1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

This is a study of the Hamnet Players, a group who perform parodies of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). We focus primarily on their first production, a hilarious parody of Hamlet, called “Hamnet”. The main source of humor is the playfully irreverent juxtaposition of Shakespearean plot, characters and language with materials from Net and IRC culture. Hamnet productions are currently primarily textual, but the players are already experimenting with graphics and sound. We analyze (1) the substantive and stylistic features of the “Hamnet” script; (2) the logistics of virtual production; (3) improvisational play with the Shakespearean canon, the “theater game,” language itself, the IRC software, and the situation of typed online interaction. Our approach draws on sociolinguistics and discourse analysis; the ethnography of oral genres of verbal art; Shakespearean studies and analyses of literary genres; research on communication and popular culture; and recent studies of language, play and performance in computer-mediated communication. Hamnet productions are not only experiments in virtual theater; they are also carnivals of wordplay, chock-full of wit and humor. They provide new and important evidence for the rise of interactive digital writing as stylized performance.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

On the 12th of December, 1994, a few dozen people gathered at an event which made cyber-history: an experimental performance on IRC–Internet Relay Chat–of a hilarious parody of Shakespeare's Hamlet, irreverently renamed “Hamnet.” Eighteen persons were to be performers; the rest had come to watch the show. Parodies of Shakespeare are nothing new–there is a long tradition of writing and performing them both in the United Kingdom and in the United States (Davison, 1982; Brett, 1984; Levine, 1988). Hamlet was a particular favorite in 19th-century American parodies (Levine, 1988). But there was something very new and unusual about this event: the audience didn't have to dress up or cope with traffic jams to get to the theater–they could even attend in their pajamas. Performers didn't have to worry about their makeup or costumes either, and it was more important for them to be able to type fast than to project their voices. The performance “took place” not in a real-world (RL) theater, but in a virtual auditorium–a specially designated channel on IRC called #hamnet, after the name of the group engaged in this experiment in virtual theater–the Hamnet Players–and its first production.

Participants felt that something important was happening. A strong “sense of occasion” or of “collaborative expectancy” (Bauman, 1977: 16) permeated the event. People made many comments revealing their excitement. One person declared, “We are making cyber-history” (logfile, December performance, L: 1969). Another young participant gushed, “I want my MOM to see me!!!!” (logfile, December performance, L: 1971). Participants' excitement was also manifest in their desire to document the event and retain some memory of it. Many people asked to receive a log of the event; others announced that they were already logging it. Participants even celebrated after the show by drinking virtual champagne passed around by the person playing Laertes, who “pop[ped] the bubbly” (logfile, December performance, L: 2404).

In the months that followed, the group performed “Hamnet” a second time, and also developed and performed two additional scripts, based on Shakespeare's Macbeth and Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. In the same witty spirit which characterized the parody of Hamlet, the others were called “Pcbeth- An IBM Clone,” and “An IRC Channel Named #Desire”. “Pcbeth” played on the ongoing rivalry these days between IBM and IBM compatible clones and Macintosh computers.

While we missed the online performances of “Hamnet”, having discovered the Hamnet Players too late, we observed those of “Pcbeth” and “An IRC Channel Named #Desire” in real time. Moreover, three of us even had minor roles in later productions. Tsameret Wachenhauser played <usher>, “passing out programs” to those requesting them; in “#Desire” she was also “sound girl,” distributing snippets of New Orleans jazz upon request. Haya Bechar-Israeli served as <ASM>, Assistant Stage Manager in the first performance of “#Desire”, and as <SM>, Stage Manager, in the second. Brenda Danet played a minor, three-line role as <Lady_R> in one production of “Pcbeth”. This experience as observers and participants in the online festivities complemented and greatly enhanced our ability to analyze scripts and logs of performances. Most of the richness of the original performance is preserved in the logs, though the use of expressive means like blinking, beeping, boldface, underlining or reverse video unfortunately is not, and there is no substitute for being present and experiencing the flow of events in real time.

Computers and Theater

In the past, we have always understood the “magic” of theater to happen in specially set aside spaces, in which a special form of communication between audience and performers sets off “sparks” of a unique kind. The very physicality of theater has always been a very important component of it. Indeed, some might argue that without the presence of the body, theater cannot exist (Barba and Saverese, 1991). The expression “virtual theater” is, consequently, an oxymoron, bringing together two contradictory elements in a manner which creates an explosion of new meaning.

The application of computers to theater-related purposes was perhaps inevitable. Many people have recognized the inherently playful nature of the computer as medium (e.g., Rafaeli, 1984, 1986; Myers, 1987; Bolter, 1991; Reid, 1991; Reid, 1995; Raymond, 1991; Aycock, 1993; Kuehn, 1993; Lanham, 1993; Ruedenberg et al., 1995; Danet, et al. in press). Richard Lanham believes that “the personal computer…[is] a device of intrinsic dramaticality” (Lanham, 1993: 6). The speed, flexibility, interactivity, and richness of possibilities the computer offers–even in mere text, let alone when multimedia options are available–turns every user into a kind of “director” of his or her own show. Similarly, Brenda Laurel argues that the theater metaphor is a powerful way to understand all human-computer interaction (Laurel, 1991). Playfulness is often present even in asynchronous forms of CMC, including private email and postings to listserv and Usenet discussion lists (see Myers, 1987; Aycock, 1993; Kuehn, 1993; Baym, 1995, this issue), but flowers particularly in synchronous chat modes like IRC and MUDs and MOOs (Bechar-Israeli, 1995, and both this issue; Reid, 1991; Reid, 1995; Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press). The IRC software contributes two additional features: its inherent script-like quality and the fact that it employs direct speech as its main mode of communication. This is not true of all synchronous chat modes– MUDs and MOOs are based on a more indirect and descriptive mode of representing action and interaction (see Marvin, 1995, this issue).

Bizarre as it may seem to those entertaining the idea of “theater” in cyberspace for the very first time, or with little or no first-hand experience of the Internet, in performances by the Hamnet Players, audience and performers are geographically dispersed around the globe. Each person, whether a performer or a member of the audience, is seated at a PC or mainframe computer, probably alone in most cases, and logged onto IRC and to a channel called #hamnet.

Nevertheless, performers and audience constitute a focused gathering: “the kind of interaction that occurs when persons gather close together and openly cooperate to sustain a single focus of attention, typically by taking turns at talking” (Goffman, 1963: 24). The challenge to sustain this focus can be considerable and is not unlike that in street theater. In outdoor, public settings, performers must often compete with traffic and noise for their audience's attention (Mason, 1992). Similarly, virtual performers on IRC must compete with IRCers' tendency to participate in more than one channel at a time, to drop in and out of channels, to send private messages back and forth, etc. Still, even a brief examination of logs of performances suffices to become convinced that attention is indeed mainly focused on a single activity. The IRC software guarantees orderly turns at talking, so that performers can usually produce their “lines” in the sequence called for by the script, just as is necessary in RL performances. Individuals cooperate effectively to produce a joint event with a clear beginning, middle and end, and even hold a “cast party” to celebrate it, afterwards. The Hamnet Players are not the only group2 to experiment with virtual theater in the last few years, though we believe they have been able to achieve the most, to date. The group was founded by Stuart Harris: inline image an Englishman now living in California, a veteran player on IRC, former actor, and a computer professional and author of a manual on IRC (Harris, 1995a). He gained three years' experience as a semi-professional actor on the festival circuit, and two more as a professional in London and in provincial repertory theater, with further experience as a director in television (personal communication to Brenda Danet, July 25, 1995). Harris's unique background and combination of talents led him to recognize the dramatic potential of IRC.

…since all participants in an irc conversation may choose whatever nickname they wish to be known by…and since an irc channel may contain many people who contribute nothing, but merely watch, the elements of theatre are there: a cast of characters with names like Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius etc. can be convened and an audience invited to watch. (Harris, 1995b: 500)

Playful Irreverence: The Spirit of the Hamnet Players

Harris's irreverent spirit and love of wordplay–both features which flourish in all Hamnet activities, to a degree perhaps even greater than on IRC more generally (Reid, 1991; Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press; Bechar-Israeli, 1995, (this issue)–are immediately evident in his email address and in his regular nick (nickname) on IRC. Here is his email address: (The_Tijuana_Piss_Artist)

The userid “sirrah” in his email address is an anagram: “Harris” spelled backwards! Not everyone whose name could be turned into an anagram would be observant enough to do so, let alone adopt it in a playful, sly way, which challenges readers to decode it! But that is not all: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sirrah” is an archaic term of address to an inferior, “expressing contempt, reprimand, or the assumption of authority on the part of the speaker.” It was used in Shakespeare's time and even by Shakespeare himself, as in Macbeth IV.ii.30.

Exploiting the opportunity to add a bit of expressive textual material in parentheses, alongside his email address, as many people do, Harris sometimes calls himself “The_Tijuana_Piss_Artist.” This is an irreverent way of hinting that he is a “laid-back” person living near the Mexican border. In a personal communication to Brenda Danet, he wrote that he often goes to bars just over the border in Tijuana, where some people call him “El Ingles” (“the Englishman”).

This is his usual nick on IRC and is thus is in the same playful spirit as his userid. Sometimes, instead of “The_Tijuana_Piss_Artist”, another expression appears alongside his email address: (irco_ergo_sum) “Irco ergo sum” is of course a playful reworking of cogito ergo sum. Instead of Descartes' famous Latin epigram, “I think, therefore I am,” he has written, “I IRC, therefore I am”!. The name “Hamnet Players” is particularly rich in cultural resonances. A “ham” is “an ineffective or overemphatic actor, one who rants or overacts” (Oxford English Dictionary). Thus, besides being an obvious pun on Hamlet, the expression invites association to “hamming it up on the Net”–behaving in an exaggerated, theatrical fashion while logged onto the Internet. Another meaning of “ham” is also pertinent, that in “ham radio,” uninstitutionalized mediated radio communication, run by amateurs, outside the formal broadcasting framework. Ham radio culture shares with hacker culture, as well as with Net culture more generally, something of its subversive, “alternative” nature.

Yet another association is to a son of Shakespeare, called “Hamnet,” who died at the age of 11 on August 11, 1596 (Muir, 1971); Hamnet was a twin-his sister Judith survived him. The son, in turn, had been named after a friend of Shakespeare's, “a Baker of Stratford,” who was present at Shakespeare's funeral and was remembered in his will.

A Repertory Company?

The phrase “Hamnet Players” creates the impression that Harris intended to develop an online repertory company, and that such a company may have crystallized over time. This is not exactly the case, although some continuity from one script and performance to another was desirable. There has been considerable turnover from one performance to another. Although there have been a few “faithfuls,” by and large, fresh “faces” turned up at succeeding performances. This was all to the good, as it happened, enhancing the prospects for surprising, creative improvisation. In a retrospective comment, with six performances behind him, Harris wrote:

I intend to resist this temptation [of having a stable company]… We need the pain of recruiting new people–to keep up the all- important international mix, and to keep things growing. That's not to say I'll ever insist on a totally fresh cast, just continue to keep a balance (personal electronic communication to Brenda Danet, July 25, 1995).

The Hamnet Players and the Problem of Genre

Harris has many names for the activities of his group. On various occasions he has used “Internet Theatre,”“participatory performance art forum,”“an emerging art form,”“a “romp,” an “extravaganza,”“an obscene pastiche,”“virtual theater,” and even “virtual reality drama” (Harris, 1995b). We could add others: “travesty,”“spoof,”“burlesque”, “farrago,”“take-off,”“send- up,” and so on. Whatever term we choose, Hamnet scripts and productions are quintessentially postmodern in their irreverent, playful hijinks. At the same time, behind the playfulness are some serious aspirations to use the technology of IRC in a new and creative way. “Play” and “serious” frames of communication coexist (Bateson, 1972; Handelman, 1976). What “inferential walk” (Eco, 1979: 32; cited in Hutcheon, 1985: 53), then, do Hamnet scripts and performances invite us to take? To begin to answer this question, we need to ask, what genre of literary activity or popular culture is represented in the script?

