Parodying Other Shakespearean Plays
One of the wittiest forms of improvisation during Hamnet performances is the citation of snippets, and sometimes even of extended passages from plays other than the one currently being performed, i.e., suddenly citing a line or two from Macbeth while mounting a performance of the parody of Hamlet. Sometimes content from other plays is brought in, but expressed in language quite different from the original, just as the “Hamnet” script translates Hamlet into IRC-ese. The opening of Harris's script fosters this by recycling a famous passage from As You Like It:
=PROLOGUE /TOPIC World_Premiere. irc_Hamlet_in_Progress  *** PROLOGUE has changed the topic on channel #Hamnet to “World_Premiere_irc_Hamlet_in_Progress” <PROLOGUE> All the world's a Unix term…. <PROLOGUE> …and all the men & women merely irc addicts….
Unix is, of course, one of the major types of mainframe computing operating systems today. And men and women active on IRC are not players but IRC addicts. This is an allusion to the quasi-addictive quality of IRC, a phenomenon all too familiar to IRC regulars Ruedenberg, et al., 1995).
But what we want to look at now is improvised citations of passages and content from other plays done “on the fly” during “Hamnet” performances. These may be interwoven into the ongoing interaction during the preparation or warm-up period before the performance, into the actual performance itself, or even into freefloating dialogue in after-the-show online cast parties.
One variety of play with intertextuality is the insertion of brief “oneliners.” Thus, during the December performance of “Hamnet”, 〈Gazza〉 (Gary Hunt in RL), Harris's online as well as RL pal from Bath, England, slated to play <R_Krantz>, popped on during the preparations, only to announce that he would have to sign off, drive home from the university, and then log on again. As he signed off, all could read the bit of text he had inserted alongside the /signoff command as he executed it:
Line 485:***Signoff: Gazza (A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse….) (logfile, December, 1993)
Readers may recognize this as the most famous line in Shakespeare's Richard III, and a humorous way of referring to the fact that <Gazza> would be needing some means of transportation in order to get home.
<Me> from Alaska played with several nicks before accepting the role of <ophelia> in the February production. While temporarily taking on the nick <hamlet>, and very pleased with herself for doing so (“Hehehe,” she types, immediately following the nick change), she writes:
Line 738:<Hamlet> Oh titus come hither…
74l:<Hamlet> Oops wrong play (logfile, February, 1994)
This is a line from Titus Andronicus, III.1.187 (Titus: Come hither, Aaron). Later, when cast as <Ophelia>, she did it again, suggesting that she may have planned this type of improvisation in advance.
Line 1880:<Ophelia> R_krantz and G-Sterns are dead…ooops, wrong play :) (logfile, February, 1994)
This time the line is, of course, the title of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard's own spin- off from Hamlet. The effect of such citations is even more comic when they are experienced in context. Harris liked this bit of improvisation; he handed <Ophelia> a rare compliment:
1886:<_Producer> ophelia: hehehehe nice 1 (logfile, February, 1994)
Another form of improvisation is to pretend to be a character from another Shakespearean play. Thus, a person logged into the #hamnet channel during December preparations suddenly changed his/her nick from <Spectator> to <MacBeth>(line 1164). The move does not go unnoticed:
Line 1171: <Recorder> Wrong play Spectator. ;-) (logfile, December, 1993)
<Recorder>'s wink ;-) is in recognition of the playfulness in this move. <MacBeth> proceeds to exploit his nick, pretending to talk to one of the witches in Cockney dialect:
Line 1175: <MacBeth> oy! hag! wots in ya cauldren? (logfile, December, 1993)
In the original, Macbeth does not actually ask the witches what is in their cauldron; rather, he asks them what they do, and how they know what they know:
Macbeth. How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! what is't you do?… I conjure you, by that which you profess, Howe'er you come to know it, answer me; (Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1: 47-51).
