Fairies, Cybernetics, Plays, and Cyborgs

An Analysis of the Comic Correctives of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and William Gibson’s Neuromancer

This blog post was adapted from my term paper for AP English Literature.

Cyborgs entering sophisticated virtual reality systems in a cyberpunk future would seem to be completely disparate from crafty fairies fooling young lovers in Classical Athens. However, these images are both representations of the incongruities that underlie William Gibson’s Neuromancer and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whether the authors are combatting the rigidity of the patriarchy or the inhumanity of cybernetic enhancement, incongruities serve as a vehicle for self-reflection and repairing the status quo, working within the comic corrective frame proposed by Kenneth Burke (Renegar & Dionisopoulos 327). Whereas William Shakespeare develops a comic corrective hinged upon the dialectical tension between the past and the present with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a comic corrective reliant upon the dialectical tension between the present and the future, a divergence that results in contrasting conceptions of humanity, mimesis, and transformation.

Russian literary critic and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin observed the institution of the carnival as a model for the subversion of authority through its parody of the ruling class. This interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been rejected by the majority of scholars (Derrin 425). Shakespeare epitomizes the carnival through the world of the fairies. However, instead of parodying the ruling class as Bakhtin’s theory supposes, the fairies parallel it. When the fairy king, Oberon, battles his wife, Titania, over the changeling child, he parallels Theseus and Egeus’s exertion of patriarchal dominance in requiring Hermia to choose between death and a forced marriage (Shakespeare 2.2.15-25). Resembling the hierarchal, traditional Athens, the carnival world of the fairies is characterized by struggles of greed, power, and jealousy. The carnival is as much in need of repair as Athens itself. Furthermore, Bakhtin’s notion of subversion ignores the context of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As a playwright writing for royalty and the aristocracy, Shakespeare produces conservative works that seek to repair, but not revolt against, the status quo, reinforced by the resolution of his plays.

Bakhtin’s flawed interpretation was corrected and refined by American literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke (Renegar & Dionisopoulos 325). Bakhtin conceived of meaning as a perpetual mechanism of negotiation between individuals in a certain society, a concept that constitutes dialogism. Meaning is plural and open to interpretation. Heteroglossia, the intertextual nature of novels and other narratives, was espoused by Bakhtin to be a subversive force that resists the unifying agents operating within most cultures. This force fuels Bakhtin’s conceptualized metanarrative. A fellow proponent of metanarrative and dialogism, Burke diverged from Bakhtin in that he clearly acknowledged the emergence of contradictions as a result (Henderson 4). He proposed the comic corrective frame to illustrate the role of contradictions in fostering alternative vision. Contradictions, also referred to as incongruities or unseemliness, highlights dialectical tension while providing distance in order to promote critical reflection. The carnival is merely a technique for the exhibition of contradiction. Moreover, Burke recognizes the comic corrective frame as a tool for both subversion and repair of the status quo, facilitating the application of this frame to narratives written by conservative figures like Shakespeare (Derrin 427).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream “draws upon … [the tradition of] Athens as a way to visualize breakings apart and remakings of the social order structured by fresh ideals that can frustratingly seem only ever to be partially realizable,” clearly examining the dialectical tension between the past and a changing present (426). The values of Athens’s status quo are implied by the contradictions and incongruities of the play. Consider that the sodden fields and fogs described by Titania and the characterizations of the artisans are English in nature, and have no basis in any historical record of Athens (Shakespeare 2.1.66-102). Therefore, these are also the values of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England.

Humor is produced by instances of failed distinction-making, and is paralleled by the ongoing political negotiations of consistency within the play. For example, Lysander, in attempting to elucidate his rationale for permission to marry Hermia, humorously quips that Egeus should marry Demetrius, the preferred suitor, himself. Lysander moves on to state that he is as “well derived” and “possessed” as Demetrius, but has “the love of Hermia” (Shakespeare 1.1.99-110). In doing so, Lysander calls attention to the arbitrary parental love Egeus has bestowed upon Demetrius that not only discounts empirical assets, but a responsibility to love and beauty within the Athenian authority. After a venture into the world of the fairies, Theseus, the epitome of the Athenian authority, endorses Lysander and Hermia’s marriage, rectifying Athens’s disregard for love and suggesting a rectification in England (Shakespeare 4.1164-174).