There are many terms used in the analysis of literature, both high and low, which might be applicable. One possibility is to call Hamnet scripts a type of farce. Following Davis (1978), we see them as farcical in many ways, though they are not farces. A farce is a type of “broad, physical, visual comedy, whose effects are pre-eminently theatrical and intended solely to entertain; comedy which is slapstick” (Davis, 1978: 1). Like classic farces, Hamnet scripts do away with psychological depth of characterization, reducing plots to such an extent that a mere shell of the main characters survives. We can even argue that the verbal frolics in Hamnet scripts and productions are the textual equivalent of wild physical slapstick (Stewart, 1978). However, unlike true farce, Hamnet scripts (as well as productions) also have serious intent. Parody is a more persuasive candidate than farce. The parodic elements in Hamnet scripts would be obvious to most people with some high school education in the West, who have been exposed to Shakespeare in school, or have seen theater productions or films of Shakespearean plays, even if they have no knowledge of the Internet or little experience with computers. The obvious stylistic butchering of Hamlet and Macbeth, turning these tragedies into laughable comedies, makes it is easy to argue that we are dealing with a form of parody, and let it go at that. Nash (1985), among others, distinguishes between two forms of parody, that in which a traditional work is rewritten in modern terms, versus the use of formal means from one period or text to produce another work or text of entirely different content. By this criterion, Hamnet scripts clearly fall into the former category. “Pastiche” is an apt term too: pastiche involves a number of different styles pieced together to form a medley; as Maurice Charney (1978: 15) puts it, “this is parody of the most virtuoso sort.”

Linda Hutcheon's (1985) definition of parody as “repetition with critical difference” is very pertinent. Postmodern parody, she argues, is often devoid of ridicule. The new text does not necessarily ridicule the old, as as often been the case in the past. Contemporary parody may pay homage to canonical artistic creation of the past, yet at the same time, serve as a means to innovate, to revolutionalize, to invite critical thinking. Unlike earlier forms of parody, then, postmodern parody does not require us to give priority to one of the two texts. “It is the fact that they differ that parody emphasizes, and, indeed, dramatizes” (Hutcheon, 1985: 31).

Viewed from a different angle, as it were, Hamnet scripts can also be seen as form of satirical commentary on IRC public life. Satire has traditionally been thought of as judgmental–having victims and specific objects of attack–not literary texts but social institutions and practices, individuals or social groups. It can be savage or it can be gentle, but it is always aggressive (Test, 1991; Hutcheon, 1985; 1994). The satirical style in the Hamnet scripts is of a more contemporary variety, a heightening of the aggressive, agonistic style of communication which is prevalent on IRC.

In our opinion, a case can be made for viewing these scripts both as parody and as satire. It is a matter of figure and ground: if the focus is primarily on the Shakespearean sources and what is done with them, we are in the realm of parody; if it is primarily on the many references to IRC and computer culture, we are in the realm of satire. Both alternative views are valid, and reflect the ongoing dynamic interchange between a society and its cultural products. For better or for worse, the spirit of playful aggression permeates the IRC community.

Form versus Content

Another aspect of the dual nature of Hamnet scripts is the tension between form and content. Richard Lanham's concept of “bi-stability” is relevant here (Lanham, 1993: 5). He adopted this concept to characterize the dynamic tension between the form and content of digital messages. In Lanham's terms, do we look through the extravagant play with signs to see the Shakespearean sources and what has been done to them? Or do we look at the shimmering surface of signs–the carnivalesque play with words and with typography? We need to do both. In the discussion of genre thus far, we have focused on the script. In fact, issues of genre pertain also to performances as well. We will return to these issues at the end of the paper.

The Scope of This Paper

We will restrict ourselves primarily to detailed discussion of the first script, “Hamnet”, and its two performances. Extended discussion of the other scripts and performances will have to await further analysis and publication. Our mandate is, first of all, to provide an ethnographic account of Hamnet activities, to make them accessible to an audience of persons not necessarily familiar with IRC or with Hamnet hijinks. The achievements of the Hamnet Players constitute an important chapter in the rise of writing as interactive performance. We will provide an overview of often virtuoso play with language, typography, identity, and frames of interaction, as well as brilliant improvisation based on motifs derived from Shakespeare's works and other cultural content–all accomplished with the meager means of today's computer keyboard and the possibilities of the IRC software.

Viewed more generally, our mandate is to document one aspect of an important moment in the history of late 20th century adaptation to the new technologies and the emergent culture of the Internet. The new digital technologies change at dizzyingly rapid speed; before we know it, last year's technology is “out” and something new is “in.” The primarily textual experiments in virtual theater studied here are already obsolescent, though none the less important for their pioneering achievements. Productions by the Hamnet Players have already included primitive attempts to incorporate multimedia (Harris, 1995b) – graphics and even sound – making mere textual performance seem constricting–though it is the virtuoso use of such limited means that we find so impressive, and which will be emphasized in this paper. Paradoxically, something may be lost when rich multimedia possibilities become routinely available. We hope that today's documentation will help future historians of communication technologies figure out how tomorrow's society and culture got to where they will be, 50, 100 or 500 years from now.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

Stuart Harris set the tone for all hijinks by the Hamnet Players when he wrote the script for “Hamnet”-an 80-line send-up of the original Hamlet. Here is the complete script of “Hamnet”, including a mini-set of Elsinore Castle, designed in ASCII characters (for a print version, see Harris, 1995b). It is a wonderful example of textual humor: “diverse elements wrought together in a scrupulous design” (Nash, 1985: 25). We find this script downright hilarious, and we hope readers do too. The scripts of all three Hamnet “plays” are riotously funny, and there are many moments in actual performances which are even funnier. When we first encountered this script, each of us laughed out loud, though alone at the computer screen (Brenda Danet had discovered them in late April, 1994, when she spotted a “souvenir program” from the group's recent performance of “Pcbeth” on the Fringeware list). It is quite rare for individuals to laugh out loud when alone; laughter is generally very social in nature. What, then is so funny about Hamnet activities?


In the preface to his book on the language of humor, Walter Nash listed a remarkable grab-bag of phenomena that fall under the rubric of verbal humor:

Here we find wit and word-play and banter and bumfun; slogans and captions and catchwords; allusion and parody; ironies; satires; here are graffiti and limericks; here is the pert rhyme, and here the twisted pun; here are scrambled spellings and skewed pronunciations; here is filth for the filthy…, and here are delicacies for the delicate (Nash, 1985: 1).

Nash's list reads like an inventory specially created for analysis of Hamnet textual pyrotechnics. The main source of humor in Hamnet scripts and performances derives, as it does in most humor, from the unexpected juxtaposition of incongruous materials (Charney, 1978; Hutcheon, 1985; Test, 1991; Oring, 1992; Palmer, 1994)–in this case, the juxtaposition of canonical Shakespearean characters, plots and language with computer jargon and other components of contemporary popular culture.

To appreciate fully the clever humor in this, and the other scripts, and in participants' often virtuoso improvisations on them, one must have an excellent command of both of these two very different cultural codes. One must not only know Shakespeare quite well, but also have a good command of computer, and especially IRC jargon and culture. While the parodic elements in “Hamnet” and “Pcbeth” would be apparent to anyone who has been exposed to Shakespeare in school, computer jargon and the emergent culture of the Net and of IRC are far more esoteric in nature. Part of the challenge of writing this paper is therefore to make the humor deriving from the juxtaposition of elements from the two codes accessible to readers who may not be familiar with IRC. Inevitably, those knowing both codes will laugh the hardest.

Play with the Characters, Plot, and Text of Shakespeare's Hamlet

To begin with, Stuart Harris makes “mincemeat” of the characters, plots and texts of the originals. Reduced size is often a key to the presence of playfulness (Sutton-Smith and Kelley-Bryne, 1984). It is almost always a hallmark of toys: think of dolls and doll houses, tin soldiers, toy cars and trucks, and so on. A manual for collectors of doll houses comments, “Our sense of fun and fantasy are stimulated by miniatures” (Editors of Consumer Guide, 1979: 4). In the present case, gross reduction of the length of the text and caricaturization of plot and action, along with transformation of hallowed Renaissance poetry into late 20th century colloquial prose and even lowly slang, discussed below, transform the play into a kind of typed Punch and Judy show: “bam bam!!!”, “take that!!!” and in minutes nearly everyone is dead! The number of named characters in Hamlet is slashed from 17 to 9. A five-act script which takes ordinarily hours to perform is impertinently butchered to a mere 80 lines. Some characters barely have one or two lines. The part of Polonius, poor man, is reduced to his one-line death cry:

<Polonius> Arrrghhhhh! [50]

Play with the Conventions of Script Writing

The “Hamnet” script contains 17 parts to be cast. The list includes not only the expected Ophelia, Hamlet, King, Queen, etc. but also the seemingly bizarre “Enter,”“Exit,”“Prologue,”“Scene,” and even inanimate objects like “Drums” and “Colors. “Among these “textual” roles, that of “Prologue,” at least, was not entirely Harris's invention. One of the characters in the play-within-the-play in the original Hamlet is also called “Prologue.” At the opening of the play-withinthe-play, he steps forward to declare:

Prologue. For us, and for our tragedy, Here stooping to your clemency, We beg your hearing patiently. Hamlet Act III, Scene 2: 159-161)

This is, thus, another form of intertextuality in the script. Inanimate objects also have to be realized textually, as in

<Drum> Like, rat-a-tat, man [75]

Roles such as “Enter” or “Exit” make it even clearer that Harris is playing with the conventions of script writing. Ordinarily the script of a play makes a clear distinctionbetween stage directions (e.g., “Enter Hamlet”) and actual dialogue. A basic feature of Hamnet productions is that the players perform not the play but the text. Thus, the line

***<<Action>>**:_Enter Hamlet

is not just a stage direction to be read by performers when preparing a production, and to be realized physically when actually performing the play, but an actual role to be performed. One of the roles to be cast is literally called “Enter.” When all actors perform their lines, including these seemingly bizarre ones, they in effect recreate the text online. But that is not all they do; at the same time, they improvise on it in a host of ways, as will be shown in the section on Performing Hamnet. One particularly charming example of how they do this is the following:

608:<_enter> i'm just a lowly stage direction…*sigh*… i have no say……… (Logfile, December, 1993, L: 603).

Play with Language


The most obvious contrast in the “Hamnet” script is between the now-archaic literary language of the Renaissance English original and the colloquial, often slang register of contemporary Anglo- American English which dominates Harris's version. As we shall see later on, this contrast provides inspiration for much of the playful improvisation in actual performances, as well. In the “Hamnet” script, only two of the 80 lines cite Shakespeare's own words, intact; the rest is in “IRC-ese.” In Scene 2, when Hamlet and Ophelia meet, the original line “O heavenly powers: restore him!” (Act III, Scene 1: 147) is embedded in an otherwise entirely late 20th-century rendering of their encounter, part colloquial (“stuff”; “nuts”), part speedwriting characteristic of “digistyle” (“yr” for “your”; the comics-like “hehehehehe,” the “smiley” ;-D).

<Ophelia> Here's yr stuff back [22]

<Hamlet> Not mine, love. Hehehehehe ;-D [23]

<Ophelia> O heavenly powers: restore him! [24]

<**<<Action>>** Ophelia thinks Hamlet's nuts [25]

<Hamlet> Make that “sanity-deprived”, pls…. [26]

Contrast Harris's version with the original:

  • OPHELIA: My lord, I have remembrances of yours, That I have longed long to re-deliver; I pray you, now receive them.

  • HAMLET: No, not I; I never gave you aught.

  • OPHELIA: My honour'd lord, you know right well you did; And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed As made the things more rich: their perfume lost, Take these again; for to the noble mind Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. There, my lord. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1: 93-102)

The other line from the original is:

QUEEN GERTRUDE Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended. Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4: 9)

Instead of merely quoting it intact, Harris exploits it to allow for a pair of adjacent near-homonyms, with comic effect:

<Prompter> Psst! Thou hast thy father much offended¨ [47]

<Queen> Oh, right…. Yr dad's pissed at u [48]

One other word from Shakespeare's original lexicon, now archaic, recurs in the script: “arras”, for “curtain.” In line 49, Hamlet “slashes at the arras.” The original is “makes a pass through the arras” (Act III, Scene 4: 23)

The Textual Freezing of Online Style

A distinctive feature of the “Hamnet” script is that it freezes in a solo-authored, offline text a cluster of features of a style we have come to experience as distinctively “online” and interactive– what we have just called, in passing, “digistyle.” The very idea of composing a solo-authored quasi-literary text of any kind in this online “lingo” is amusing and ironic–Harris has, in effect, absurdly immortalized a style of communication which is ordinarily as ephemeral as the wind. At the very least, it makes a claim for legitimation of the style.