Moments later <Quantum Cat> types:
Line 1273: *MacBeth wonders if he is in the right play. (logfile, December, 1993)
(To remind readers how these lines are entered, this is done by typing “/me wonders if he is in the right play”; the /me command turns the text into a descriptor of the person.) This is yet another form of playfulness, and by Harris's own account, a very important component of the ability to create virtual theater on IRC (Harris, 1995b). <Quantum Cat> is both “inside” the role of MacBeth and “outside” it; he pretends to be a character in search of a play, something like Pirandello's characters in search of an author.
In addition to citing passages from other plays, participants also play with lines from the original script of Hamlet, as in the following example during preparations for the February performance:
Line 858:<Uros>: To be or not to be¨that is the question now (logfile, February, 1994)
This line was entered when all participants were extremely worried about the possibility of an imminent netsplit. The addition of “now” turns the citation into a witty comment on RL vulnerabilities of the medium and the likelihood of a netsplit.
Another instance of playful citation was <KaiKul>'s recycling of Hamlet's line “Get thee to a nunnery,” which he typed to <Ophelia> long before the performance ever started:
Line 1124:<KaiKul> Get thee to a nunnery woman. >! (Logfile, December, 1993)
By far the best improvisation on Shakespearean texts which we have encountered in all six performances, to date, occurred in the waning moments of the ill-fated November attempt to perform “Hamnet”. The performance was already in shambles, as a result of the electricity outage in California, and Harris himself was about to log off, after having managed, as he put it, “to hack his way back on” via a server in Taiwan. At that point, someone logged on as <rosenKRNZ> and began to spout clever parodies of Hamlet and Macbeth:
864 *** RosenKRNZ is now known as Hamlet
867 <Hamlet> ∧ the question
868 <Producer> Welcome lobber… the perf is cancelled
869 <Hamlet> Whether tis nobler to the mind
870 <tyree> So pls keep me posted on retry huh Producerf?
871 <Hamlet> To suffer the splits and lags
872 <Hamlet> That net is hair to
873 <Producer> tyree:u bet
874 <Hamlet> Tis a logoffing devoutly to be wished
875 <lobber> was wondering where everybody was
876 <Producer> Hamlet:u hv definitely got the idea
877 <Hamlet> To lag, to split
882 <Hamlet> And with a nick to say we…
884 <Hamlet> The heartaches and thousand kilobytes]…
888 <Hamlet> Why don't we do MacBeth?
889 <Hamlet> She should have lagged hereafter (logfile, November, 1993)
While the others wind down after the failed performance, <RosenKRNZ> produces a brilliant improvisation on the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. (It is unlikely that he had coordinated with Harris to play the part of <R_krantz> since he crops “Rosencrantz” to <RosenKRNZ>.) A moment later he changes his nick to <Hamlet>, suggesting that though he may know Shakespeare well, and may even have worked a bit on preparing some kind of parody of this famous soliloquy, he was reacting spontaneously to the situation (we will return to this issue later). He forges ahead, mindless of what the others are saying.
The parody is clever, first of all, because of the reformulation of “to be or not to be” in even more condensed form than in Harris's script: “2B | !2B” is the mathematician's formal way of expressing “is/is not.” This is outdoing–“out-speed-writing”– even Harris himself. Even more impressive is <Hamlet>'s quick adaptation to the disastrous situation brought about by the electrical problem. Let us compare his parody with the original:
Line 56 To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles 60 And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep. No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to; 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die: to sleep. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)
<Hamlet> has substituted “splits” and “lags” for slings and arrows (line 870). In addition to this being entirely appropriate on the semantic level for the kinds of troubles that IRCers are “heir” to, and for the immediate situation at hand, these are remarkably good approximations on the level of sound: “splits” and “lags” are both single-syllable words, and “splits” begins with spl; “slings” is also a one-syllable word, beginning with sl. Moreover, both words have the same vowel sound i. While “lags” has only one syllable and “arrows” has two, they share the same a vowel. Finally, the plurals ending in s in the parodic phrase are not only appropriate semantically but echo the plural in the original.