As opposed to relying upon the dialectical tension between the past and a changing present, Gibson fosters corrective criticism by showcasing a world that is simultaneously present and future in Neuromancer (Renegar & Dionisopoulos 339). Reflecting the postmodern times the novel was written in, Neuromancer is a piece of writerly fiction that illustrates the consequences of technological fascination and proliferation, establishing a singular entelechial extension requiring contextual dialogue on behalf of the audience in contrast to Shakespeare who presented multiple evolutions contained purely within his version of Athens. The incongruities and contradictions of this novel rely upon the accelerating and counter-cultural nature of technology, displaying both the wildest dreams of the futurists and the most frightening nightmares of the Luddites. Irony and casuistic stretching, introducing new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles, develop these incongruities. For example, Gibson extends the idea of cybernetic enhancements to fabricate cyborgs. The most notable cyborg is Molly, the protagonist’s partner. With razor-sharp retractable bladers, vision-enhancing mirrored lenses sealed upon her eyes, and artificially heightened reflexes, Molly is portrayed as a formidable mercenary, emphasizing the power of technology. However, as the narrative develops, the audience learns about Molly’s past as a “meat puppet”, a prostitute preyed upon specifically for their enhancements (Gibson 250). Parallelling the contradictory nature of technology, Molly’s enhancements both amplify and degrade her.

Similar to Shakespeare, Gibson repairs the status quo, preserving the power and authority of technology by elaborating upon Wintermute’s (a powerful artificial intelligence) unifying capabilities, which included reuniting Case, the protagonist, with his dead girlfriend, Linda Lee. Wintermute also distanced Case from Molly, a carnival symbol that can be likened to the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Gibson 303). While previous researchers reached a consensus that Neuromancer is a form of Burke’s comic corrective frame, the effectiveness of Gibson’s technique is a contentious issue. Many misinterpretations of Neuromancer have promulgated, likely due to the removal of comic distance caused by the fruition of Gibson’s ideas, including the concept of virtual reality and the Internet (Csicsery-Ronay 225).

Lauded for their lyricism, Gibson and Shakespeare bolster the functionality of their comic correctives through their language. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania orchestrates layered naturalistic metaphors in perfect iambic pentameter (Shakespeare 2.1.66-102); meanwhile, the artisans spoke in malapropisms and terse statements (Shakespeare 1.2.1-35). Equivalently, in Neuromancer, the decorative kinesthetic prose illuminating the opulence of the elite Tessier-Ashpool family stands in stark contrast to the profane terms describing street hustlers (Gibson 299). These social disparities forge incongruities. Furthermore, both writers impute meaning to the natural world through human-contrived mechanisms. While Shakespeare compares nature to a book, Gibson follows the modern tradition of the Newtonian mechanistic metaphor, ultimately operating to emphasize incongruities (Gough 9).

While both works rely upon fusions of humanity, A Midsummer Night’s Dream merges man and nature through the fairies, while Neuromancer merges man and machine through cyborgs. The magic and enchantment associated with the fairies parallel the technological entelechy of cyborgs. The difference between nature and machine is an extension of the difference between the past and future, developing from the divergence in dialectical tensions. Shakespeare clearly embodies the Romanticism of his time period when elucidating the disposition of the fairies, while Gibson established “Neuromanticism”, a new fascination with technological advancement, through his cyborgs (Gough 14). In the work of Donna Haraway, the cyborg is celebrated as way of escaping human, and most particularly gender limitations (15). Similarly, fairies represent the chaotic carnival escape. However, in the spirit of the conservative comic corrective, neither Gibson nor Shakespeare embraces the progressive nature of these creations. The latent subservience to the status quo is present in the fates of Neuromancer’s Molly and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Titania. As a cyborg, Molly is forced into prostitution, a gendered patriarchal punishment for her cybernetic enhancements (Gibson 133). Meanwhile, the fairy queen, Titania, not only is requested to submit to Oberon’s authority on multiple occasions, but is humiliated when he doses her with a love potion, causing her to fall in love with a lower-class artisan with the head of a donkey (Shakespeare 3.1.64-70).

Transformation and change are at the heart of Neuromancer and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; uncontrollable, accelerating forces regulate the events of the narratives. Neuromancer pursues entelechial extension with its choice of technology, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream wields love to connect the changes in the present with the past. The carnival exposes more incongruities within these forces in both narratives. Neuromancer’s action sequences in the Atlanta portion of cyberspace (Gibson 87) are as anarchic and turbulent as the mix-ups and altercations between the four young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare 3.2.65-74). These forces are the subject and object of the comic corrective. From the gestalt of cybernetic networks to virtual reality spectacles of rape, Neuromancer confronts the sublime nature of technology. However, Shakespeare adopts a more positive perspective on love, chiding the authority of Athens for not recognizing its significance. While both narratives conclude with the success of each force, Shakespeare’s play ends on a positive note, implying the inherent goodness of love, which exists in opposition to Neuromancer’s overtones of tragedy when the artificial intelligence acting at the antagonists fulfills its objective.

Shakespeare’s mimesis is expressed through a play within the play, while Gibson, once again, relies upon technology. Shakespeare was a member and shareholder of the Globe theater and had many patrons for his works, resulting in his choice of theater as an art form indicating the necessity to connect to the larger audience and extend a long-lasting tradition. Gibson’s depiction of technology as art is, contextually, memorable and unique, emphasizing his future-focused mindset. Shakespeare creatively situates the moon to portray the tragic play Pyramus and Thisbe as reality, creating a comic distance in order to reveal the true tragedy of love and life. Moreover, the artisan’s foibles in producing the play are essential in the evolution of multiple incongruities, including Theseus’s acceptance of imagination and love as well as Puck’s disposition (Hutton 292). However, “almost every character in Neuromancer is an artist of some kind (Csicsery-Ronay 233).” By treating technology as art, Gibson creates a direct reflection of reality, free from the complex distancing mechanisms employed by Shakespeare, a gauge of the ramifications of technology itself.

Kenneth Burke’s comic corrective frame explains the apparatus utilized by William Shakespeare and William Gibson in Neuromancer and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, respectively. Portrayals of mimesis, humanity, and transformation serve as manifestations of the differing dialectical tensions each comic corrective is hinged upon, ultimately assisting the author in repairing the status quo and cultivating reflection.

Bibliography:

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” Critique-studies in Contemporary Fiction. Vol. 33, p. 221-240. 1992, doi:10.1080/00111619.1992.9937885.

Derrin, Daniel. “The Humorous Unseemly: Value, Contradiction, and Consistency in the Comic Politics of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare, vol. 11, no. 4, 2014, pp. 425–445., doi:10.1080/17450918.2014.925962.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books., 1990. Print.

Gough, Noel. “Neuromancing the Stones: Experience, Intertextuality, and Cyberpunk Science Fiction.” Journal of Experiential Education. 1992. Doi: 10.1177/105382599301600303.

Henderson, Greig. “Dialogism Versus Monoloism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change.” KB Journal, vol. 13, 2017.

Hutton, Virgil. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Tragedy in Comic Disguise.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 25, no. 2, 1985, p. 289., doi:10.2307/450724.

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York :Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

Renegar, Valerie R., and George N. Dionisopoulos. “The Dream of a Cyberpunk Future? Entelechy, Dialectical Tension, and the Comic Corrective in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 76, no. 4, 2011, pp. 323–341., doi:10.1080/1041794x.2010.500342.