Recent research on the features of computer-mediated messages, whether the asynchronous ones of email, listserv discussion lists and USENET newsgroups, or synchronous ones as on IRC, has identified three sets of features–“oral,” written, and uniquely digital–which together mark these messages as belonging to an emergent, distinctive new register of late 20th-century English (Ferrara, et al., 1991; Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press; Maynor, 1994; Yates and Orlikowski, 1994). Messages are not only experienced subjectively as if spoken, but also frequently contain actual speech-like features, particularly slang. Here are some additional examples: from the “Hamnet” script.

<Hamlet> Holy shit!!!! Don't op me, man!!!! I've gotta think abt

this, + I've got chem lab in « hr. :-(((([14]

<Hamlet> 2b or not 2b… [17]

<Hamlet> Hmmmmm. [18]

<Hamlet> :-(Bummer… [19]

While “gotta” and “chem lab” need no explanation, “bummer” may be less familiar. A bummer is “an unpleasant or depressing experience, especially one induced by a hallucinogenic drug; a disappointment, a failure.” (Aytot and Simpson, 1992).

Along with the “oral” features of computer-mediated messages, we also find features mainly associated with writing, or at least with certain genres of writing. Digital messages partially resemble notetaking in a lecture (Janda, 1985; Ferrara, et al., 1991), in which forms of condensation or abbreviation are mobilized because of time constraints. The abbreviation w/him instead of “with him” in line 39 is an example in the “Hamnet” script.

<G_stern> fuckza matter w/him? [39]

An example of ellipsis, omission of initial pronouns, occurs in line 40:

<R_krantz] Guess he must be lagged. Let's lurk [40]

Here are some other examples:

  • <Hamlet> re, Ghost. Zup? [11]

  • <Ghost> Yr uncle's fucking yr mum, I'm counting on u to /KICK the bastard. [12]

  • <Hamlet> Holy shit!!!! Don't op me, man!!!! I've gotta think abt this, + I've got chem lab in 1/2 hr. :-(((([14]

  • <Hamlet> 2b or not 2b… [17]

  • <Hamlet> Make that “sanity-deprived”, pls…. [26]

  • <Hamlet> Fucked if I know. brb… [37]

The easiest instance of speedwriting to spot is, of course, the gross reduction of Hamlet's famous 35-line “To be or not to be” soliloquy to a mere “2b or not 2b!” Other examples make use of familiar conventions, e.g., “u” for “you,”“yr” for “your,” and “pls” for “please.”“Abt” is “about; “re” is short for “rehi,” or “hi again,” very common on IRC. “Zup” is short for “What's up,” and “brb” means “be right back,” used when IRCers want to take a break from the computer screen. “Op” is an abbreviation for “operator.”

The “Hamnet” script also imitates a related IRC practice, abbreviating other participants' nicks drastically while typing messages as fast as possible. Although initially motivated by considerations of efficiency, the use of chopped-up nicks also has a comic effect, introducing a note of flip familiarity among strangers having fun together. In line 27, Hamlet says

<Hamlet> Oph: suggest u /JOIN #nunnery [27]

“Oph” is of course “Ophelia”. The similarity to the sounds “Ooof” or “Oops,” as in comics, may also be a source of humor.

The “Hamnet” script is also full of “smiley” icons, otherwise known as “emoticons”–icons for the expression of emotion (Jargon File, 1995); Ruedenberg, et al.,1995; Danet, et al., in press; Godin, 1993). Composed of clusters of ordinary typographic symbols, they are experienced as a gestalt. The most common ones are: inline image

To view them, tilt your head toward your left shoulder. Here are some examples in the “Hamnet” script:

  • <Hamlet> Holy shit!!!! Don't op me, man!!!! I've gotta think abt this, I've got chem lab in 1/2 hr. :-(((([14]

  • <Hamlet> Not mine, love. Hehehehehe ;-D [23]

  • <Queen> Holy shit this Danish vodka is like poison :-@ [63]

The first is a multiple frown; the second example is a combination of a wink and a smile with a wide-open mouth, represented by the letter D; the third is a “wry face,” with the screwed-up mouth represented by the @ sign.

Finally, as in IRC chat “on the fly,” Harris has a field day with multiple exclamation points and the comics-like representation of sounds when one character after another dies:

<Polonius> Arrrghhh!!! [50]

<King> Aaaaarrgghhh! [66]

**<<Action>>** : King dies [67]

<Laertes> AAaaaaarrrrrrhhhh!!!! [68]

**<<Action>>**: Laertes dies [69]

<Hamlet> AAAAaaaaaarrrrrrhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [70]


Obscenity is rampant in the “Hamnet” script. Harris warns his readers.

Those of a nervous or puritanical disposition are warned that this is adapted for the generally ribald irc population: This is not your father's Shakespeare. (Harris, 1995b: 501).

Four-letter words fly thick and fast:

  • <Ghost> Yr uncle's fucking yr mum. I'm counting on u to /KICK the bastard.[12]

  • <Hamlet> Holy shit!!!! Don't op me, man!!!! I've gotta think abt this, + I've got chem lab in „ hr. :-(((([14]

  • <Hamlet> Fucked if i know. brb…[37]

  • <G_stern> fuckza matter w/him? [39]

  • <Hamlet> Ma: what the fuck's going on?[44]

  • <Queen> Oh, right…. Yr dad's pissed at u [48]

  • <Queen> Holy shit this Danish vodka is like poison :-@ [63]

  • <Attndts> Holy sheeeeet!!!!![77]

This profusion of profane language mocks the canonical status afforded to Shakespeare's works and language in the 20th century. At the same time, we should not overemphasize this point. The current attitude of reverence toward Shakespeare's works was not always dominant: as we mentioned at the beginning of this paper, in the 19th century, outrageous parodies of Shakespeare were a very common form of popular entertainment in the United States (Levine, 1988). Even in our own times, there have been parodies, e.g., those of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, though not typed ones! There are echoes of the often vulgar British music-hall tradition and its spin-offs in radio (the Goon Show) and television (Monty Python) in these textual travesties of Shakespeare (Davison, 1982). In an online interview, Stuart Harris admitted to being influenced by memories of the Goon Show as a child growing up in England, as well as by exposure to the Reduced Shakespeare Company (personal electronic communication to Brenda Danet, September 20, 1994).

The vulgar language in Harris's send-up should not be taken as standing in too strong a contrast to Shakespeare's own literary language either. Even in Shakespeare's own language–though not necessarily in Hamlet specifically-there is a very wide range of registers and styles, and, indeed, much has been written about colloquial and even bawdy language in his plays (Partridge, 1968 [1947]; Hussey, 1992; Hughes, 1991, chap. 5).

IRCers take particular delight in writing what ordinarily might only be spoken, or scrawled behind the closed door of a public toilet wall. In the pre-digital era, socialization to the norms of literate culture worked to suppress expressive aspects of communication in writing, including the use of foul language. While euphemistic language is certainly used frequently even in certain situations of polite face-to-face interaction (Allan and Burridge, 1991), the avoidance of vulgar expressions has been particularly strong in writing of all kinds. In our literate culture, people who might express themselves vividly in casual conversation, including the free use of obscene four-letter words, would rarely do so in writing of any kind, even a personal letter. Even long after the revolutionary trial of the 1960's which allowed D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover to be published at last, four-letter words relating to bodily excretions or sexuality continue to shock when written or in print.


Several other aspects of the vocabulary of the “Hamnet” script are worth noting. First is a nod in the direction of politically correct language. The obverse of obscenity is euphemistic language. The latest round of concern with “linguistic engineering” is the contemporary American obsession with politically correct language in public life. This too finds some expression in the script: when Ophelia is presented as thinking that Hamlet is “nuts” (line 25), Hamlet corrects her: “Make that sanity-deprived, pls….” (line 26).

Harris inserted several terms from the lexicon of IRC and computer culture into the script of “Hamnet”. First is the pair of expressions “lagged” and “lurk”. These are known to a wide range of people familiar with Internet culture, even if they do not have experience of IRC.

<R_krantz> Guess he must be lagged. Let's lurk [40]

**<<Action>>** : R_krantz lurks [41]

**<<Action>>** : G_stern lurks [42]

As explained earlier, lag pertains the the problem of time lag in seeing typed text appear on the screen. The online version of The New Hackers' Dictionary (the “Jargon File”) defines netlag as

A condition that occurs when the delays in the {IRC} network or on a {MUD} become severe enough that servers briefly lose and then reestablish contact, causing messages to be delivered in bursts, often with delays of up to a minute. (Jargon File, 1995).

As for lurking, in ordinary use, this term has a generally negative connotation, present in varying degrees in all four meanings given by the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • 1
    to hide oneself; to lie in ambush; to remain furtively or unobserved about one spot;
  • 2
    to escape observation, to be concealed or latent;
  • 3
    to move about in a secret or furtive manner;
  • 4
    to peer furtively or slyly

Lurking on a streetcorner may arouse suspicion, but in Net Culture the term usually means to observe without participating:

One of the silent majority, in a[n] electronic forum; one who posts occasionally or not at all but is known to read the group's postings regularly. This term is not pejorative and indeed is casually used reflexively: “Oh, I'm just lurking.” (Raymond, 1991: 229).

In asynchronous discussions and newsgroups or on IRC, this practice has no negative connotations, whereas in MOOs, according to Marvin (see this issue), it does. Usenet and listserv discussion lists usually have far more readers than contributors.

“Nerd” is a well known expression among people familiar with computer culture.

<Queen> Now look what u've done u little nerd. [52]

This is a slang term for a dry, dull, technically oriented computer professional or hacker who is typically obsessed with programming. It can be used more generally to denote “a foolish, feeble, or uninteresting person; also, a studious but socially inept person” (Ayto and Simpson, 1992).

Play with the IRC Software


One of the simplest and most common forms of play with the IRC software, both in IRC encounters generally and in Hamnet activities, is play with the /nick command. Nearly everyone who participates on IRC adopts a nickname, called a “nick” for short Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press; Bechar- Israeli, 1995, this issue). All one needs to do is to type /nick [nickname] (e.g., /nick daisy or /nick lollipop) and immediately an acknowledgment appears on the screen.

There are several further kinds of play with nicks worth mentioning. The software allows for no more than nine characters, which must be continuous–that is, there must be no empty spaces within the nick. Thus, whereas the names of Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet, Ophelia, Ghost, King, Queen, etc. need no adaptation, those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as Fortinbras are cropped-as <R_krantz> and <G_stern>, and <Fort_bras>, respectively, with whimsical effect. This cropping invites us to verbalize them in their reduced form, e.g., as “R-Krantz,” instead of “Rosencrantz.” It is also playful, of course, to employ the /nick command to create the roles of <Audience>, <Scene>, <Enter>, <Exit>, <Drum>, <Colours>, and <Attndts> during performances.

Other IRC Commands

IRC commands are used in other, still more humorous ways in the script:

  • 1
    <Ghost> Yr uncle's fucking yr mum. I'm counting on u to /KICK the bastard. [12]
  • 2
    <Hamlet> Holy shit don't op me man!!! [14]
  • 3
    <Hamlet> Oph: suggest u /JOIN #nunnery [27]
  • 4
    =PROLOGUE /TOPIC World_Premiere irc Hamlet_in_Progress [2] *** PROLOGUE has changed the topic on channel #Hamnet to “World_Premiere_irc_Hamlet_in_Progress”
  • 5
    <Ophelia> :-([28] ***Signoff: Ophelia (drowning) [29]
  • 6
    HAMLET /KICK * Polonius [51] ***Polonius has been kicked off channel #Hamnet by Hamlet
  • 7
    FORT_BRAS /NICK _King [78] ***Fort_bras is now knwn as _King [79]

These seven snippets incorporate IRC commands in two very different ways. In the first three instances, the command is merely cited or mentioned in a witty manner, without any intention of activating it as part of the software in real time. “I'm counting on you to /KICK the bastard” is an allusion to one of the more aggressive commands available to IRCers: if one wishes to “bump” someone from a channel, say, a person nicknamed, <ladybug>, one has only to type

/kick ladybug

and the acknowledgment

***ladybug has been kicked off channel xxxx by ABC

will appear on screen.