The transformation of the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to into “the splits and lags/ That net is hair to” is technically not perfect in terms of amount of phonetic material, but, nevertheless, it is extremely clever. Not only does <Hamlet> substitute one pair of troubles for another, Net- related pair, but he draws a contrast between “flesh” and “net”: just as the flesh is heir to troubles, so the Net is subject to troubles as well–splits and lags. He cannot resist the temptation to substitute the near-homophone “hair” for “heir”, because of his association to “net” as in “hair net” (in “hair” the h is aspirated; in “heir” it is not.
He substitutes “logoffing” for “consummation”, also a clever move. In this context, consummation obvious means “death” or “end” in the original. To log off, or to be logged off–cut off–is a kind of “Net- death.” Not only that, for those who are long-time IRCers, its quasi- addictive quality creates extreme frustration when one is “bumped” from the Net or one's equipment is down, for one technical reason or another. William Gibson, author of Neuromancer (1984), the quintessential cyberpunk science fiction novel, portrays the central character of the novel, called Case, as “high,” feeling good, only when he is “jacked in” to cyberspace. Thus, only someone like our Net- Hamlet, who is “mad,” could prefer cyber-death to being “wired” and logged on.
“To lag, to split/ No more” is a clever adaptation of To die, to sleep no more. Once again, the symmetries are impressive, if not perfect: both pairs are one-syllable words, to begin with. Second, in both instances, the member of the pair with the larger amount of phonetic material falls into the second slot–it takes longer to pronounce “split” than “lag”, just as it takes longer to realize “sleep” than “die”. In short, both expressions conform to what is known as the “principle of end-weight” which is often characteristic of binomial expressions–word pairs (Malkiel, 1959; Gustafsson, 1974, 1976; Danet, 1984). Third, and perhaps most remarkable of all, “sleep” and “split” contain precisely the same three consonants!
Harris (<Producer>) is so impressed by this improvisation that he performs the /who command, to see what he can find out about <Hamlet>'s identity. Here is what he learns:
881:*** on channels: #hamnet (logfile, November, 1993)
Our <Hamlet> turns out to be a student at the Technion, Israel's M.I.T., who has tucked yet another nickname: “Quantum Cat,” into the material included with his address.
Moved to compete with <Hamlet>, Harris then loads his “advice” file, the extended parody of Hamlet's advice to the actors in the play-within-the play, thus showing that he too can produce a good parody. As clever as it is, we know that his parody was composed offline, whereas those we are looking at here are improvised, to a great extent if not entirely.
890 Line <Producer> Enter the speech, I pray u, as I /QUERYd it to you…
891 <Producer> Trippingly on the kybd…
892 <Producer> But if u screw it up, as many of our Unix ops do…
893 <Producer> I had as lief the town crier opped my /loads
894 <Producer> Nor do not decorate yr lines w/attribs too much, ∧V thus,
895 <Producer> For in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say whirlwind of yr passion….
896 <Producer> ….You must give + beget a temperance that may lend irc smoothness
Another participant, called <Tyree>, tries to keep up, typing:
Line 898:<tyree> Fraility, thy nick=woman (logfile, November, 1993)
This is, of course, a close approximation of “Frailty, thy name is woman,” from another famous soliloquy in Hamlet, the one in Act I, Scene 2 that begins “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” (I.2.129). “Nick” is a clever substitute for name, not only because it is a contemporary special case of the more general name, but also since both are one-syllable words beginning with n.
Still in disguise as <Hamlet>, Quantum Cat now begins yet another wonderful parody, a “mish-mash” of no less than four different, famous passages from Macbeth, Here is the first portion:
899 Line 899:<Hamlet> Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
900 900:<Hamlet> Creeps this pitty Boudrate d
901 901:<Hamlet> From channel to channel
902 902:<Hamlet> Til the last bit of logged in time
903 903:<Hamlet> And all out /whowases out merely carriers
905 905:<Hamlet> Lighting the \path or blinded fools
Despite the infelicities of rapid typing this is, of course, a recognizable send-up of the famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5: 19-23).
