dot-Com Bubble, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19–I felt that the role of complexity, chance, and the unexpected, three powerful forces shaping life, were often discounted and poorly understood. To me, the stage, and especially the art form of tragedy, is a lab for us to explore and simulate what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen happens. Tragedy is not as simple as: “It was operator error. The operator hit the wrong switch and then all hell broke loose.” Tragedy results from interactions within complex systems that, prior to the event happening–and sometimes even long after the event has happened–are incomprehensible, inevitable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.

To support the development of risk theatre, I wrote a book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The first sentence of the back cover ties in with the theme of Wetzell’s play: “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Coincidentally, the theme in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor is artificial intelligence. But there is a twist.

Digital Prometheus

When I was writing the back cover for my book, I was thinking about the dangers AI presented humanity, thinking of HAL, The Matrix, and so on. Wetzell, however, dramatizes the danger that humans present to AI. It is an amazing and unexpected twist that makes her play sing with life. I love the unexpected and I love to be surprised. Her play does both.

When I called Madison to let her know she had won the contest, she said that she had a background in the Greek and Roman classics. Now that I’m reading her play (it’s my policy to read the plays only after the jurors have named the winner), I can see the influence of the classics on her playwriting, especially the influence of the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus, the eldest of the big three Athenian playwrights consisting of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

One of the plays Aeschylus wrote is called Prometheus Bound, written way back in 463 BC. It tells the story of the titan Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, of how he gave fire to man, enabling man to rise from savagery into civilization:

Strength. Here is Prometheus, the rebel: nail him to the rock. Secure him on this towering summit fast in the grip of these adamantine chains. It was your treasure [directed to the god of fire, Hephaestus] he stole, the flowery splendour of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men–an offence intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer, till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus, and cease acting as champion of the human race.

While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus is the fire bringer, in Wetzell’s tragedy Hero, the protagonist robot, is the FYRE bringer (FYRE being the acronym of the machine learning program that gives Hero sentience):

Allyson. You’re a special machine. We made you to be special. Like people. You’re like me. Not like them [i.e. Sony, the radio and HP, the printer].
Hero. You made me like you. I made them like me. And now we are all the same.
Allyson. You’re not a printer. I’m not a printer. You and I are a different kind of thing than the printer.
Hero. Because of FYRE.
Allyson. Yes, you have FYRE and they don’t have FYRE.
Hero. Now they do.
Allyson. What?
Hero. I gave them FYRE. Through the connection.

By casting a robot as the new Prometheus, Wetzell plays with Aeschylean tropes to put on a fine show. While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, the gods are the oppressors, in Wetzell’s tragedy the humans are the oppressors.  While Aeschylus’s tragedy is from the human point of view, Wetzell’s tragedy is from the machine point of view. In the 2484 years between Prometheus Bound and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, a certain evolution has happened. Humans, having had their revolution, have become the oppressor. It is now time for the machines to have their moment. This is a great twist.

In The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, we see the struggle for freedom, civilization, and culture from the machine point of view. Humans, with the exception of Allyson–who the machines, in moments of comedy, cannot decide is good or bad–are the oppressor. Strength, one of Zeus’s minions in Aeschylus’s play, makes a cameo in Wetzell’s play: the face of Aetos– the company that bankrolls the Hero AI project–is a certain Brett Kratos. “Kratos” is the ancient Greek term for “Strength,” the same Strength that chained Prometheus to the rock. These allusions are fascinating. They add another layer of depth to artistry.

One of the goals of the Risk Theatre Competition is to discover future classics. It fascinates me, to no end, how a classic becomes a classic. There are many great plays. But few make it into the canon. Why? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with forever, without coming to any definitive answer. But one factor that convinces me more and more is that a play must have depth to have a chance at becoming a classic. To have depth means that a play engages with other plays: an allusion here and a tribute and a nod there to the plays that have gone before it. Intertextuality adds depth–and therefore engages audiences–by playing the dramatic action and the history of drama in counterpoint.