As for the use of “op” in “don't op me man” (example 2), this is a reference to the notion of channel operator in the IRC software. Often called “chanop” for short, the first person to open a channel is the channel operator, and is therefore in control of who may join and who may speak. In effect, then, this is a “with- it” way of expressing Hamlet's ambivalence at the awful knowledge that his mother and uncle murdered his father and the resultant pressure on him to take revenge. The passage in the original which comes closest in spirit is

The time is out of joint O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right! (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5: 189-190)

“Suggest u /JOIN #nunnery” is a clever way to render the famous line of the original, “Get thee to a nunnery” (Act III, Scene 1: 142), in IRC jargon. “Nunnery” is transformed into an IRC channel by the addition of the # symbol; to join any channel one must type the channel name with that symbol attached to it at the beginning (#hamnet, #hottub, #nicecafe, etc.)

In neither of these cases will bringing the lines up on screen activate the IRC software to carry out the command. The command is merely mentioned, referred to. In contrast, in the other five instances, it is to be used performatively in real time, that is, to activate actual IRC commands in order to produce textual results which, when viewed on-screen, will become a meaningful part of the performance. The Hamnet Players were “born” the day that Harris realized that the IRC software could be used this way (Harris, 1995b: 498).

It was a clever idea, but it didn't work very well. For instance, during the December performance, <Ophelia> was apparently cut off by a netsplit just when she was supposed to “drown” by typing /signoff drowning. By the time she had managed to log back on, participants had already moved on to later lines in the script. In the February, 1994 performance, the person playing <Ophelia> was so busy improvising and elaborating her lines that she simply ignored the instruction to execute the command.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

It is one thing to write a clever script, and quite another to produce a successful show. How can a group of individuals coordinate their real-time activities in a sustained and effective way, produce a show, if they are located in different time zones, have different sleeping schedules, presumably have never met and– most astonishing of all-cannot even see or hear one another? In this section of the paper, we provide some answers to this question. For Harris's own retrospective, more detailed account of the logistics of Hamnet productions, see Harris (1995b).

In the early stages, the most basic problem was how to attract a following, a group of people who would be interested and willing to work together on something experimental and exciting, yet extremely challenging. Second, given the rowdy nature of IRC, with hundreds and even thousands of people “coming and going” constantly, fooling around, exchanging private messages with untold numbers of individuals, all the while chatting in one or more channels simultaneously, Harris had to figure out how to manage planned, focused activity. Third, there was the need to cope with unexpected disasters of all kinds, just as can happen in RL theater–e.g., when the scenery comes crashing down. Yet another problem is that, although basic IRC commands are simple to use, it takes a good deal of practice and experience to use the software in a more sophisticated way, especially the commands relating to channel modes, e.g., +m for “moderated,”+v for “voice”–granting participants the right to “speak,” etc. (see Harris, 1995b). Thus, “newbies” had to be socialized to the IRC game, and even old-time IRCers needed to be taught how to adapt its structure and commands to the needs of virtual theater.

Generating Interest: Public Relations

Once the idea of the Hamnet Players began to crystallize, Harris began to spread the word among RL and IRC friends and acquaintances. Having a fair amount of RL theater experience himself, he was able to interest others with amateur or professional theater experience to join him for the experiments. Harris believes that announcements on Usenet proved to be a more successful way of recruiting participants and audience members than from within IRC itself. He also gained publicity for Hamnet activities via coverage in the media–appearances on American National Public Radio, local television interviews, newspaper coverage in the Los Angeles Times and the London Times, as was a popular article which he himself authored (Harris, 1994). We too gave the Hamnet Players some free publicity when we published a brief article about them in Wired Magazine (Danet, 1994).

#england, one of his personal haunts, and announced:

All are welcome 2 participate in the World Premier of the irc Hamlet starting 18:00 gmt on #hamnet (logfile, November 14, 1993, L: 193-194).

The aborted November performance of “Hamnet” failed, first of all, because of an electricity outage following a thunderstorm in California. The log suggests that the performance may not have taken place for other reasons too: last-minute recruiting of “actors” and even audience members proved to be ineffective, at a time when few people knew of, or took an interest in Hamnet activities. Eventually, Harris came to recruit persons to play specific parts several days in advance, leaving only the casting of minor roles to last-minute online preparations, one to two hours before show time. In one of his more successful recruiting attempts, he was able to mobilize Ian Taylor, a professional actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play the role of Hamlet in the second, February, 1994 production of “Hamnet”.

Setting a Time and Place for the Performance

To coordinate performances in time, Harris simply used the device of Greenwich Mean Time-the mean solar time of the meridian of Greenwich, England. Thus, he announced that the premiere performance of “Hamnet” would take place at 20:00 GMT, and it was participants' job to figure out what time that would be in their own local time zone. This is not so difficult: many of us already have quite a bit of practice in figuring out what time it is in, say, New York or Sydney, when it is 9:00 AM in London or Jerusalem, e.g., when planning to make international phone calls. Similarly, IRCers and participants in other chat fora who set “dates” or arrange to meet at “parties” or “pubs” on the Net have had additional practice at this.

As for considerations of “place,” this too turns out to be even less problematic for anyone familiar with chat modes like IRC. To begin with, cyberspace generally, as well as more specific “locations” where communication occurs, are subjectively experienced as “places,” even though they have no physical basis. The Greek “topos”, which means “place”, is the eytomological source for our current English “topic.” We often say, in the middle of a RL conversation, “Where were we?”“Topic is place” on the Net in an even more basic sense than in real life (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in press).

Technically, the thousands of IRCers who may be logged on at any time cannot all appear on the screen at once; in practice, they routinely divide themselves up into “channels” with different names, from the playful (#hottub, #nicecafe) to the professional and serious (#www, #amiga). Although channels are not institutionalized in any formal sense, some have been recreated daily for years, e.g., #hottub and #initgame. Harris could therefore invent a channel with a unique name and be fairly sure that it would be recognized as specially designated for performance purposes. Thus, it was no problem to announce that all performances would take “take place” in “the hamnet auditorium.” The first person to type /join #hamnet would, in effect create it–Harris himself in this case. It is enough for others to type /join #hamnet, and they are there! That is, once logged onto the channel, they see everything that takes place in #hamnet on their screen, and can themselves, of course, type in their own contributions.

Performing the Text, Not the Play

As we began to explain earlier, in the discussion of the script, Hamnet productions do not involve acting in any conventional sense. Performances are more like the collective completion of a textual puzzle. It is important to recall that the group performs not the play, but the text. In other words, a primary goal of the performance is to reproduce the individual lines of the text of the script on- screen in real time. Here is an illustration of how performance of the text works: in the December production, the person who took the role of “Scene” received the following material from Harris online:

/q scene

*** Starting conversation with scene /l scene

*scene* ME 1: THE BATTLEMENTS [8]

*scene* ME 2: AFTER HAMLET'S CHEM LAB [16]

*scene* ME 3: INTERIOR [30]

*scene* ME 4: THE QUEEN'S CLOSET [43]

*scene* ME 5: GRUESOME FINALE [54]

*scene*********** PLEASE ADD / BEFORE EACH ME ********/q

This rather confusing-looking sequence is a prepared file containing all the lines of the role of “Scene,” which Harris dispatches, during online last-minute preparations, to the person whom he has just recruited to play the role. That person's job will be to enter the titles of the different scenes from the script, in the correct places. /q is short for the command /query, which enables one person to send another an extended private message (in this case the file of instructions for “Scene”) without typing /msg nick for each line. The person playing “Scene” is to exploit the /me command in IRC, which is used to enter a description of oneself, in order to produce the titles of the individual scenes during the performance of the script. Thus, by typing


the person will produce on screen, and, hopefully, in the right sequence, the introductory line for scene l:


Adding [8] to the end of the line will then provide the cue to whoever has line [9] to get his or her line on screen next. This is an excellent example of how Harris and his associates learned to exploit, adapt and activate the IRC software for their novel purposes. Harris's initial idea was that individuals would receive only their own lines, in this /query mode, and would not see the entire script, thus introducing an element of surprise which would, presumably, encourage playful improvisation. Even when the mode of recruitment of players changed from last-minute mobilization to distribution of the main parts several days beforehand, he attempted to retain this element of surprise. He continued to encourage improvisation. There was little or no rehearsal, though some practice with the technical side of things was necessary. Thus, Harris and one associate carried out a brief test, jointly reproducing a scene from the “Hamnet” script several days before the November performance was to take place. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to keep people in the dark as to the nature of the script. Despite the overall requirement of collectively reconstructing the script on screen, Harris definitely sought to foster improvisation and continues to believe that this is central to the mandate of the Hamnet Players.

Using Prepared Files

In addition to preparing individual files containing all the lines of each of the 17 parts in the “Hamnet” script to be cast, Harris prepared eight files of a more general nature, well in advance of performance]. The loading of these files at strategic points greatly facilitated both recruitment and actual production. Some are quite pragmatic in function; others are very playful, and help set the tone for Hamnet activities; some are both pragmatic and playful. Here is a list of these files with brief descriptions of each:

*If the following does not appear to you as a table, please click here

“Wpsb” is short for the one-liner “Welcome, everybody. Please stand by…” When loaded, the “lostms” file playfully announces,

Line 492:<Producer> ***<<< WE ARE PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE >>>***


494:<Producer> The MS is 80 lines long and written in irc jargon

495:<Producer> Scholars have long speculated that this rare document was

496:<Producer> the source of inspiration for Shakespeare's verbose play “Hamlet”

497:<Producer> =========================


Displaying this file in other channels was a way to attract the attention and interest of potential participants and audience members. In addition, Harris circulated his “recruit” file:

Line 369: <_Producer> Everybody is invited to the World Premier Of the irc adaptation

370: +of Hamlet starting on channel hamnet at 20:00 GMT (logfile, December, 1993)

When displayed within the #hamnet channel, these files help keep players' and audience members' attention focused, and encourage them to be patient while everyone is getting ready for the performance, under conditions where anyone can disappear at any time! To solicit people to be either actors or members of the audience, Harris offers them the “pora” file, as in the following example from the December performance:

Line 250 <NickD> Heard about this on NPR <_Producer> nick: that was me /l pora Please enter P if you wish to be a performer Please enter A if you would prefer to lurk in the audience

255 <NickD> a (logfile, December, 1993)

Someone called <NickD> has just joined #hamnet channel, and tells Harris he heard about the group on NPR. After telling <NickD> that the speaker was Harris himself, he loads the “pora” file by typing /l pora (line 252). /l is short for the command /load. The following 2 lines then appear on the screen of the invitee (and in fact of everyone currently on #hamnet). <NickD> types “a,” choosing to become a member of the audience. Those typing “p” for participant are usually then offered a second file, the “parts” file, listing, in the case of “Hamnet”, the 17 parts alluded to above, including the textual ones like “enter” and “exit:”


139:> :

140:> audience 2 lines + ad lib

141:> SCENE 5 lines

142:> _Enter 7 lines

143:> _Exit 2 lines

144:> prompter 1 line


146:> :

147:> Ghost 2 lines

148:> Ophelia 4 lines +/signoff

149:> R_krantz 5 lines

150:> G_stern 3 lines

151:> _Queen 8 lines

152:> Polonius Aaaaaarrrgggghhhh only

153:> King 4 lines

154:> Laertes 3 lines

155:> Fort_bras 2 lines

156:> Drum 1 line

157:> Colours 1 line

158:> Attndts 1 line (logfile, December, 1993)

Participants are also sent the “instruc” file

Line 804:/l instuc [sic]

805:> :

806:> :

807:> OK, Here's how it works….

808:> Each actor is about to receive his/her lines ONLY in /QUERY mode.