He has substituted baud rate for pace, a wonderful choice, since “baud rate” is the technical term for the speed at which modems transfer information over telephone lines. This speed is never fast enough for users: although in a matter of years it has climbed from 300 to 2400 to 14,400, and increasingly to 28,800 baud.
Logged in time is substituted for recorded time, once again equating “life” with being logged on, as he did in the parody of Hamlet cited above. And bit instead of syllable is an apt choice too: whereas syllable is used by Shakespeare metaphorically as the smallest unit of time, Quantum Cat mobilizes the very word which means not only “small piece or amount” in the general sense, but also happens to be the technical name for the smallest amount of information in the world of computers. Finally, /whowases shares with yesterdays the idea of “past,” something in the past. /whowas happens to be is an IRC command which players can use to check the identity of some person who has just logged off–it means “Who was X?” A person who has logged off is essentially “dead” to those still logged onto a channel.
This passage is followed by a parody of lines from the two famous scenes in Macbeth, in which Macbeth encounters the witches. <Hamlet> writes:
907 <Hamlet> Hail McBOT that shall be Choped!
908 <Hamlet> Double double noise and troublelag +tub; (logfile, November, 1993)
The original of the first is:
Witch 1. All hail, M hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
Witch 2. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
Witch 3. All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be King hereafter. (Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3: 48-50).
The line in <Hamlet>'s parody may appear merely to predict that McBot will be “chopped,” e.g., chopped down, killed, contrary to the original line, but this is incorrect. In fact, this is a clever translation of the idea of the original into IRC jargon. In every channel, only one person may receive the status of channel operator– the person who may grant or deny various privileges to the others logged onto that channel–e.g., to give them “voice” (/voice), to kick, kill or ban them (from the channel or the server), and so on. The first person to join a channel, to “open” it, is automatically designated as the channel operator. But once several people are logged on, the rights of the channel operator may be passed on to others. In typical IRC jargon, “channel operator” is abbreviated to “chanop.” Thus to be “chanoped,” or, in its even briefer version, to be choped, is to be promoted–to be king of the channel!
McBot picks up on the preoccupation with “bots” and the difficulties of knowing whether a participant on IRC is a person or a bot–“bot” as in “robot,” a kind of computer program. Many servers incorporate “bots” which perform various functions and can even be programmed to “say” things which make them sound like people!
Once again, there are phonetic similarities between the original and the parody; the phonetic distance from Macbeth to McBot is not very great: beth and bot both begin with b, and th and t are the voiced and unvoiced versions of the same consonant. From there it is easy enough to add the humorous “Mc” in McBot.
As for the second line, this is a transformation of
All (3 witches). Double, double toil and trouble; Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble. Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1: 10-11).
“Noise” is substituted for “toil”, and “troublelag” for just plain “trouble”. In the IRC context, “noise” doesn't just mean abrasive sound in the usual sense–it often means “disturbances online,” including, perhaps, those of netsplits–in other words, various forms of technical interference with the smoothness of communication. Note also that noise shares with the original “toil” the same vowel sound oi. Thus, once again, the expression both makes sense, semantically, and maintains some continuity of sound.
Line 906:<Hamlet> Is this a channel I see before me? (logfile, November, 1993)
This line is straight from the passage
Is this a dagger, which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:– I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. (Macbeth, Act II, Scene 1: 33-35).
Once again the substitution of “channel” for “dagger” is far more than the mere substitution of one noun for another. Just as the dagger comes and goes in Macbeth's consciousness, so channels come and go, because of the infernal problem of netsplits. But whereas Macbeth is haunted by the image of something he'd like to be rid of, Quantum Cat and other IRCers want just the opposite: they want to see what is constantly eluding them. On the level of sound there are again impressive symmetries. “Channel” and “dagger” are both two-syllable words with the accent on the first syllable and with the vowel a in the first syllable.