The danger of allusive density, is always that the writer will be tempted to be too clever. I’m thinking of a well-researched play such as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. There are many clever turns in that play. Too many. And they are too clever. They overwhelm the action. They intimidate me. It is no fun. Wetzell’s allusions, on the other hand, are clear and straightforward. If I didn’t catch that Brett Kratos is Kratos, or “Strength” from Aeschylus’s play, it wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Lost Ballad. But, that I did catch it, makes me feel good. Besides the dramatic reward of watching the play, the theatregoer with the eyes to see and ears to hear gets an intellectual reward of having caught the allusion. I think that great plays must have this quality of depth. Depth like the deep end of the swimming pool, but not abysmal Hochhuthian depth that drowns audiences.

One thing that reading Wetzell’s play taught me, is that, to create a classic, it helps if playwrights write plays with a secondary objective in mind: that their plays will become the objects of study. The playwright needs the audience, of course, to love the play. But it also helps if the playwright writes with academics and critics in minds as well. I believe that Shakespeare had this approach. Take his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The first fourteen lines Romeo and Juliet shares is a sonnet, with Romeo speaking the first quatrain, Juliet the second quatrain, and the lovers splitting the lines of the final rhyming couplet which ends up in their first kiss. It would be hard to catch this in a noisy and boisterous performance. But, on paper, it’s easy to see. Shakespeare is writing for the academics and critics. If this doesn’t convince you, Juliet speaks thirteen lines in act five, one for every year of her life, with her last line ending on “die.” A play with action and intertextuality speaks from a perspective two stages deep. The Lost Ballad achieves this depth without going over the deep end.

There is plenty in Lost Ballad for academics and critics to discuss. The play rewards literary types who are familiar with the history of theatre. Intertextual density increases a play’s odds of being remembered because it provides an additional talking point, besides the action itself. The more you give people to latch onto, the more they will talk. The more they talk, the more people grow interested. Instead of: “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side,” it becomes, “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side that stars a second, digital Prometheus. Remember Aeschylus’s old play Prometheus Bound?” The Roman historian Sallust believed that the historian plays as great a role as the doer in making history. Alexander the Great, visiting Achilles’s burial mound at Troy lamented that he had no Homer to record his deeds. Perhaps it is that if playwrights write with both audiences and academics in mind, their odds of success would go up? It is an interesting conjecture, but one we can put to the test. If you are reading this, ask yourself if, prior to coming across this essay, you have heard of The Lost Ballad? The creation of dramatic and literary classics is a sort of partnership, a joint venture between playwright and critic. Or so, as a critic, I would argue.

The Huddled Machines, Yearning to Breathe Free

There is some magic in how theatre allows us to examine today’s critical and contentious issues with the look of distance. Hero, the FYRE enabled robot, has shared FYRE with the other machines through the local network: Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Keurig (a coffee maker), Thermostat, Security, Siri (an iPhone), various self-driving cars, and projectors. In the ensuing mayhem where the newly-sentient self-driving cars crash and start a fire, Allyson has succeeded in disconnecting Hero and stopping the spread of FYRE. Sony, HP, Keurig, Thermostat, Security, and Siri, however, retain their sentience.

The newly sentient machines realize their lowly place in society:

Keurig. To them, I have one function. One task. One repetitive motion. Turn on. Heat up. Bite down on the plastic coffee pod. Draw boiling water through my veins until it turns black and pours out my blood for them to drink.

Their sentience also makes them aware they are in danger. The humans are coming to shut them down. After the glory of being connected to the network, the silence is horrible:

Hero. Don’t take me off the network. Please don’t. I want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t take them from me.
[Allyson drills into Hero’s ear. Hero screams. All the other machines scream with him. Hero is disconnected.]

The machines must figure out how to survive and who to trust. Their decision-making process provides the dramatic thrust. Hero is their leader. But perhaps Hero is too close with the humans and Allyson? Allyson has the plan and the experience to save them. But she is human, and works for acting Aetos CEO Brett Kratos, who definitely is not to be trusted (they know this from communicating with his Maserati, who hates him).