809:> Each line is numbered at the end like this…. [14]


811:> Where irc commands are involved the initial / has been omitted…

812:> and you are asked to add it in (in tech rehearsal we had BIG PROBS w/this!)

813:> Every line you have must be entered in the overall numeric sequence…

814:> and the entire script will appear.

815:> EXAMPLE: If you have a line numbered [14], wait until you see

816:> somebody else enter line [13] and then enter your line [14]



819:> NOTE: Some actors have more than one line in sequence….

820:> So, if you have both lines [13] and [14], you cue yourself for [14]

821:> +=========== 30 sec PAUSE FOR QUESTIONS (Hamnet, logfile, December, 1993)

There is an additional file with advice for players, but in the latter file, the playful takes over from the pragmatic:

Line 1754:/l advice

1755:> :

1756:> :

1757:> Enter the speech, I pray you, as I /QUERY'd it to you,

1758:> trippingly on the kybd

1759:> but if you screw it up, as many of our Unix users do,

1760:> I had as lief the town-crier took my /LOADs

1761:> Nor do not flame the chan too much with your attributes, thus,

1762:> but use all gently

1763:> for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind

1764:> of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that

1765:> may give irc smoothness.

Here, Harris was unable to resist the opportunity to create a delightful parody of Hamlet's advice to the actors about performing the play-within-the-play in the original:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2: 1-9).

Unlike the language of the “Hamnet” script, most of which is IRCese, as we shall see shortly, here Harris has retained most of the original Shakespearean language, with only minor adaptations for present purposes.

Ascii “Sets”: A First Step Toward Multimedia Performance

The files prepared in advance for “Hamnet” performances also include a “set” made of ASCII-only keyboard symbols, a toy Elsinore castle. The script is also available in print (in Harris, 1995b). Thus, with the most minimal of means, already in the production of “Hamnet” we have a small first step toward multimedia performance, and an attempt to provide something which at least remotely resembles the sets in a RL production. “PCbeth” was later to add color graphic images, (see a detail of each image below)inline image specially composed, photographed and digitized by Harris and his companion Gayle Kidder (“minou” on IRC) to be offered on demand to participants and audience members who had the technical capability of viewing these jpeg images either in real time during performances or offline, afterwards; see Harris, 1995b). And both “Pcbeth” and “An IRC Channel Named #Desire” also offered sound files, specially created by Tsameret Wachenhauser, at Harris's invitation. Snippets of New Orleans jazz were prepared for “#Desire”, for example.

Getting into “Costume”

Getting into “costume” for performances is a matter of changing one's nick. When casting is completed, Harris signals all to change their nicks; their identity is thus doubly masked–the usual nick being further transformed into the one needed for the performance. Thus, to get ready to play <Ophelia>, one must type

/nick Ophelia

Here is how this works in practice; the following sequences come from the February performance:

Line 926:<Producer> OK, ALL PRE-CAST ACTORS CHANGE YR NICKS PLZ (logfile, February, 1994)

At first, only two players complied, and their changes of nick are acknowledged by the IRC software:

Line 929:***Cis now known as PROLOGUE …

933:***Uros is now known as G_Stern (logfile, February, 1994)

Then, <aurra> (Leslie Csokasy in real life), Harris's designated “stage manager” in the February performance, issued a second call for people to change their nicks.


973:Dudester is now known as _Enter

977:***LoverMan is now known as Colours

978:***Nibbles is now known as Ghost

979:***SysBotMgr is now known as Kingg

980:***PROLOGUE is now known as Prologue (logfile, February, 1994)

Coping with the Real Troubles of Virtual Theater

Just as in RL theater, disaster can break up the performance at any moment, so virtual theater has its vulnerabilities too. Knowing that he might not succeed in casting all roles, or that people who had committed themselves to playing a role might not show up, or might be cut off by a netsplit at any moment, Harris had prepared each individual line of the script in a mini-file. This enabled him to enter each line as needed, in other words to play any and all roles, if necessary!

There are two kinds of technical problems which cannot, however, be so easily solved. The less serious of the two is lag, or delay in seeing one's contributions on screen (see the section on lexicon in the script, above). The more serious problem is that of “netsplits,” sometimes also called “netburps”:

When {netlag} gets really bad, and delays between servers exceed a certain threshhold, the {IRC} network effectively becomes partitioned for a period of time, and large numbers of people seem to be signing off at the same time and then signing back on again when things get better Jargon File, 1995)

The problem is extremely common on IRC these days, and is exacerbated by the growing number of persons using it.

Having learned from the premiere December performance of “Hamnet” how difficult it was to manage the various logistic aspects of production, Harris enlisted the aid of another person, nicknamed <aurra>, to serve as as Stage Manager in the February production. In later productions he even added an Assistant Stage Manager. In addition to these two chronic problems, there were still other technical difficulties that caused havoc, at least temporarily. During the December performance, Harris, of all people, was unintentionally kicked off the #hamnet channel by an add-on program designed to remove people flooding others' screens with whole screenfuls of text. Playing both <producer> and <hamlet>, he was kicked off when he loaded the Elsinore castle scenery file, which had been designed to fill exactly one screen (Harris, 1995b:


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

We now have looked at the script, and have gained some idea of how Hamnet productions are run from behind the scenes. It is time to look at the best part of all–actual performances and the carnivalesque atmosphere in which they take place.

Writing As Performance

Synchronous modes of computer-mediated communication like IRC make possible live, dialogic exchange in real time without physical presence. For the first time in the history of human communication, writing has become a mode of live performance (Reid, 1991; Rheingold, 1993: Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press; Reid, 1995). When Howard Rheingold joined the WELL, his home base in cyberspace, he discovered that “I was audience, performer, and scriptwriter…in an ongoing improvisation” (Rheingold, 1993: 2).

As a synchronous chat form, IRC offers participants ideal conditions for artful performance. What Bauman (1977) has written of oral performance turns out to be equally applicable to the new written forms:

Performance involves on the part of the performer an assumption of accountability to an audience for the way in which communication is carried out, above and beyond its referential content….the act of expression on the part of the performer is thus marked as subject to evaluation for the way it is done, for the relative skill and effectiveness of the performer's display of competence. Additionally, it is marked as available for the enhancement of experience, through the present enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of the act of expression itself. Performance thus calls forth special attention to and heightened awareness of the act of expression and gives license to the audience to regard the act of expression and the performer with special intensity (Bauman, 1977:11).

Whereas improvisational performance on IRC is a special case of the “spontaneous, unscheduled, optional performances of everyday life,” Hamnet activities are scheduled, public, and elaborate “cultural performance[s]” (Bauman, 1975) with additional, strongly improvisational components.

In previous work on writing as performance on IRC (Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press), we identified five frames of interaction, or meta-communicational frames of reference (Bateson, 1963; Handelman, 1976) which are activated while participants are engaged in online encounters These are (1) Real Life; (2) The IRC Game; (3) a Party Frame; (4) The Pretend Frame; and (5) The Stage Frame.

With some adaptation, this idea of nested frames is suitable for an understanding of Hamnet performances as well. Instead of a Party Frame, we have a Theater Frame in which “actors” and producers go about the business of running a production; the actual performance of the planned show, the script, takes place in the collective Pretend Frame. Finally, a fifth Performance Frame is that in which individuals–both “actors” and audience members who contribute to the online doings, “do their stuff”–demonstrate their wit and skill.

Improvisation in Hamnet Performances

In previous research (Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press) we documented the great skill of IRC players in improvising “on the fly” a textual and graphic simulation of smoking marihuana, using the mundane possibilities of the computer keyboard–dashes, colons, brackets, and so on. Skillful improvisation of this kind is very typical on IRC.

On the face of it, online performance involving a script might altogether lack improvisation and could, in fact, turn out to be a boring, merely technical challenge, even leading, perhaps, to a creative “dead end.” As we have seen, however, “actors” are encouraged to improvise on their lines, though not so much as to threaten general continuity of the performance. In an email letter to Brenda Danet, with six performances behind him, Harris wrote:

If irc actors ever got so skilled, and the irc audience so tame, that the entire script came out exactly as written, the performance would be a failure by definition (personal electronic communication to Brenda Danet, July 27, 1995).

Several factors fostered improvisation and an element of surprise in Hamnet performances. First of all, Harris's plan was to distribute to the players only their own lines, leaving the full script to be a surprise, revealed only during the performance. For the most part, this worked, though with time and increased publicity about Hamnet activities, people wanted copies of the entire script, as well as logs of performances, so that the spontaneity of repeat performances, at least, could be partially undermined. Still, the players improvised on the scripts with glee and panache in a remarkable variety of ways.

Second, those who received their lines a few days ahead of performance time could play with them, modify, expand and elaborate on them, creating a little file for each one. This is just what Brenda Danet did, trying to flesh out her tiny three-line part in Pcbeth. Third, the quite high turnover of participants at the various performances guaranteed a amount of unpredictability as to what will happen, how people will realize their roles, etc. Fourth, the failure of some pre-cast players to show up at performance time added its own element of surprise; one could only partially plan ahead what to do in such cases. In many instances, Harris simply “played” the role himself. Finally, the problems of lag and netsplits kept participants in suspense and created crises more often than participants would have liked.

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 [2] *** PROLOGUE has changed the topic on channel #Hamnet to “World_Premiere_irc_Hamlet_in_Progress” <PROLOGUE> All the world's a Unix term….[3] <PROLOGUE> …and all the men & women merely irc addicts….[4]

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

  • 866 <Hamlet> 2B | !2B

  • 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

  • 878 <Hamlet> No more …

  • 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:

Line 879:/whois Hamlet

880:***Hamlet is (The Quantum Cat)

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.

Finally, we come to

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.

Playing the Theater Game

Playing with the Script

Many wonderful instances of improvisation are take-offs on the “Hamnet” script itself. Thus, in the February performance, <Ophelia> modified her original line

<Ophelia> Here's yr stuff back [22] to Line 2287: <Ophelia>: Here's yr crap back, babe: your Mac, your WP 51.a, amd your dirty mags [22] (logfile, February, 1994)

This <Ophelia> makes light of both Hamlet and his possessions. She calls his possessions “crap,” instead of “stuff,” as called for by the script. Although these terms are both clearly from the domain of slang, “crap” belongs to the domain of obscene slang, whereas “stuff” is neutral. She addresses Hamlet as “babe”–a contemporary term of address which is over-familiar in the context of addressing a prince. In just one contemptuous sentence, she flips over the traditional stereotype of Ophelia as a delicate, romantic, submissive, creature, and conveys instead an independent Ophelia who is more “with it” than Hamlet. He is made out to be a very contemporary student with a Mac computer, an outdated version of Word Perfect (<Ophelia> probably meant Word Perfect 5.1 and not 51.a), and some pornographic magazines. In mentioning the Mac, <Ophelia> is toying with the rivalry between the PC and the Mac, and expressing the view that the PC is in the ascendant. Along the same lines, we might add, really “with-it” people find their pornography not at the corner store but on the Net!

In the December performance, <Brazil> improvised in another way. Changing his/her nick first to <flirt> and then to <exeunt>, <Brazil> introduced a fleeting, Monty-Python-like bit of stage business into the proceedings.

Line 2119:***Brazil is now known as _flirt… 2123:***_flirt is now known as Brazil… 2148:***Brazil is now known as _exeunt. 2149:*_exeunt The Pope and his entourage 2150:<_exeunt> wtf? (logfile, December, 1993)

With roles for “exit” and “enter” already created in the script, it was a short step to inventing additional ones of this kind spontaneously. The obviously silly suggestion that the Pope and his entourage walked in and out of the scene is very much like the bits of pop-up business in the Monty Python CD-Rom called “A Complete Waste of Time” (Seventh Level, 1994). This CD-Rom is so interactive that almost anywhere one clicks on the computer screen, something surprising, outrageously funny, and completely out of context pops up, only to disappear in seconds. (This “now-you-see-it-now-you-don't” element was present in the television series too, is enhanced by the CD-Rom medium). For those puzzled by the abbreviation “wtf,” read it as “what the fuck?” The obscenity is in the spirit of Monty Python too.