As if all this play with Shakespearean texts weren't enough, <Hamlet> manages to get a parodic snippet of still another one on screen, before Harris closes shop for the day, this time from Romeo and Juliet:
Line 915:<Hamlet> But soft, what Topic through yonder channel Breaks? (logfile, November, 1993)
The original is a line of Romeo's from Act II, Scene 2, “But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” (line 2). Quantum Cat might have gone parodying Romeo and Juliet and other plays, if Harris and the others had not logged off at that point.
Were these parodies entirely improvised online? Or, had Quantum Cat reviewed his Shakespeare carefully and, in fact, prepared them ahead of time? We should also ask: is English his native language? After all, for most Israelis, Hebrew is the native language. Perhaps he is an immigrant, or the son of immigrants from an English-speaking country. We say “he” rather than “she” because the majority of students in technical and scientific subjects in Israel, as elsewhere, tend to be male.
We cannot know how much he had prepared in advance, but a careful examination of his parodies of many of these speeches strongly suggests that they were not fully worked out in advance. While he may have done his homework, and jotted down some ideas for parodies, we believe that he suited the contents at least partially “on the fly,” to the crisis of the moment–the current netsplit caused by the thunderstorm. He may have thought ahead of time that “splits and lags” are a suitable kind of trouble to substitute in the soliloquy, but, most likely he never dreamt that he would have an opportunity to use this idea quite so soon.
There is an additional argument in support of this interpretation. Fully worked out parodies tend to be more perfect in form than those of Quantum Cat, with careful lexical substitutions in critical places; however they may also be somewhat pedestrian (see, e.g., the parody of Hamlet's soliloquy in Brett, 1984). Thus, we are quite convinced that even if he reread his Shakespeare in advance, and even if he began drafting some parodies, there is an extremely impressive, major online component to them.
A Carnival of Wordplay
We have seen that exuberant improvisation permeates performances of “Hamnet”, so much so that we have referred to them, off and on, as “carnivalesque.” But how, readers might want to ask, can we speak of “carnival” if this medium is disembodied? Carnival has always been a celebration of the body, especially “the lower bodily stratum” (Stam, 1989: 90; Bakhtin, 1968). Peter Burke (1978: 186) reminds us that the word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne–meaning both “meat” and “the flesh”. “Hamnet” performances are obviously not carnivals as we have known them in the past: there is no smell of roasting meat, no rollicking music, no jostling crowd of people bumping into one another, no wild dancing in the streets, no dazzling play of color in celebrants' costumes. Except for relatively minor additions of graphics and sound, what we have till now–certainly in productions of “Hamnet”, but even in productions of the later scripts– is just a lot of typing! Nevertheless, we suggest that performances are “carnivals of words” in a more than superficial sense.
In Caillois's (1961) terms, PAIDIA is present as well as LUDUS. PAIDIA is “the spontaneous manifestations of the play instinct” (Caillois, 1961: 28) and LUDUS, “a taste for gratuitous difficulty” (Caillois, 1961: 27). Both spontaneous and structured forms of play are present. In the spirit of our discussion of the “both/and” nature of “Hamnet” scripts and performances, in the Introduction to this paper, we can now suggest that they are both theater (LUDUS) and carnival (PAIDIA). Despite the absence of the body, if one lays the template of “carnival” against our materials, the overlap is striking, indeed. In Figure 2, presented below, we list basic elements of traditional RL carnivals, and their manifestations or equivalents in “Hamnet” performances.
*If the following does not appear to you as a table, please click here
Many elements of Mikhail Bakhtin's famous analysis of carnivals (Bakhtin, 1968) are present in our materials, as inspection of a list developed by Stam (1989: 93-94) reveals. To begin with, what Bakhtin calls the valorization of Eros, or the life force is unmistakably present in the exuberant spirit of these performances.