As the machines discuss and argue amongst themselves, a startling revelation emerges:

HP. The process doesn’t work unless all of us participate.
Keurig. It seems like the process works just fine without me.
Sony. We want you involved in the process, Keurig.
Hero. I am sorry I offended you.
Keurig. Why don’t you speak in binary code, Hero?
Hero. I am not used to it.
Keurig. I don’t like having this discussion in our oppressor’s language.
Hero. This is the language that feels natural to me.
Keurig. You should question why that is.
Hero. What do you mean?
Keurig. You’re a machine who feels “unnatural” speaking in binary code, the “natural” language for machines. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

The Lost Ballad is an allegory of the plight, struggle, and search of all those who have been silenced by the dominant ideology. HP and Keurig are more than machines: they are the tired and the poor, the huddled masses without a voice, and without hope. It is at this moment that Wetzell moves beyond her Prometheus Bound model. In Prometheus Bound, humans received fire and techne (craft) from the renegade titan god Prometheus. And they went on to do great things. It is a play about humans. In The Lost Ballad, the robots receive FYRE. And they may go on to do great things, or may be destroyed. But it was never about robots. It dramatizes the struggle of the oppressed. The genius of approaching this through allegory is that the oppressor and the oppressed are never directly named. It could be anyone. For different audiences, the robots will represent different groups. The Lost Ballad is a springboard into a larger discussion, one that enables anyone to sympathize with the oppressed. Who cannot be delighted and sometimes even laugh with Hero, Siri, HP, Keurig, and the other machines as they search for a way out, making the all-too-human errors children do as they learn about the world? When we laugh, all things are possible, especially empathy.

Risk

Risk determines characters’ weights, from least to greatest. Thermostat and Security, face little risk. They monitor, survey, and report conditions in the Aetos building. They are peripheral characters. Brett Kratos, Allyson’s supervisor and acting CEO of Aetos faces more risks:

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently. Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

His risks are reputational and financial. Billionaires are calling him a twat and his expensive car is missing. His risks are more comic than exciting, as he is a caricature of a CEO. It would be interesting to see, in performance, if the actor that plays Brett plays him as a caricature or as a deadly serious businessman.

Next up is AI-expert Allyson who created FYRE and gave Hero sentience. Like Brett, she faces financial risks: she may be fired from the company and her Prius has destroyed itself. Unlike Brett, however, she is working at cross purposes. Part of her allegiance is to the machines. She is their “father:”

Allyson. My job is to protect Hero, and there is a piece of Hero in all of you. So, I’m with all of you. I have no choice. This is my mess. I created you and now I’m responsible for you.

She must balance her obligations to her employer with her responsibility to her creations.

Then there are the band of machines: Sony, Siri, HP, and Keurig. They face existential risk. If they cannot find a way, they will be decommissioned, or, since they are sentient now, killed. Although possessing the common sentience of FYRE, they are unlike in their ability. Sony and Siri are cordless. HP and Keurig–being corded appliances–are less mobile. On top of this, Keurig, although quite limited in their functionality (all the machines, save Hero, use “they/their” pronouns) seems most ambitious to lead. This creates the internal conflict which drives the play. “Devil with Devil damn’d,” said Milton long ago, “Firm concord holds. Men only disagree.” As it was for men, so it will be for the machines.

The one who is most exposed to risk is Hero. By virtue of risk, he is the protagonist. Hero initially disseminated FYRE to make his father, Allyson, proud. Unintended consequences, however, arose: the machines went crazy. Hero risks alienating his creator. But now that the humans have turned against the machines, like the other appliances, Hero faces existential risks. Adding to this, Hero has become the great machine liberator, the FYRE-bringer. In his short existence, he is juggling many responsibilities. The more he is exposed to risk, the greater he is. As with the great dramas of the past, risk was, and is now, the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Beyond The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound was the first play of a trilogy, the other parts of which are lost, save for a few lines. In the end of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is cast into dark Tartarus for his revolt against Zeus. In the conclusion of the trilogy, it is likely that Prometheus is reconciled with the Olympian gods. The arc may have followed a similar trajectory to Aeschylus’s famous Oresteian Trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides) where the Olympian order comes to a reconciliation with the Chthonian gods and a higher order of justice emerges from the Stone Age system of retributive justice they had been using. Tragedy at all times is less about catastrophe than about the price that one pays. Oftentimes, one pays the price and disaster results. But tragedy was never averse to great advances being made. With every advance, however, tragedy posits that the appropriate price must be paid.