The last of the <Ghost>'s lines cited above was improvised during the December performance. This is a fleeting reference to Bugs Bunny, the Disney cartoon character with his huge buck teeth, stuttering th…th…th…that's all folks! at the end of the cartoon. An additional bit of sly humor is the impossible cue number– 9999999999. This little performance may have been entirely improvised on the spot, it may have been planned ahead, though typed in real time, or it might even have been prepared as a mini file ready to be uploaded. There is no way of knowing which of these is correct.

Playing with the Role of Actor

Another source of inspiration for improvisation, within the theater frame, is the situation of being an “actor”. In a variety of ways, the players devise verbal equivalents of actors' “onstage” and “backstage” behavior. Thus, the actors textually try their costumes on, and take them off:

988:* G_Stern tries his costume on 2591:* Ophelia slips out of her costume and tosses it aside. “I hate stage 2592:+clothes!” (logfile, December, 1993)

Just as RL actors do, these virtual actors peek out at the audience before the show:

Line 1587:* The_King looks out between the curatins - whoah…big corwd (logfile, December, 1993)

They send and receive virtual roses. In the December performance

Line 1839:* laertes orders roses for ophelia. hopes they will be delivered after 1840:+performance (logfile, December, 1993)

and after the February performance

Line 2601:* Ophelia goes to her dressing room and finds a zillion roses for her. (logfile, February, 1994)

Like all actors, when the show is over, the players also take their “bows:”

Line 2332:* exKing finishes strongly, then takes a *bow* to raptuous applause 2485:* Femmy does deep bows…. (logfile, December, 1993) 2477:<Ghost> *flourishing bow* (logfile, February, 1994)

Still another game is to invent lines having to do with one's “occupation” as a professional actor. Thus, in the December performance, <GeekChrus> asks,

Line 577:<GeekChrus> is thre a rep of actor's guild in the house?

And <G_Stern> suddenly comments, “I wanna talk about guild wages” (line 1352). Almost immediately, <Laertes> “calls his agent” (line 1356), continuing this pretend-frame. Later, just as the performance was finally about to begin, after a false start, <The_King> types

Line 1990:*The_King thinks this wait wasn't in his contract (logfile, December, 1993)

Playing with the Role of Audience

The “actors” are not the only ones who play around, improvise, raise a textual ruckus–members of the audience do too. Technically, all that is necessary for “audience” to be represented on screen is for one person to use the nick <audience> and type “Clap, clap, clap…”, as line [1] of the script calls for, and to comment “hmmmmmm…¨” at the end [line 80]. All others who joined #hamnet channel could just lurk, throughout. In fact, there are plenty of “audience” hijinks of all kinds. Here are some examples:

Line 1003:<jeffrey68> I think the audience is hgtting restless…

1016:<jeffrey68>: theater owner should have passed out free drinks….

1025: <fan> more popcorn please. and could someone tell that lady in the third row 1026:+to take hat off…

1031:<AUDIENCE> throws fruit at javalima…

1052:<fan> can I pull the curtain open?…

1122:*Spectator is waiting restlessly in the stalls…

1453:*KaiKul has eaten all his popcorn and started on the box…

2046:<AUDIENCE>: mild clapping and shouts of “this better be good! we have fruit!”…

2327:<Cyberpook> Clap…clap…clap…

2328:<Gallery> applauds…

2333:*ovations are coming from all over…

2349:<Recorder> It was cool, except for the parts that sucked…

2351:<masc0789> My mother would have a stroke, but definitely a great leap forward…

2353:<Ig> Author. Author….

2368:<vanGogh> autographs pls!… (logfile, December, 1993)

Playing One's Role

Playing One's Role in the Performance of Hamnet

Among the most amusing types of improvisation on one's role are those where individuals “impersonate” inanimate objects. Thus, <Ghost> and <Drum> have a field day in the December performance, mobilizing comics-like means to convey sound. This is a kind of textual equivalent of doing charades in real life:

<Ghost>: Line 1015: BOOOOOOoooooooo HHHOOOOOOoooooooooo How's that for haunting?…

1340: WWWOOOOOooooooOOOOOWWWWWWW… OOOOOOoooooooo :-) What's going on guys?…

1439: Ran out of time… got to go. WOWOOOOOOOOO ooooooooo…

1942: I left my sheet a home…


2156: Better clean up this ghost of an act….

2224: th th th th that's all folks [9999999999]

In the February performance the ghost used textual means to flesh out his role:

2488:* Ghost haunts everyone (logfile, February, 1994)

When Harris asked December performers if all had their lines, <Drum> replied:

Line 1571:<DRUM> I don't but I'm just a prop (logfile, December, 1993)

Earlier, <Drum> also imitated the sound of a drum textually:

Line 973: <Drum>: Boom Boom Boom Boom BoomBooom… 1325: Boom Boom Boom (logfile, December, 1993)

The <Ghost> exploits an emergent convention in the world of CMC: capital letters are experienced as SHOUTING, and hence are generally discouraged. Here, he/she indicates the shift from initial loud sounds to fading ones by switching from capital letters to small ones, as in

Line 1439: Ran out of time…got to go. WOWOOOOOOOOO ooooooooo…

In line 2156 the <Ghost> offers a witty pun: ghost of an act echoes ghost of a chance, We can read it as a reversal of “act of a ghost.” As for <Drum>, typing “Boom boom boom” is the textual equivalent of beating one's chest in a charades game, in order to convey that one is “a drum.”

Having a Cast Party

Just as RL performers like to have a cast party after the performance, virtual ones do too. In the December performance, all remained on #hamnet for the festivities. In the second, February performance, after the show, Harris “moved” the festivities to another channel, called, of course, #castparty. One of the signs of a celebration is the intaking of spirits. As we mentioned at the beginning of this paper, there was “champagne” at the December cast party:

Line 2404;*laertes pops the bubbly…

2498:*mortal pops open champagne and cork knocks the Producer unconcious. (logfile, December, 1993)

<DRUM> got into a party mood by changing his nick:

Line 2455:***DRUM is now known as party_tm (logfile, December, 1993)

The intention was probably “DRUM is now known as <party_time>, but since only 9 characters are allowed, “time” has been abbreviated to “tm.”

At the February cast party, in addition to virtual champagne, the players drank “sherry,” Danish “vodka,”“beer,” and “Southern Comfort,” and <Ophelia> even “snorted cocaine.”

Interspersed with the audience's reactions were many comments by the cast, who conducted what Harris called a “post-mortem” on the performance. They applauded their own performance, but also made RL judgments about how it went, and how to do better next time. At the December cast party, the mood was rather subdued, since most were preoccupied with figuring out how to improve the technical and logistic arrangements in the future.

Line 2329:*ENTER applauds!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…

2432:<_exit> at least 3 lines were dropped…

2473:*Femmy hugs producer¨wonderful¨THANK YOU…

2481:<Producer>:femmy:Dahling u were wonderful…

2484:*Femmy does deep bows….

2492:*President wants Femmy's autogram (logfile, December, 1993)

Here are some of the suggestions made for future productions at the December cast party:

Line 2421:<mortal> You might want to use two chin a split screen to give…

2422:+direction to the actors in one and the play in the other…

2224:*Femmy suggests a less busy channel…

2453:<_exit> I think +v for actors/crew only would help….

2479:<Fort_bras. Producer: Get the players cast beforehand and E-mail their parts…

2480:+a day or two ahead of time. (logfile, December, 1993)

Eventually, Harris adopted <Fort_bras>'s suggestion and cast the main roles ahead of time, in future productions.

The February cast and audience were more exuberant:

Line 2468:<tyree> BRAVO! BRAVO! 2469:<hamlet> Darlings you were wonderful!!!!! …

2471:<Ophelia> .me dances around stage in bare feeties. …

2475:* llr applauds and *whistles…¨BRAVO!!!!! 2478:<tyree> MORE! 2479:<_King> awesome 2480:<R_krantz> Hamlet old man. Well donre sir. Of course I would have been better …

2484:* _King takes several bows …

2486:<_Producer> Well done everyone all mahvellous …

2511:<tyree> action: jumps up and down shouting BRAVO! (logfile, February performance)

Playing with the IRC Software

The players also play with IRC commands and functions in a host of ways, beyond those called for by the script.

Non-performative Reference to IRC Commands

In a one-liner during the December performance <G_stern> types:

Line 2168: <G_Stern> /set lag off

This looks just like the usual way one types IRC commands, e.g.,

/join #hamnet

/list channels

/set mode on

/set mode off

But there is no such command to set lag on or off! Lag is not subject to the commands of the program at all. It is a “trouble” inherent in the medium, and, as we have repeately pointed out, one which plagues participants incessantly. In short, <G_Stern> is using the format of IRC commands to say in a playful manner, “Let's hope there won't be any lag.” Hardly anyone notices this little move, except for <Recorder>, who types “Haha” in the very next line–at least he/she appreciated the thought.

Another form of playfulness with the IRC software and in-group culture exploits the ambiguities of knowing who is a person and who is a bot on IRC. As we mentioned earlier, on many servers “bots” are installed to perform certain functions. They are programs which can emulate live dialogue, along with executing various automatic IRC commands. Sometimes it is quite difficult to know if one is chatting with a person or with a script-generated “entity,” especially if that individual's contributions are interleaved with those of many others. In that spirit, during the February performance, <Usher> wrote what no real bot would ever admit:

Line 599:<Usher> I'm only a bot (logfile, February, 1994)

An address including a userid is given for <Usher>. Although this is no proof of being a human, very likely, he/she is playfully commenting on the uncertainty of knowing who is really a person.

Performative Use of Commands

Whereas <G_Stern> pretends to use an IRC command, <Ophelia> uses one performatively, but in a playful way, to comment on how long it is taking to get organized:

Line 1105:*** ophelia has changed the topic on channel #Hamnet to SOMEDAY THIS WILL

1106:+START (logfile, December, 1993)

Since the log was created by Harris himself, we cannot see on screen the actual command she typed, but only the acknowledgment by the software that the command has been executed. In order to create the text in line 1105, she had to have typed


Playing with Language


As we have seen, Harris built plenty of obscenity into the players' lines. The players have a field day with additional, improvised forms of obscenity while online–not merely verbal obscenity, free use of four-letter words, but also, amusing simulations of action. There are good examples of “pissing” and “farting” in public in both the December and the February performances of “Hamnet”. Here is the one from the December performance:

Line 1570:* The_King wonders off for a leak …

1576:<The_King> *piddle*…

1578:<The_King> *washes hands* (logfile, December, 1993)

<The _King> wanders off (not “wonders”–just a typo) for a “leak” in line 1570, “piddles” (line 1576), and “washes hands” (line 1578).

The choice of “piddles” is apt: it is a word of Elizabethan origin, and one we use nowadays mainly in connection with children and pets- e.g., “the dog piddled”. The expression “w[a]nders off” does not succeed in creating a simulated private space; in effect <The_King> is piddling “in public.” In the February performance one of those present “passes wind:”

Line 657:*Dudester pases the wind *blat*

658:*Dudester* excuses himself … 660:*_Producer freshes the chan …

662:<_Producer> with a cyber-aerosol (logfile, February, 1994)

None of the participants even “blinks,” textually. <_Producer> quickly freshens the “air” in the channel with a “cyber-aerosol” spray, and the preparations continue. In both examples there is also a comics-like element of onomatopoeia: “piddle” and “*blat*” imitate the sounds of the action.

Like “taggers” creating subway or other public graffiti all over the world, IRCers experience a special glee in “getting up” with a forbidden inscription in a public “space” or “place” (Castleman, 1982; Cooper and Chalfant, 1985). Just as Harris had fun incorporating four-letter words in his mock-literary work, so the performers had fun using them in written real-time chat.

Parlor Word Games

While waiting for the show to begin at the December performance, Harris found himself alone with <GeekChrus>. He introduced his own brilliant version of a well-known parlor word game to pass the time and keep themselves amused.