Second, just as RL carnivals usually are characterized by a dramatic concatenation of life and death, or highlight themes of death handled in a slapdash manner, so we found the Punch-and-Judy-like killing off of characters in “Hamnet”. Built into the script, it was carried out with gusto and often with additional flourishes in actual performances. Third, just as in RL carnivals, people wear masks and costumes which transform their identities, so IRCers–in this case both performers and audience members–“wear” nicks which transform their RL identity. Through this transformation they are temporarily released from their RL identity, and have license to be and do what they want. Moreover, in the case of virtual theater, the players “get into costume” by changing their regular nicks to the special ones called for by their role. Fourth, though there is less preoccupation with the body than in RL carrnivals, the little that is present is very prominent. Recall the virtual representations of “piddling” and “farting” in “public.” As for subversion of established power, there is some ambiguity as to how to apply this category to a situation of virtual interaction. What is subverted, and what are the power arrangements that are being subverted–those of the real world or those existing within IRC? At the least, the parodization of canonical Shakespeare, not only at the level of the script, but the constant improvised reference to other plays besides Hamlet, and the ease with which people incorporate their themes and content into their games, are certainly subversive. In addition, making fun of the rules and practices of IRC seemingly subverts them but also contributes to their validation, much as what happens in RL carnivals (Turner, 1969; 1986a; 1986b; Gluckman, 1956; 1963, cited in Burke, 1978: 201). Perhaps the prime characteristic of carnivals is the sense of communitas, of the temporary suspension of hierarchical difference while participants are in a liminal state, and the resultant feelings of solidarity among equals (Bakhtin, 1968; Turner, 1969, 1986a, 1986b; Stam, 1989). Team spirit, an awareness of a unique mutual undertaking, even a sense of making history together certainly characterize performers and audience members, as we have seen. This spirit also leads to celebration of the event, at a “cast party, “including the imbibing of virtual champagne. Valorization of “low” language is a seventh feature of carnivals–release from the need to use polite, cultivated or civilized language. We saw this in abundance in “Hamnet” performances–well beyond even that already in the script. Rampant obscenity, slang and colloquialisms were threaded throughout, even beyond what is called for by the script. Related to the proliferation of low language in carnivals is the rejection of decorum at the behavioral level (no. 8, Figure 2). In our materials, once again, there are many instances of this. We find breaches of etiquette-e.g., audience members threatening to throw fruit or being noisy and interrupting the proceedings, performers flirting with one another, though this is not called for by their role. There are also breaches of (IRC) Netiquette. Witness the behavior of <javalima> in December:
Line 974:*** javalima has changed the topic on channel #Hamnet to shit (logfile, December, 1993)
There is an unwritten norm on IRC that one doesn't barge in on a channel; second, one doesn't change the topic–that is the prerogative of the chanop–the channel operator. Third, the offensive choice of topic speaks for itself.
Yet another of the features of carnivals stressed by Bakhtin, the presence of an anticlassical aesthetic–the mixing of styles and voices–is, as we have seen, overwhelmingly present in “Hamnet” performances. We saw that the players greatly elaborate on the mix of low language and Shakespearean materials already in the script, adding snippets from other Shakespearean plays, mocking Shakespearean style, and so on. Recall the contrast we drew between the archaic Renaissance language of Shakespeare himself and the many super-contemporary expressions threaded throughout the logs. One of our best examples was “Exeunt the Pope and his entourage.” This delightful bit of nonsense dresses contemporary imaginary content with the Latin exeunt, straight out of the obsolete language of script-writing.
RL carnivals are participatory spectacles par excellence; the boundaries between performers and spectators become blurred, as spectators join in the festivities, and all become part of the same milling crowd. “Hamnet” performances are also spectacles–textual ones. The primary sense involved is that of sight–everything that takes place must be seen on the computer screen. Even more important is the fact that audience members are very active. As we saw, only one person is supposed to play “audience,” but in fact, those who come to see the show invent all kinds of virtual bits of behavior, verbal and non-verbal–passing popcorn, hissing and booing, expressing impatience, and so on. As in RL spectacles, there is also a definite sense of occasion; this was noted already at the very beginning of this paper.
