Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shakespeare: Bill Bryson

William Shakespeare was an inevitable part of my growing years in school, long years ago. In the initial years, it was Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” which offered us a window into the stories in Shakespeare’s plays. Later on, it was the plays themselves, in the original – I remember “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night” being my prescribed plays in the last two years in school. Not surprisingly, in those days, we thought that William Shakespeare was the author of the plays.

Then I came across this story. An initial announcement at an Oxford ceremonial dinner to commemorate the 400th birth anniversary of the bard went thus: “In honour of Shakespeare’s birthday, Bacon shall not be served today.” It was my first exposure to a non-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

It wasn’t too long after that when a second story hit me. It was an argument between two Oxford dons, one of whom declares that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Queen Elizabeth I. The other don, completely exasperated, asks, “But surely sir, you don’t think works of such mastery can be created by a woman?” The first don doesn’t bat an eyelid, “You miss my point entirely, sir. My fundamental assertion is that Queen Elizabeth was not a woman.”

While I was still recovering from the two seemingly improbable hypotheses of these stories, I came across a newspaper piece about a PhD scholar in England who completed his thesis and came to the following conclusion: “The plays of William Shakespeare were probably written by William Shakespeare.”

Now, many years later, I came across Shakespeare by Bill Bryson last week. I tend to approach commissioned books (this one is part of a series titled “Eminent Lives”) with a bit of suspicion, but if the subject was the bard and the author, Bill Bryson, I reckoned I was safe. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Of course, a topic like Shakespeare offers all the opportunity in the world, because, a devoted reader can find support for nearly any position he or she wishes in Shakespeare. But put it in the hand of as consummate a writer and mind as Bryson, and what you have is sheer magic. The cogency of his arguments, the beauty of his writing, the depth of his research and the clarity of his position make Shakespeare a total delight.

It is indeed amazing that considering no one in Shakespeare’s lifetime or for the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship, there have been so many questions about Shakespeare.

Did he exist? Was he an individual or a syndicate? Did he write the plays that are credited to him? If he didn’t, who did? (There have been more than 50 claimants so far, including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe—Queen Elizabeth I, it appears was not a very serious contender.) Who were his benefactors? Who were the muses for his sonnets? What is the chronology of his work?

The questions are many, and considering that most of the answers are based on conjecture, multiple interpretations are rife. A single line in Sonnet 107 (“The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured”) has been taken to signify at least five separate historical occurrences: an eclipse, the death of the queen, an illness of the queen, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or a reading from a horoscope. Is it any surprise that his canon (which apparently represents about 15% of the plays that survive from his times) has sustained and is likely to continue to sustain the interest of hundreds of literary scholars and literature lovers? Has authorial intent ever been more deeply examined? It has even been suggested—seriously, it would appear—that two lines in Hamlet (“Doubt that the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move”) indicate that he deduced the orbital motions of heavenly bodies well before any astronomer did. Can there be a better subject for post-modernists?

Bryson trawls through the research done by generations of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare represents an elegant synthesis of that. Of course, you cannot talk of Shakespeare without talking of the England and London of the sixteenth century. And Bryson combines the two elegantly when he suggests that William Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving the first year.

Shakespeare also carries a wealth of detail and trivia, of which my favourite is the P. T. Barnum story relating to Shakespeare’s birthplace. Apparently the impresario had the idea of shipping it to the United States, placing it on wheels, and sending it on a perpetual tour around the country—a prospect so alarming that money was swiftly raised in Britain to save the house as a museum and shrine. It might well have changed the history of Shakespeare research.

The last sentence of the book is as much a reflection on Bryson’s writing as it is of Shakespeare’s greatness.

Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare was unquestionably that man—whoever he was.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Black Swan: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb summarizes his book early on in the prologue thus.

… in this (personal) essay, I stick my neck out and make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated. This implies the need to use the extreme event as a starting point and not treat it as an exception to be pushed under the rug.

If the world is dominated by the extreme, what is it an extreme of? We need the boundaries defined in the first place, don’t we?

If the world is dominated by the unknown, don’t we need to first articulate the known so we can then hope to progress towards the unknown?

If the world is dominated by the improbable, then, as a certain Sherlock Holmes would have said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So how do you eliminate the impossible?

While the author does not truly consider these, the book is not totally disappointing either. The idea of the black swan is intuitive, though not particularly original. It is not dissimilar to the management principle that exhorts organizations to define processes to identify their blind spots. Theodore Levitt’s concept of marketing myopia is perhaps on the same lines. Carl Jung, in The Undiscovered Self, suggests that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity. Of course, Karl Popper introduced the original black swan to define the idea of falsifiability. Yes, we’ve known for some time now: Life happens in the fringes.

Standing as he does on the shoulders of such giants, you wonder why Nassim Taleb seems so defensive about his idea. Why denounce the entire worlds of statistics (except BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot’s work), economics (Friedrich Hayek’s thoughts and ideas seem to meet with Nassim Taleb’s approval though), and any other discipline that is involved in forecasting? If the idea of the black swan is so self-explanatory (and it certainly does seem to be), then surely it does not need to establish itself by rubbishing everything else? To quote the bard, Nassim Taleb doth protest too much, methinks.

The Nobel Prize for Economics! Yes, it is something that draws more flak than the Prize in any other discipline, and there does seem to be some basis for that. But surely Nassim Taleb is a bit too vitriolic? So much so that at one stage, he blames the Nobel Committee for not checking with people like him before awarding the Prize in a certain year! Why does the term “sour grapes” suggest itself?

Authorial presence is something you particularly don’t expect to see in non-fiction of the non-memoir variety. But NNT (as the author refers to himself whenever he tires of using the perpendicular pronoun) is present in almost every page, in almost every paragraph. While one does not dispute the approach of using personal examples, experiences, and beliefs when someone is presenting a new idea, it’s rather unfortunate that the book has more of the author than of the idea.

Then there are the tiresome neologisms, probably created with the hope that they would become buzzwords. Like platonicity, in a pejorative usage referring to our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well defined “forms.” Or the two worlds of Mediocristan (which all of us inhabit) and Extremistan (where Nassim Taleb lives, presumably with some company).

While some of the examples in the book are good, quite a few are glib. The competitive advantage of one company cannot be a black swan for another, can it? And the turkey-before-thanksgiving example is, even allowing for the fact that it was just an exaggeration to illustrate a point, quite glib and shallow. Some of the other examples are good and relevant though.

At the end of it, I wonder: Is the concept of a black swan really a black swan?