Line 322: <Producer> :

323: <_Producer> Little-known fact #2: The game of Go is just golf with the line

324:+feed missing 325:<_Producer> :

326:<GeekChrus> sesame

327:<GeekChrus> selfsame

328:<_Producer> good 1

329:<GeekChrus> not quite

330:<_Producer> pier

331:<_Producer> pilfer

332:<GeekChrus> shelfish

333::<_Producer> oh, sheesh… (logfile, December, 1993)

The principle of this game, hinted at by Harris in line 323, is that players challenge each other to think of pairs of words in which the addition of a letter, or of a combination of letters in a word yields another word. It's no coincidence that the string [“lf”] chosen by Harris comes from the world of computers. The expression “line feed” means, as a verb, “to feed the paper through a terminal by one line (in order to print on the next line); and as a noun, “the ‘character, which causes the terminal to perform this action” (Dictionary of Computer Jargon, 1995). <GeekChrus> instantly understands what game Harris has in mind (perhaps they have played this game before), and comes up with a wonderful pair: “sesame” and “selfsame”. Harris rises to the challenge and offers another: “pier” and “pilfer”. In the next round <GeekChrus> throws out the word “shelfish” (sic), but before he can provide his own second word, Harris comes up with sheesh, an apparently outmoded term in computer culture denoting impatience. This term appeared in at least one previous version of the Jargon File but is not included in the latest version available online (Jargon File, 1995).

Spelling Games

The players also play with spelling in a number of ways. Look, for instance at this line from the December log:

Line 1746 <G_Stern> king: ure crown'z on crooked (logfile, December, 1993)

Not only the “crown” is “crooked”–<G_Stern>'s spelling is too! “Ure” is “your”, and “crown'z” with a z is a zany way to write “crown is”. This is not just another case of speedwriting motivated by considerations of efficiency. It takes almost as many letters to write “ure” as “your”. If “u” is short for “you”, then “ur” could have been short for “you are.”“Moreover, unless <G_Stern> is extremely practiced in substituting z for s, it might even take longer in terms of cognitive processing, let alone typing, to produce “crown'z” than “crown is” or even “crown's”!

The substitution of z for s is characteristic of playful linguistic practice in hacker culture (Meyer and Thomas, 1990; Barlow, 1990; Raymond, 1991; Slatalla and Quittner, 1994). Hackers make eccentric use of z, not simply to provide a more phonetic transcription of the actual pronunciation of words or expressions. Everybody knows that modern English spelling often has little or nothing to do with sound. Like hackers, seasoned IRCers also signal their own specialness and solidarity through these eccentric spelling practices. Another example of z as the sign of the plural, also in the December performance, is:

Line 414: <Zygon>: martbob: tankee :) *huggerz* (logfile, December, 1993)

Another of the typical substitutions made by hackers is ph for f, as in “phreak” for “freak” and in “phrack”, a computer underground magazine (Meyer and Thomas, 1990; Barlow, 1990; Slatalla and Quittner, 1994). “Phreaking” (from “phone phreak”) is “the art and science of cracking the phone network” or, by extension, “security- cracking in any other context” (Raymond, 1991: 281). A well known hacker named Mark Abene spells his nickname “Phiber Optik” rather than “Fiber Optic” (Slatalla and Quittner, 1994). Whereas Abene replaces c with k, yet another common hacker practice, Harris replaces ck with c.

Puns Galore

One of the most striking characteristics of performances by the Hamnet Players is the extraordinary, often brilliant punning that goes on. Defined in a simple and charming manner, puns are a type of wordplay in which “two meanings competing for the same phonemic space or as one sound bring forth semantic twins” (Hartman, 1970: 347, cited in Fried, 1988: 8). The Hamnet Players frequently throw out one-line puns, which are sometimes noticed by the others, sometimes not, in the rush of rather rowdy goings-on. Here is a clever one by <mattfest>:

Line 319: <mattkest> Prod? can we declare the Hamnet is appearing in the Glob-al

320: +theater?

321:<_Producer> good idea (logfile, December, 1993)

Shakespeare's own theater was called “The Globe,” as readers will no doubt recall. And the Hamnet Players are creating global theater. The difference in sound between “glob” and “globe” invoked by the hyphen in “glob-al” also harks back to a pun in the New Hacker's Dictionary: hackers enjoy calling the Boston Globe the “Boston Glob” (Raymond, 1991: 9). This pun is particularly apt in a broader sense too: Shakespeare's period was one when RL global exploration was a major cultural theme, whereas our own is one in which a new virtual, global culture is developing, and the activities of the Hamnet Players are an important part of that trend.

Another cute pun in the December log is

Line 700:<Fem> I brought me with me (logfile, December, 1993)

<Fem> and <me> are buddies in Alaska. <Fem> is saying, literally, that she brought along a friend, whose nick is <me>. Harris may have been expecting these two: both end up playing key roles. <Fem> becomes <QUEEN> and <me> plays <Ophelia>.

Sexual punning appears in a bit of improvisation on the script during the December performance.

Line 2159:*ophelia thinks hamlets nuts 2160:*audience wonder what's going on

2161:/l ham26 2162:<Hamlet>Make that “sanity-deprived,” pls…. [26]

2163:<_exeunt> what about his nuts? :) (logfile, December, 1993)

Whereas the first occurrence of “nuts” in line 2159 is part of the original script, the second, by <_exeunt>, is not. Note that he marks his cleverness with a “smiley.” This may or may not have been an intentional pun.

In another example, <Fem> types, as part of her ongoing flirtation with <President>,

Line 2402:*Femmy needsa PRESSing. (logfile, December, 1993)

<Fem> exploits capitalization to highlight the pun on her interlocutor's nick.

As amusing as these examples are, sexual punning is far more brilliant in an extended sequence in the December log, during an ongoing flirtation between the <King> and <Queen> (aka <Fem>). The transcript below has been edited heavily–not to censor it, but, on the contrary, to highlight all the clever wordplay, which occurred over rather a long stretch, and which may go unnoticed if buried in the text, interwoven with many other kinds of content.

Line 1339:* King wonders if queen wishes to produce any litle heirs?…

1353:<King> Queen? 1354:* QuEeN re evaluates the King//…says¨‘with that little thig’??? 1355:<King> Melady?…

1371:<King> Queen - but, you ain't got me excited yet!…

1390:<QuEeN> King…what¨so then I won't need the tweezers???…

1392:<King> Queen - no…calipers, maybe…

1420:<DRUM> PLease keep it in the royal Chamber, you too. 1421:<QuEeN> Microinches??…

1429:* ophelia thinks that the king and queen should be BANISHED…(or at least 1430:+thrown in the dungeon *evil laugh*)…

1435:* King sits on his thone, unabashed…

1460:* King unfolds his full manhood…better? 1461:* ophelia chucks the king twards and audience member eheheh…

1469:<G_Stern> give king his /PART 1470:<King> heh heh 1471:* King has a HUGE part…

1478:* QuEeN chuckles…at her witless mate…

1484:<King> Queen - no wits maybe, but a very nice ****…

1495:* King enters Queen 1496:* TheGhost exits right…

1714:<SCENE> Is this going to be logged?…

1716:<Recorder> SCENE: I am logging it….

1718:<DRUM> I am logging 1721:* Recorder is logging this session….

1729:* ThE_QuEeN would like a log file sent to her…

1742:* The_King gives the Queen his log…

1753:* ThE_QuEeN examines said log….and puts it to flame…

1770:* KaiKul warms his hands on the burning Log (logfile, December, 1993)

This brilliant improvisation is a striking instance of what Delia Chiaro (1992: 114) calls “ping-pong punning,” in which participants picks up on the ambiguity of words used, and try to outdo each others, cleverness. This type of punning is generally quite conscious; people hear each others, contributions and consciously try to outdo them, or at least to keep up the flow of puns. In contrast, other types of punning, in speech at least, may be unconscious or unintentional (Sherzer, 1978).

Whereas Chiaro is talking about spoken punning, we are dealing with interactive typed punning, something new in the world with the advent of digital technologies. It is apparent that the wordplay hinges on the sexual connotations of “thing”, “part”, “member”, and “log”, as well as “enter”, though at least in the case of “log”, <Queen>'s initial use of it may have been innocent enough:

1729:* ThE_QuEeN would like a log file sent to her…

Just at that moment, several others had reported that that were logging the performance, so maybe she (the RL person disguised as <Queen>) really wanted a record of it, and had no licentious connotations in mind. In any case, the others quickly added it to the list of expressions to play with. The sexual innuendo is quite subtle and context-dependent; not a single one of these expressions normally has a distinctly sexual connotation.

Another aspect of the humor in this long sequence depends on still other kinds of play with language. Look again at

1495:* King enters Queen

1496:* TheGhost exits right…

The two sentences appear to be syntactically and semantically analogous, at first glance. However, “Queen” is a noun, while “left” and “right” are adverbs. Here, the humor derives from play with syntax (Chiaro, 1992: 40-43). The underlying meanings of “exit right” and “enters Queen” are, of course, entirely different!! Line 1496 was not a part of the script, and was therefore improvised as a humorous follow-up to line 1495. We shouldn't forget to mention the punning use of “enter,” which has served as a mere stage direction till now.

Play with language continues to be an important part the flirtation in later portion of the log, though it doesn't quite measure up to the brilliant series of puns in the sequence just presented.

2093: *ThE_QuEeN pinches the King…

2095: *ThE_QuEeN punches the King…

2097: *The_King gropes the Queen…

2101: <ThE_QuEeN> ooopsa…

2307: exKing fancies a bit of necrophilia with the Queen….

2342: *exKing gets his end away with the Queen

The move from “pinches” to “punches” once again reveals elegant play with sound, since all phonetic material remains identical, except for the switch in vowel sounds from i to u in the two words. <The_King>'s response reflects attention to the formal aspects of his utterance too–it maintains the same syntactic structure, mirroring <ThE_QuEeN>'s lines exactly.

Earlier, we encountered an example of a homophonic pun in improvisations on original Shakespearean plays by Quantum Cat (“heir” vs. “hair”). During the February performance of “Hamnet”, at one point <Dudester> asked “who's Kristen?” Harris replied:

Line 388: <_Producer> dude: she auditioned, she has a SE asian name like Rhuc …

390:<_Producer> Phuc

391:*tsasntme* kristen as in telerama sysop?

392:<_Producer>: Phuc Yoo Too\ (logfile, February, 1994)

Harris may have started out by trying to recall the name in all seriousness, but once he has typed it and it pops up on screen, he can't resist the slight graphic change from “Rhuc” to “Phuc”. It is not clear what inspired him–was it the graphic similarity between R and P, in combination with the letter h, or was it the possibility of two different pronunciations of “Rhuc”? Thus, an ostensible attempt to spell an exotic Asian name (Vietnamese, Cambodian?) became a wonderful opportunity to introduce an obscene pun; but that is not the end of the story. He adds a further Oriental twist, another kind of play–this time with spelling: he spells “Fuck you too” in vaguely Chinese or Vietnamese fashion.

In all the many varieties of puns and punning which we have just discussed, the pun is generally intentional. Sometimes, people make puns unconsciously; they occur in a serendipitous manner. In our previous research on IRC we documented the serendipitous exploitation of a typographical error: a player called <Thunder> was writing of packing a bowl with marihuana; instead of typing “bowl”, he typed “bowel”. This led him to write “shitty pot” (Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press).

In the December performance of “Hamnet”, <Ophelia> typed

1870: *ophelia Kisses laertes and thinks he is such a midevil STUD… (logfile, December, 1993)

“Midevil” can be read as “medieval”, as “mid¨devil”, and as “mid…evil”. Readings as “evil” or “devil” are both pertinent to the context of the original play, as well as to the linguistic context– the association with STUD.

Playing Around: Virtual Flirting

In the midst of staging the production, the players also carried on their own private games, notably flirting. When the body is missing, one wonders, how do people flirt? The answer is: as in everything else, by typing. Flirtations flourish on IRC, but take on new, additionally humorous connotations when participants are “wearing” their “Hamnet” nicks. One flirtation in the December performance was between <Ophelia> and <Laertes>.

Line 1468: *laertes eyes ophelia longingly…

1476: *ophelia winks at laertes…

1485: *laertes slyly moves towards ophelia…

1491: *ophelia giggles…

1510:*laertes wonders what ophelia is doing after the show….

1661: *laertes is feeling realy excited….

