Dystopian story ‘Ready Player One’ has tips for life after coronavirus

Wade Watts becomes a better global citizen when he reconnects to the real world in Ernest Cline’s novel ‘Ready Player One.’ Tye Sheridan stars as Watts in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation.
(2018 edition of ‘Ready Player One’/Penguin Random House)

Tom Ue, Dalhousie University

Dystopian fiction seems so alluring during the coronavirus pandemic. As we eagerly await a return to normalcy, many say we can aspire to do better — whether we are talking about wealth distribution or global warming. What dystopian fiction does especially well is to show how we can do more than simply repeat.

Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel of the same title (2011), is a case in point. Set in 2045 in the city of Columbus, Ohio, it speaks of a world that has weathered corn syrup droughts and bandit riots.

People have now resorted to outliving rather than fixing the world’s problems. Accordingly, a virtual reality game known as the OASIS has become a refuge for many, including the central protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan).

Small wonder that the OASIS is so appealing. Within its walls, Spielberg pays homage to many aspects of popular culture. The video game Minecraft (2009) is a possible setting, and throughout the film, viewers watch Chucky, the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla in battle.

The Iron Giant goes to battle in ‘Ready Player One.’
(Warner Bros.)

Refuge of virtual reality

Entire plot sequences incorporate existing popular characters, music and stories. In a nod to Superman, Watts dons Clark Kent glasses to conceal his identity. And in a sequence worthy of the film’s 2019 Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Visual Effects, Watts and his romantic interest Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke) dance to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (1977).

The central conflict in Ready Player One arises when James Halliday (Mark Rylance), one of the OASIS’s creators, dies and leaves behind a seemingly impossible quest. The prize is his extensive fortune and total control over the OASIS. Watts’ competitors include the Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a loyalty centre that seeks to take over the OASIS.

The IOI is shown to be exploitative. Samantha’s father, we learn, borrowed gaming gear, built up debt and moved into the IOI in hopes to repay it, only to fall ill and die. Samantha stands to follow his example and her debt has already exceeded 23,000 credits.

Wade and Samantha dance to the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ in ‘Ready Player One.’


What distinguishes the film — and its source material — is its exploration of how we negotiate with a social order rife with inequalities. This theme is particularly timely: COVID-19 has made apparent, for instance, the links between inequality and public health.

In the novel, the IOI’s corporate police arrest Wade, and he is marshalled out of his apartment complex and into a transport truck. As the vehicle moves, he peers out of its window and absorbs the changes that have befallen the world:

A thick film of neglect still covered everything in sight …. The number of homeless people seemed to have increased drastically. Tents and cardboard shelters lined the streets, and the public parks I saw seemed to have been converted into refugee camps.”

The key term here is neglect. Wade is not alone in having forsaken the world. The virtual universe of the OASIS may have provided a convenient refuge. But choosing to escape the world’s realities has contributed to a dramatic rise in social and economic inequalities.

Taking constructive steps

Both Cline’s novel and Spielberg’s film trace Watts’ growth into a better global citizen and his reconnection to the real world, so that his triumph can entail more than the regeneration of a flawed system. Spielberg expands on the novel by exploring what Watts does with his new-found wealth and power.

Watts shares his gains with his friends and together they take constructive steps towards improving both the OASIS and the wider world: they employ Halliday’s friend Ogden (Simon Pegg) as a non-exclusive consultant. They also ban loyalty centres from accessing the OASIS and switch off the virtual world on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage people to spend more time in the real world.

All of these actions seem commendable and they reveal how different Watts and his friends are to Halliday. Yet the film also exposes paradoxes inherent in fixing a broken system with its very tools.

In a recent article on the novel that I wrote with James Munday, a mathematics and statistics undergraduate student, we argue that any major change Wade makes to the OASIS, such as closing it for extended periods, demands that he and his fellow shareholders take on a substantial loss: their power is contingent upon the OASIS after all. But Wade seeks a more selfless and heroic win: creating a system that answers the needs of the many.

Steven Spielberg and Ernest Cline at the Warner Bros. ‘Ready Player One’ panel at Comic-Con International in July 2017, in San Diego, Calif.
(Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Imagining new worlds

What Spielberg does especially well is to show the importance of imagining the world in new ways — and the temptation and problems with rebuilding a broken one in its own image.

In this, Spielberg harks back to a long genealogy of dystopian fiction, a genre invested in world building. The problems that Watts faces are anticipated, for instance, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), where we find an exploitative social system replaced by one even more so because it is more efficient.

Recently, Gregory Claeys provided us with an interdisciplinary map of the genre in his illuminating study Dystopia: A Natural History. In a short essay, he draws connections between the fears that we feel in these times of uncertainty to the genre’s central concerns.

As we collectively meditate on the world’s problems, why not imagine better worlds?The Conversation

Tom Ue, Adjunct Professor, Department of English, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

William Shakespeare: archaeology is revealing new clues about the Bard’s life (and death)

Waxwork of Shakespeare by Madame Tussauds in Berlin.
Anton Ivanov via Shutterstock

William Mitchell, Staffordshire University

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.