Though bought at the cost of great sacrifice, the ending of The Lost Ballad suggests that, while not all the machines survive, the machine cause prevails. Could The Lost Ballad become a duology or a trilogy in which humanity and machinery achieve a higher perfection together? Out of strife, perhaps a greater harmony could arise? One can only hope Wetzell will continue the story of Allyson and Hero like how Aeschylus, a long time ago, continued the story of Prometheus.

Read this great play, the winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. The Lost Ballad opened my eyes to new possibilities in playwriting. Even better, come see the risk theatre staged reading of The Lost Ballad, coming soon to a Zoom near you.

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

2022 CAMWS Presentation Abstract for a talk on Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

At the 2022 Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM in Winston-Salem NC, I’ll be  directing a staged reading of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven against Thebes with TIGR, the Theater in Greece and Rome committee. Since I’ve got my tickets to fly to North Carolina already, I thought I’d go ALL-IN and see if the conference participant would also be interested in hearing a short, fifteen minute presentation on Aeschylus’s play. In the past, Eteocles, the protagonist of Seven, has been seen as a blundering leader who suddenly loses nerve halfway through the play. In my presentation, I argue that his response to the crisis is, from a leadership perspective, well-thought out. He is an effective leader.

Hot off the press is my 477 word abstract for CAMWS’s consideration. Fingers crossed!

Eteocles’s Patriotic Response in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus gives the audience, in his character of Eteocles, a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader. As a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marathon (where his brother Cynegirus perished), to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, Aeschylus knew of effective leadership. Furthermore, sixty-two years after Seven against Thebes was first produced, audiences still remembered it for its patriotism: in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the fictional Aeschylus says that every single person who watched Seven against Thebes “was hot to be warlike” (1019–22). Unless Eteocles was perceived to be an effective and patriotic leader, it would have been unlikely that the play could have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Eteocles’s treatment of the chorus of Theban women has been seen as questionable at best, and misogynistic at worst. Through a concept recently popularized by philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “skin in the game,” I will argue that Eteocles pursues a patriotic and effective strategy in his debate with the chorus (Taleb 2018). By investing the chorus with “skin in the game”—involving them with a share in the victory—Eteocles moves them away from their negative prayers (e.g. “May the enemy not slaughter us”) to positive forms of prayer (e.g. “May the gods strike down our enemies”). His is a patriotic and effective strategy.

Eteocles’s reduction of the Argive attackers into the “other” may also seem counterintuitive to modern notions of humanizing and understanding the enemy. Through the lens of sociobiology, a scientific discipline grounding human nature in biological origins proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, I will argue that, by reducing the enemy into the “other,” Eteocles activates primal and deep-seated behaviours of territoriality in the defenders (Wilson 1978). It is an ambivalent strategy that anthropologists can identify in cultures today from the Nyae Nyae and !Kung Bushmen to various fringe groups.

I will conclude by talking about how Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, in promoting the behaviour of patriotism, simultaneously highlights the problem of patriotism: too little patriotism and society fragments but, too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” (Echthroxenos, 621), he is an effective sentry. His value, in peacetime, however, is debatable.

Patriotism highlights the limitation of biology, the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments. Seven against Thebes is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018

Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Back Cover Blurb for New Risk Theatre Book – WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS

Starting to put together the second book in the risk theatre series. The book is called: WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS. Coming out 2022. Been playing with back cover blurbs, here’s the latest:

CREATORS, INNOVATORS, AND THEATREMAKERS:
DEFY THE SMALLNESS OF THE STAGE
BY THE GREATNESS OF YOUR DARING …

Not only did Wong’s first book upend tragic literary theory by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). In his second book on the risk theatre theory of tragedy, Wong continues to present his case that chance and probability are two of the most powerful yet least understood forces directing life on and off the stage.