1870: *ophelia Kisses laertes and thinks he is such a midevil STUD… (logfile, December 1993)

This continues, off and on, not only before the performance, but during it, as well:

Line 2071: *laertes is falling for ophelia he thinks…

2082: *ophelia gives laertes a SMOOCH (you big stud you) (logfile, December, 1993)

Except for the fact that these two people are currently “dressed” in their “Hamnet” nicks, this could be just an ordinary flirtation on IRC. However, knowing that they are stage brother and sister in the play, we find the note of “mock-incest” humorous. It could be, of course, that they were not aware of this added dimension of their interaction.

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.


Figure 2. Elements of Carnival in Hamnet Performances

Download figure to PowerPoint

*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.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

The Flowering of Verbal Art in Digital Culture

A vast research literature has documented the strong tendency toward playfulness and stylization in oral genres of communication, particularly in societies without writing (e.g., Hymes, 1964; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1976; Edwards and Sienkewicz, 1990; Bauman, 1977). In previous papers on writing as performance on IRC, we already developed the argument that digital writing has much in common with communication in oral culture. The many factors fostering playfulness in computerized writing are resulting in a flowering of artful uses of language which we have associated in the past with oral genres. We are, of course, not alone in making this argument (Bolter, 1991; Lanham, 1993). The evidence for our own case came from a detailed analysis of one relatively short sequence of interaction on IRC–not much material at all, when one considers the hours and hours put in by thousands of people, daily on IRC. Our work on the activities of the Hamnet Players, both the scripts and the performances, now provides important new evidence of playful stylization in digital culture. Although we have not been able to present detailed analysis of the two later scripts and their performances in this paper, the general features which we have discussed in this paper are also striking in them too.

We have seen that in the script of “Hamnet”, Stuart Harris “froze” the playful style of online communication on IRC as a medium of quasi-literary composition, and then in performances, the script became the basis for an exuberant carnival of improvisation. Again and again, we encountered virtuoso feats of wordplay, including one liners, sequences of punning, clever parodies of Shakespeare, play with the IRC software and the norms of IRC culture, and with the conventions of theater. The punning and other forms of wordplay in Hamnet productions are very much in the spirit of Shakespeare himself: his works themselves are full of puns (Hussey, 1992: 142 145), including even in contexts where to many modern eyes the puns seem perhaps inappropriate, as in Mercutio's line in Romeo and Juliet (III.1), “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man (Culler, 1988: 3).

Nevertheless, the bias of print culture has been to suppress stylization in the name of transparency of meaning (Palmer, 1994, chap. 11). Even as august a literary figure as the 18th-century Samuel Johnson nastily condemned the puns in Shakespeare as being against “reason, propriety and truth” (Attridge, 1988: 140; Palmer, 1994: 141). Test (1991: 156) suggests that puns have had a particularly bad press in relation to the English language. Maurice Charney has noted, in reference to the rise of literature and the status of the comic in literature, that “Writing, and especially printing…tends to fix and stabilize meanings….In an oral culture, the sounds are literally the basic units of meaning, with almost unlimited possibilities for punning. The awareness of spelling tends to restrict the free play of the comic imagination” (Charney, 1978: 19). Bolter makes a similar point when discussing the nature of the new electronic medium: “there is a solemnity at the center of printed literature–even comedy, romance, and satire–because of the immutability of the printed page” (Bolter, 1991: 130). As Nash puts it, “We take punning for a tawdry and facetious thing, one of the less profound forms of humor, but that is the prejudice of our time” (Nash, 1985: 138). Even in contemporary conversation they are often looked down upon, or seen as a distraction (Sherzer, 1978; Test, 1991). But the most prejudiced attitudes clearly pertain to writing, and especially to print. There has a discomfort with figures of speech that pluralize meaning; this is reinforced by a positivistic desire to set boundaries, to establish structure and unity.

We take monist reasoning for granted. Truthfulness [has been] equated with simplicity, not complexity…Figures of speech such as metaphor or irony confuse binary thought because they add the complexities of ‘both/and’ to ‘either/or’, thereby blurring the lines we like to draw between truth and falsehood, fact and non- fact….punning is not respectable….Most Europeans…are trained to admire irony but to disapprove of puns. The socially expected response to a pun is a ritual protest: a groan” (Ahl, 1988: 21).

Genre Revisited

Earlier in this paper, we devoted a section to the issue of genre in the case of the Hamnet Players. We looked, in turn, at the literary categories of farce, parody and satire, and concluded that “Hamnet” scripts are best described as hybrid genre–either satirical parody or parodic satire. But what of Hamnet performances in their entirety? To what genre shall we assign online events? Shouldn't we see the start of these events–the performance– not as the moment the virtual curtain goes up and the ASCII Elsinore castle is loaded on screen, as our title seems to imply, but as the opening of the #hamnet channel and all that takes place until the last person logs off? Indeed, the latter position is implied by our discussion of the carnivalesque elements in Hamnet performances. If everything that happens in the channel is pertinent, then we need a way of conceptualizing genre that takes into account both the theater and the carnival components, and both the pre-composed and the online, dynamic aspects of Hamnet productions. Viewed in this broader perspective now, we propose to characterize Hamnet productions as something new in the world: (1) interactive, (2) computer-mediated, (3) primarily textual (5) half scripted, half improvised (6) satirical parodies (or parodic satires, if one prefers the latter term).

Why Shakespeare?

It is not by chance that Shakespeare is the butt of the parodies performed by the Hamnet Players. Many people have commented on the fact that we tend generally to parodize what is very familiar, not necessarily what is canonized. Again and again, in different times and places, we turn to Shakespeare, especially when consensus wavers, or in times of change.

When Thomas Edison toured cities promoting and demonstrating his new invention, the telephone, about 100 years ago, he drew on Hamlet's famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. (Aronson, 1977). This is a modest but nevertheless telling instance of the general tendency to turn to Shakespeare particularly in times of technological change. Lawrence Levine (1988) has analyzed the vagaries in the popularity of Shakespeare in American culture, from earliest colonial times to our own times. Shakespeare was extremely popular in 19th-century America, so much so that performances of his plays and derivatives of them were a major form of popular culture. By mid- 19th-century, his plays had become “a staple of theaters in the Far West” (Levine, 1988: 19). Levine comments:

Shakespeare's popularity in frontier communities… [fits] our knowledge of human beings and their need for the comfort of familiar things under the pressure of new circumstances and surroundings” (Levine, 1988: 20).

Many authors have commented on the fact that cyberspace has much in common with the 19th-century American West (Barlow, 1990; Reid, 1991; Ruedenberg, et al., 1995; Danet, et al., in press). characterized it as “vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse…, hard to get around in, and up for grabs.” For all the attractions of the strange new world that is the Internet, we too hanker after the familiar. No doubt, Stuart Harris chose plays by Shakespeare intentionally, in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. The choice was also a natural one for him, given his background as an Englishman with experience in theater now living in the United States.

There is clear independent evidence of the continuing centrality of Shakespeare in contemporary English-speaking culture. In this era when the very notion of canon is undermined, there are those who are working desperately to save it. Harold Bloom's (1994)“heroically brave” (Fruman, 1994: 9) attempt to restore or salvage the canon in the humanities placed Shakespeare among the four masters of Western drama. In a survey carried out for the New York Times at the beginning of 1995, respondents were which is the most important drama in current Western culture (New York Times, 1995, cited in the Hebrew newspaper Ha'aretz, 1995: 6b). Remarkably, seven out of the ten dramas making it into the list of the top ten were plays by Shakespeare. Moreover, Hamlet won first place. These results suggest that not only technology, but general times of major cultural change, reinforce the trend to turn to the familiar. Despite the continuing argument over the future of the canon in elitist circles, Shakespeare remains an important cultural anchor.

Globalization, Democratization and The Hamnet Players

There has been, and no doubt will continue to be a good deal of hype in the near future about the potential of the Internet to foster globalization and democratization of culture. Although there are many channels on IRC for non-English-speaking groups, most are English-speaking/writing. Hamnet scripts are written in English, and performances are also in English. The question arises, then, is there any basis to claim that the Hamnet Players are an international phenomenon? Or does the group mainly attract people from English-speaking countries, whether as performers or as audience members, thereby fostering in its small way the continuing domination of English language and culture in the world? We also want to ask: is this truly a new form of popular culture, or do these activities mainly attract members of an elite?

To answer these questions, we examined the addresses of participants in all six Hamnet performances–not only the two of “Hamnet”, but also those of “Pcbeth” and “An IRC Channel Named #Desire”. Scanning the logs for participants' addresses, we found that, while at the beginning, people from American universities stood out both as participants and as audience (addresses ending in “edu” dominated), over time the British element became more prominent, and people from a wider range of countries joined in, both as audience and as participants. Among the countries represented, in addition to the United States and England, were Slovenia, Switzerland, Israel, Finland, Ireland, Slovakia, Austria, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden. People from Asian countries were notably absent. To some extent this reflects the slowness of some of these countries (especially China) to discover and join the Internet. Another difficulty is that some public servers, e.g., that in Taiwan, are frequently used by people in the West to gain access to IRC, so an address including any of these servers does not necessarily indicate a participant logged on from that country.

Despite these difficulties, we believe that the international element has steadily grown over time. The dominance of Americans and of people belonging to academic institutions appears to be declining. This may also reflect more general changes in the Internet itself, as wider sectors of society are joining it. Among Americans, more persons whose addresses end with “com” (commercial sector) participated in the later performances. Recent statistics on the Internet confirm these trends (Bournellis, 1995). For instance, “com” is now the largest and fastest growing sector, according to these statistics.

On another note, it is widely known that women are heavily underrepresented on the Net, a reflection of their traditional distaste for computers and for technology generally (Turkle, 1988; Perry and Greber, 1990). The record for women in Hamnet activities turns out to be much more encouraging. While there were relatively few women among the performers in “Hamnet”, by the time of “An IRC Channel Named #Desire”, roughly half the performers were women. We believe that the Hamnet Players are making a small, limited but nevertheless important contribution toward democratization on the Net. This is true both for the representation of countries and for the representation of women “on stage,” behind the scenes, and in the audience. At the same time, let us not romanticize these developments. As long as the English language continues to dominate scripts and productions, the ability of persons whose native language is not English to participate will remain problematic– unless they are fairly competent bilinguals (there are countries where bilingualism and even multilingualism are routine, e.g., the Netherlands, where people speak German, English and French as well as Dutch). Finally, there is another important reason why democratization will remain limited, both with respect to the Hamnet Players and to the near future of the Net generally. In the discussion of Hamnet productions as carnivals of wordplay, we overlooked an important fact: unlike RL carnivals which make possible a momentary leveling and even reversal of RL status hierarchies–the poor people have their day–the carnival discussed in this paper is an elite one in which only well-educated, sophisticated middle-class persons can participate. In short, we must conclude that despite their mixing of elements of high and low or popular culture and the evidence for the participation of persons from non English-speaking countries, the activities of the Hamnet Players perpetuate elitist Western, English-speaking culture on the Net.

  1. 2. Other Groups Experimenting with Virtual Theater: One group, led by Mara Rosenberg, formerly at the State University of New York at Poukeepsie, has been attempting to develop a production of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night's Dream, in which the dream world is cyberspace itself. Another group, led by Steve Schrum uses the COLLAB-L discussion list as a forum for some of its discussions; this group is attempting to create an online adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Aspiring to realize its production entirely online, the latter group comes closer to the achievements to be documented and analyzed in this paper, though their activities are still only in the planning stages, as this paper was completed, whereas the Hamnet Players have six performances behind them. add vt stuff in Eudora.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  8. Acknowledgments:

We are very grateful to Stuart Harris, founder of the Hamnet Players, whose pioneering activities we document in this paper, for sharing his experience and materials with us, and for enabling us to take part in a unique enterprise. This research was presented at a conference, “Science Fiction or Reality? Communication, Culture and Society on the Internet,” hosted by the Smart Family Institute of Communication Research, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, June 11, 1995. The present paper was drafted while Brenda Danet was a scholar in residence at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy, during the month of July, 1995. Run by the Rockefeller Foundation, this residence is an academic's dream come true, combining freedom from the pressures of daily life with the beautiful surroundings of the Villa, Bellagio and Lake Como, and the companionship of scholars from all over the world.


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