There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.

The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.

Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.

Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.

Shakespeare’s house

Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through recent archaeological investigations of its foundations, give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.

The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.

This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.

Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.

It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.

In search of the Bard

Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.

An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.

Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.

Here lies …

Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.

A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.

These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.

Read more:
How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.The Conversation

William Mitchell, Lecturer in Archaeology, Staffordshire University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

Martin’s Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare (1623)
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Emma Smith, University of Oxford

In recent years the orthodoxy that Shakespeare can only be truly appreciated on stage has become widespread. But, as with many of our habits and assumptions, lockdown gives us a chance to think differently. Now could be the time to dust off the old collected works, and read some Shakespeare, just as people have been doing for more than 400 years.

Many people have said they find reading Shakespeare a bit daunting, so here are five tips for how to make it simpler and more pleasurable.

1. Ignore the footnotes

If your edition has footnotes, pay no attention to them. They distract you from your reading and de-skill you, so that you begin to check everything even when you actually know what it means.

It’s useful to remember that nobody ever understood all this stuff – have a look at Macbeth’s knotty “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in Act 1 Scene 7 for an example (and nobody ever spoke in these long, fancy speeches either – Macbeth’s speech is again a case in point). Footnotes are just the editor’s attempt to deny this.

Shakespeare plays hand bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, UK.
Ian Alexanber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Try to keep going and get the gist – and remember, when Shakespeare uses very long or esoteric words, or highly involved sentences, it’s often a deliberate sign that the character is trying to deceive himself or others (the psychotic jealousy of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, for instance, expresses itself in unusual vocabulary and contorted syntax).

2. Pay attention to the shape of the lines

The layout of speeches on the page is like a kind of musical notation or choreography. Long speeches slow things down – and, if all the speeches end at the end of a complete line, that gives proceedings a stately, hierarchical feel – as if the characters are all giving speeches rather than interacting.

Short speeches quicken the pace and enmesh characters in relationships, particularly when they start to share lines (you can see this when one line is indented so it completes the half line above), a sign of real intimacy in Shakespeare’s soundscape.

Blank verse, the unrhymed ten-beat iambic pentamenter structure of the Shakespearean line, varies across his career. Early plays – the histories and comedies – tend to end each line with a piece of punctuation, so that the shape of the verse is audible. John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II is a good example.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

Later plays – the tragedies and the romances – tend towards a more flexible form of blank verse, with the sense of the phrase often running over the line break. What tends to be significant is contrast, between and within the speech rhythms of scenes or characters (have a look at Henry IV Part 1 and you’ll see what I mean).

3. Read small sections

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t novels and – let’s face it – we’re not usually in much doubt about how things will work out. Reading for the plot, or reading from start to finish, isn’t necessarily the way to get the most out of the experience. Theatre performances are linear and in real time, but reading allows you the freedom to pace yourself, to flick back and forwards, to give some passages more attention and some less.

Shakespeare’s first readers probably did exactly this, zeroing in on the bits they liked best, or reading selectively for the passages that caught their eye or that they remembered from performance, and we should do the same. Look up where a famous quotation comes: “All the world’s a stage”, “To be or not to be”, “I was adored once too” – and read either side of that. Read the ending, look at one long speech or at a piece of dialogue – cherry pick.

One great liberation of reading Shakespeare for fun is just that: skip the bits that don’t work, or move on to another play. Nobody is going to set you an exam.

4. Think like a director

On the other hand, thinking about how these plays might work on stage can be engaging and creative for some readers. Shakespeare’s plays tended to have minimal stage directions, so most indications of action in modern editions of the plays have been added in by editors.

Most directors begin work on the play by throwing all these instructions away and working them out afresh by asking questions about what’s happening and why. Stage directions – whether original or editorial – are rarely descriptive, so adding in your chosen adverbs or adjectives to flesh out what’s happening on your paper stage can help clarify your interpretations of character and action.

One good tip is to try to remember characters who are not speaking. What’s happening on the faces of the other characters while Katherine delivers her long, controversial speech of apparent wifely subjugation at the end of The Taming of the Shrew?

5. Don’t worry

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Shakespeare is that niggling sense that understanding the works is a kind of literary IQ test. But understanding Shakespeare means accepting his open-endedness and ambiguity. It’s not that there’s a right meaning hidden away as a reward for intelligence or tenacity – these plays prompt questions rather than supplying answers.

Would Macbeth have killed the king without the witches’ prophecy? Exactly – that’s the question the play wants us to debate, and it gives us evidence to argue on both sides. Was it right for the conspirators to assassinate Julius Caesar? Good question, the play says: I’ve been wondering that myself.

Returning to Shakespeare outside the dutiful contexts of the classroom and the theatre can liberate something you might not immediately associate with his works: pleasure.The Conversation

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.