To thine own self be true

Monday, 12 March 2018


This week (12-18 March) is Shakespeare Week a national, annual celebration of the playwright coordinated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Dr Katharine Craik, Reader in Early Modern Literature at Oxford Brookes University, is carrying out research into Shakespeare’s plays, exploring how they can help shed light on a growing problem which exists today of distinguishing between real life and our increasingly digital selves.

She discusses this below:

We knew who we were 20 years ago. We had not yet created digital versions of ourselves using Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We had not yet developed our ‘email persona’, and we could not yet catapult ourselves into the hands of others using Skype or FaceTime.

Internet gaming was still in its infancy and could not yet offer us glamorous or ruthless avatars capable of succeeding where we habitually fail. All of these technologies allow us to experience ourselves through the eyes of others and to curate parallel identities which are distinct from – although intimately related to – everyday existence.

At the same time, our newly networked lives allow us to interact regularly and meaningfully with people who are not physically close to us; or with people who have never and will never exist.

Real life has become startlingly proximate to life-like representation, and both physical and virtual reality now seems more or less inseparable. Go back over 450 years and we find that Shakespeare and his contemporaries already had a word for the intimacy and estrangement which now characterises our networked lives: hypotyposis.

Borrowed from the ancient Greeks, this word simply means ‘vividness’. The best poets and playwrights had mastered it and could make readers or audiences experience people so colourfully, urgently and realistically in their imagination that they seemed as if they were really alive.

The technology originally developed to help us understand the world has more recently become sociable, affective and relational so that we feel rather than think with our digital devices.

Dr Katharine Craik, Reader in Early Modern Literature, Oxford Brookes University

My research has focussed on episodes in Shakespeare’s plays where absent or imagined people are summoned vividly into the lives of others: unborn children spring into being, lost or forgotten voices are recovered and the dead are quickened. Why does Macbeth address Banquo’s ghost as his “sweet remembrancer?” What does Hamlet mean when he says he sees his dead father in his “mind’s eye”?

Shakespeare’s plays were written centuries ago, but shed eerie light on a contemporary problem: the inseparability of real life from those we experience as digital figments – including ourselves.

Hypotyposis already posed a complex set of problems towards the end of the 16th century. At this time church ministers were debating ways to make Christ vividly apprehensible to believers through preaching and the sacraments. Using the concept of fides ex audita, or faith by hearing, God was becoming present through the ear rather than the eye, allowing believers to find ways around the post-Reformation denunciation of images and symbols.

At the same time as print technology and illustration became increasingly sophisticated, people were debating the merits of book-learning as opposed to the direct, sensory experience of the world. Across early modern culture in theology, science and philosophy vivid representation was becoming closer and closer to ‘the truth’.

And Shakespeare turned the early modern playhouse into a crucible for exploring this rapidly developing tension. The ethical questions hypotyposis raises also issue a direct challenge to the present.

The technology originally developed to help us understand the world has more recently become sociable, affective and relational so that we feel rather than think with our digital devices. In particular, we now interact with digital personae in much the same way as we interact with others in the world.

Life-like people emerge as preferable, in many ways, to the complexity, frustration and everyday humiliation of real-life relationship. But what are the opportunities and risks involved in summoning up and immersing oneself in life-like others – particularly when their presence is so difficult to distinguish from one’s own?

This article is taken from the Winter 2017/18 edition of Research Forum magazine.

More information about Shakespeare Week can be found at