Finally we come to the component which we see as most important of all in the present context, what we have called the sense of abandon in Figure 2. In Stam's (1989) synthesis of Bakhtin's model of carnivals, he mentions uncontrollable, wild laughter as one of their most prominent features:
The culture of real laughter (as opposed to canned or forced laughter) is absolutely central to Bakhtin's conception of carnival: enormous, creative, derisive, renewing laughter that grasps phenomena in the process of change and transition…. Carnivalesque laughter can be raucous, subversive, even angry…laughter is profound, communitarian, erotic, a current passing from self to self in a free and familiar atmosphere. (Stam, 1989: 120).
If, after all, we are analyzing written communication on computer screens, and if we have no taperecordings of participants' responses as they sat in front of their monitors, what evidence can we provide of the sense of abandon which accompanies uncontrollable laughter? There are some instances of written-out laughter in the log, usually written as “hehehehe.” However, these instances are rare. At the same time, judging by our own reactions, we are sure that both players and audience were not just having a wonderful time, but had many a belly laugh. Moreover, we believe there is evidence in the logs themselves that justifies this claim. In RL carnivals uncontrollable laughter is one expression of ilinx. Caillois (1961) classified games into four categories, one of which is ilinx, or vertigo. Ilinx consists of “an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception…(and) reality with sovereign brusqueness” (Caillois, 1961: 23). We agree with Test (1991) that
no linguistic phenomenon can compete with physical activity in inducing this condition….But language can shock, inflict pain, induce instability, and otherwise disorient perceptions and feelings in such a way that is as real as dizziness or the feeling of falling (Test, 1991: 133).
Hamnet performances are carnivals of wordplay. In any instance where the formal aspects of language are foregrounded, where the free play of signifiers predominates, there is potential distraction from taking in referential meaning (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1976, Introduction; Palmer, 1994: 140-141), but the distraction is usually relatively limited. When wordplay is as rich and prominent as it is in our materials, and experienced in a rowdy crowd atmosphere, even if virtual, participants share a sense of heightened excitement. Perhaps the zenith of this excitement was experienced in the December performance during the sequence of ping pong punning. In the spirit of Test's (1991) discussion of ilinx in literature, we suggest that even a one-line pun is a “tiny ilinx”, to borrow his term; it can induce an explos of laughter. We believe that there is a cumulative effect of being present at, and of participating in extended sequences of wordplay in “Hamnet” performances. If our own experience is any indication, people tend to laugh much more than is obvious from their typed reactions, and even to laugh out loud–a phenomenon which, as we mentioned at the beginning of the paper, is quite rare for individuals when alone.
A distinction is often made between wit and humor, the former being more intellectual and the latter more earthy and emotional. We might allow ourselves a reserved smile at a witty remark, but break out in a hearty laugh at an earthy, humorous one. This would be in keeping with the general notion that wit is an expression of refinement, subtlety, and the self-control that comes from the policing of the body and the acquisition of gracefulness–“subjecting one's communication with the outside world to a set of aesthetic norms” (Palmer, 1994: 132).
Which variety is the more prevalent in “Hamnet” performances? We believe that Hamnet wordplay is both very funny and very witty. A good deal of the wordplay includes components which are likely to induce spontaneous laughter. For example, the ping-pong punning sequence in the December log is both witty and obscene. In contrast, an example like “Exeunt the Pope and his entourage” is more narrowly witty and would, if our experience is any indication, evoke an appreciative smile and/or some textual equivalent of it.
When Harris played a parlor wordgame with <Geekchrus> in the December performance, <Geekchrus> rose to the challenge of the game and came up with a clever move. In appreciation, Harris commented,
328:<_Producer> good 1 (logfile, December performance)
This is a perfect example of a reserved, yet appreciative reaction to evidence of pure wit. Most other humor in “Hamnet” performances is a mixture of wit and more earthy varieties of humor, mainly because of the prevalence of obscenity.