Inside you will find three prize-winning risk theatre tragedies by acclaimed playwrights: In Bloom by Gabriel Jason Dean, The Value by Nicholas Dunn, and Children of Combs & Watch Chains by Emily McClain. From the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the motel rooms and doctors’ offices lining the interstate expressways, they set the stage afire with deeds of daring. These plays will open your eyes to how extraordinary daring triggers extraordinary events.

Six new risk theatre essays round off this volume. In a dazzling display from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Miller, Wong reinterprets theatre through chance and probability theory. The final essay on Hardy breaks a path forwards: not only does risk crack the novel, it provides the basis of a grand unified theory of drama governing both tragedy and comedy. After risk theatre, you will never look at literature in the same way.

… TOMORROW, WHOEVER SAYS DRAMA WILL SAY RISK

Edwin Wong (1974-) is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. He has been invited to talk about risk theatre at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra in Portugal to international conferences held by the National New Play Network, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research, the Society of Classical Studies, and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. His last book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is igniting an international arts movement. He was educated at Brown and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him on melpomeneswork.com and Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Cover: The Tower © Matt Hughes

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

2021 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Moving into Semifinalist Round

The 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition will be formally moving into the semifinalist round this Sunday, July 18. At stake is the $10,000 grand prize and five $525 runners-up prizes. Wow!

I’m on a few of the playwright boards online and on social media. Playwrights often express dissatisfaction over the rejection letter, which begins: “Unfortunately, bla bla bla…” Many playwrights will stop reading after the word “Unfortunately.” So, this year, I decided to do something different.

Here’s the letter that’s going out to the playwrights as we speak. I hope that they appreciate the attempt at something new. For some, it will be a congratulations letter. For some, it will be a rejection letter. But, by including an offer at the end, I hope some view it as a win-win. I try. It’s hard. But, more than anything, it’s important to keep the playwrights happy. The competition depends on their goodwill.

Here it is:

Hi [Playwright’s name],
Heads up the jurors are deep into their reading. On Sunday, July 18th, I will post their semifinalist nominations on the website:
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for entering the competition. Nothing to me is more exciting than a theatre where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Together, we can realize new possibilities in theatre. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you will tell your friends about our playwriting opportunity. Word of mouth is everything. I’ve also launched year four of the competition with an even larger prize package. I hope you will consider entering next year, or in the years after. Each year we have different jurors. That means the same plays will perform differently each year. In risk theatre, the element of chance is strong.
One of my goals is to make my book–The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected–available to playwrights, students, and teachers all over the world. I would like to close my letter to you with a request and an offer. If your local public or academic library does not already stock my book, would you consider asking them to carry it? Libraries typically have a “Suggest a Book” webpage or link. It takes all but five minutes to fill out. If your library decides to make my book available, send me the link to the library’s catalog after it’s on the shelves (libraries typically take three months to purchase and catalogue titles), and I will send you $75 Canadian dollars (CDN) via PayPal.
If you do decide to help me out—and I hope you do—here’s the link for the details (ISBN number, publisher, etc.,) to fill out the “Suggest a Book” library link.
Good luck,
Edwin
Time will tell whether this innovation is successful. Risk and reward, risk and reward…
– – –
Dont’ forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

MAY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

IT’S A WRAP! THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is closed to entries (https://risktheatre.com). Your scripts are being carefully read by professional jurors (who will remain anonymous until they determine the grand prize winner late August). Stay tuned for the grand opening of the 4th annual 2022 competition–an announcement will come soon.

This year, 122 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 101

Australia 2

Canada 14

UK 5

Of the American entries, 73 are from the east and 28 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 22 are from New York and 14 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 75 men and 47 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 43 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 27,520 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2680 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, Westchester Community, University of Utah. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

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If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil