Thursday, 11 November 2021

A Simple Suggestion: How to Fix Doctor Who

The long-running BBC tea-time-television science fiction series Doctor Who is not without its problems, some of which I have considered before.

However, there is a simple solution which would radically realign the show, eliminate problematic biases and introduce exciting new storytelling possibilities, whilst squarely hitting the family demographic and exploring topical themes from a new angle. It is this:

I propose that the Doctor fixes the broken chameleon circuit which is designed to disguise the TARDIS time-vehicle as a doored object consistent with whatever surroundings it appears in: a passive form of camouflage. But wait! Not to apply to the TARDIS, which will remain the much-beloved police telephone box on the outside. But to apply exclusively to the crew.

In each excursion, the crew will pass through a chameleon convertor and turn into forms suitable for whatever environment awaits beyond the TARDIS door. More than a Mr-Benn-like makeover, this could fundamentally transform them into any required non-human shape: aliens of almost any biological kind and scale; mechanical or artificial life; or nonhuman animals from Earth's present/future/history, and beyond; or historically-plausible humans of all kinds.

This can all be achieved through computer-generated imagery, motion capture if appropriate, or in the last example case by truly diverse casting drawing on global talent. The consistency-of-character challenges should appeal to actors, writers and designers alike. Voice, badging colours, mannerisms and so forth will be used to distinguish the Doctor and companions.

The wonders this will open up!

The Doctor and companions will be able to appear throughout an alien society's spectrum, and interact with beings vastly different from humans, in exciting new ways and modes of thought. Explore Earth's history without white saviour establishment elitism, drawing on world cultures for stories and themes. Become marine animals on a coral reef (not everything has to be about a mysterious evil supervillain or struggle for the fate of the universe). The casting of the Doctor becomes less of an issue, and could vary throughout a season. The relations between companions and Doctor will be profoundly impacted by walking in another's shoes/animating in another's appendage coverings/experiencing society from a different circumstance.

Once the limitations of (Anglocentric, speciesist, fan-fic sexualised, anti-society, ego-driven) humanform acting are broken through, Doctor Who will finally be liberated to tell the stories our modern audiences need and deserve, with undoubtedly more appeal to global markets through new writers, stories, characters, actors and settings from around the world, and the wide popularity of the best nature programmes.

A Simple Suggestion: How to Fix Doctor Who by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Enter Cordelia, disguised as Fool


In William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, there are significant textual, logical and dramatic reasons to suspect that the role of the Fool was at one point in the play’s history written to be played in disguise by Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter.

Nevertheless, the surviving text of the play I will refer to does not state in directions or dialogue that Cordelia is the Fool, in disguise.


Shakespeare’s comedic daughters customarily disobey or try to circumvent their fathers, and this also applies to some of his tragic daughters, such as Desdemona and Juliet (Ophelia obeys, but shares their fate anyway, albeit diminished).

It is also common for Shakespeare’s dramatic daughters to don disguises, often male.

Therefore there is little reason to object to the possibility of Cordelia disguising herself as the Fool on the basis of the other plays. We can also discount the rather pompous patriarchal assertion that Cordelia would simply obey her father’s order of banishment because she is allegedly the model of a ‘good’ daughter: she may be, but obedience is not part of that package for Shakespeare.

Role Morality

This takes us onto to what seems to me the heart of King Lear. Lear is faced with a tragic dilemma of the conflicts raised by trying to be both a good ruler and a good parent. I say ruler rather than king as he abdicates rule but not the title; and parent rather than father since Mrs Lear is missing presumed dead (“thy mother’s tomb”).

And the play continues to examine the morality inherent in other roles, such as counsellor, overlord, wife, servant and especially offspring. The major dramatic contrast is between the characters of Cordelia and Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril.

Do not assume that these role-players fall simply into social clichés: at one point a loyal servant stabs a Duke, and great trials and reverses await some of our characters.

Overview of plot, with Cordelia disguised as Fool

Act 1

Old King Lear is faced with a major problem. He would like to retire, but two of his three daughters (Regan and Goneril, each married to a duke) would each try and seize the kingdom. A ruthless King might just have the two of them killed to spare his kingdom civil war, but as a father he cannot countenance that. Lear would prefer his beloved unmarried youngest daughter to inherit, but the other two would gang up on her first. Perhaps the only way he sees (possibly unconsciously, he has “slenderly ever known himself”) to guarantee her safety is to engineer a falling out then a love test with the two suitors to see where she may be safely bestowed while the other two daughters duke it out. The King of France graciously accepts dowerless, disinherited Cordelia for wife, and Lear contrives to banish loyal Kent, possibly in order that he accompanies Cordelia to the French court as protector.

Painted sketch of Britain with Goneril's Albany faction in the North, Regan's Cornwall faction in the Southwest, and Cordelia about to be driven away from Kent in the Southeast.
Lear's Britain, to be divided in three for his daughters

We only have disowned Cordelia’s immediate reaction, and then she disappears from the play until the closing stages. Or does she? At any rate, we have to imagine an unplayed scene with Cordelia and the French King where she lays her plans and demands upon him to provide her with support that later appears in a French army landed at Dover to back her claim. She might as well have a more direct involvement in mind, and a much greater desire to stay with her father in his hour of greatest need than the King of France to which she shows no affection.

Kent ignores his King’s order of banishment and disguises himself as a rough servant we much later discover is named Caius, in order to reenlist in Lear’s service to look after him. There is a stage direction (Act 1 scene 4) “Enter KENT, disguised” and a short speech where Kent explains his disguise. The Fool first appears in the same scene.

In the text, the Fool is introduced as “Enter Fool“ not “Enter Cordelia, disguised as a Fool”. Neither does Cordelia give a speech explaining her disguise. However, these may have been removed from the text at some point, or Cordelia’s disguise may have been treated differently. Anyway, the Fool goes straight to Kent-Caius, which may indicate recognition, immediately penetrating Kent's disguise. From now on, I’ll refer to the character as Cordelia-Fool.

There is a telling introduction where Lear has missed the Fool since exactly the time of Cordelia’s departure, two days in which Cordelia-Fool has arranged for the real Fool to go into hiding, arranged her plots with her betrothed French King, and adopted and practised her new disguise in the same time period as Kent has. But Kent does not recognise Cordelia-Fool in return, who seems to immediately take the opportunity to test her disguise.

Cordelia-Fool plays constantly on the theme of daughters, and repeatedly utters the sentiments of Cordelia. When Cordelia-Fool says Lear has banished two of his daughters and given the third a blessing against his will, she is thankful. When Cordelia-Fool says:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are:
they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt
have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am
whipped for holding my peace.”

this can only relate to the previous exchanges between Regan and Goneril and Cordelia; and between Lear and Cordelia. Cordelia is rebuked and punished (not literally whipped) for all these cases. Cordelia-Fool also echoes and throws back Lear’s nothing-can-come-from-nothing phrase. Lear notes the Fool’s behaviour has changed, more singing etc.

In his reactions to Kent-Caius and Cordelia-Fool, Lear demonstrates how he “acts on instinct” (as Falstaff feebly claimed in Henry IV), or rather operates partly on an unconscious level, treating these two as affectionately and trustingly as if he knew them. This is of a piece with his repression of fatherly instincts in order to rule as king.

The number of occasions where Lear says ‘daughter’ when Cordelia-Fool is present also allows acted reaction.

Act 2

When Lear starts to express his worries about going mad, we are left wondering if the appearance in his coterie of Kent-Caius and Cordelia-Fool is not helping his sanity. Indeed, while conversing with Cordelia-Fool he says suddenly “I did her wrong”. Small wonder the Fool reminds him of Cordelia. Lear addresses the Fool as ‘boy’ so it makes sense that Cordelia could pass more easily as a youth.

Anyway, the plot develops, and Kent-Caius has mysteriously come into possession of a letter addressed to him from Cordelia (Act 2 scene 2):

“I may
Peruse this letter! Nothing almost sees miracles
But misery: I know 'tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been inform'd
Of my obscured course”

No mystery mate, that’s her in the Fool’s outfit, the only reasonable way she could have discovered his disguised presence in the King’s company and slipped the letter to him, with speed that strongly indicates she cannot be in France as her cover story implies.

Act 3

The plot drives onwards, and the Fool refuses to part with Lear when everyone else has.

Kent-Caius: “But who is with him?”
Gentleman: “None but the fool; who labours to out-jest
His heart-struck injuries.”

When Lear’s remnants encounter poor Tom in a hovel during the storm, it is Cordelia-Fool who is disturbed by his near-nakedness, providing a comic moment in otherwise dire times:

“Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed.”

and is the one disturbed by (her father) Lear’s subsequent disrobing.

Act 4

Anyway, the Fool disappears sometime before Lear is united with Cordelia and Kent. Cordelia is mentioned receiving letters in the French camp in Act 4 scene 3, when the King of France deserts the campaign in Dover. We see her briefly in the next scene looking forward to a reunion with her father Lear.

Cordelia’s soldiers seem to be directed to Lear, which is unsurprising if Cordelia-Fool has recently left his company. It is not until Act 4 scene 7 that Cordelia and Kent (still apparently in disguise but openly recognised by Cordelia) are formally reunited with Lear. Cordelia seems very accurately informed of Lear’s ordeal in the storm, again unsurprising if she was present. When Lear says to Cordelia:

“Methinks I should know you, and know this man;”

this makes sense in the context that he last saw both in disguise.

Act 5

In the last scene, after Cordelia is hanged in prison and Lear carries her out, after various laments and Kent telling Lear he had posed as his servant Caius, Lear exclaims:

“And my poor fool is hang’d!”

which of course could be a plain and simple recognition of Cordelia-Fool.

Thematic Support

The play revolves around people not being as they seem. Regan and Goneril pretend to be loving daughters, Edmund pretends to be a loyal son and half-brother. Their fathers Lear and Gloucester appear to be deceived. Cordelia and Kent’s plain words anger Lear, but their actions are of love and loyalty even as they disobey, as are Edgar’s to his blind father even as his words deceive and he disobey’s his father’s instructions to assist his suicide. So there is a distinction between being literally honest and being true. Kent deceives and disobeys but truly serves his King. Cordelia could quite consistently do the same. The play’s heroes do not abandon their loved ones at time of greatest need, in spite of being disowned by them.

Another other aspect is that Lear, caught in irreconcilable conflict between being a good King and a good father, fails at both, and this is a point that Shakespeare rams home as one of his searing indictments against the institution of hereditary monarchy. By repressing his parental/paternal care, it is left to work subconsciously, but he also neglects his own kingdom, as he belatedly recognises too. Lear’s anguish at his treatment from Regan and Goneril seems to stem from his repressed fatherly love that at some level he is shocked is not requited, although his eldest daughters may have been starved of the affection he seems in his later years to have bestowed on Cordelia. Lear’s close relationship with Cordelia-Fool therefore works off this subconscious recognition, as his regard for Kent does for Kent-Caius.

Also, Cordelia and Kent are aware that old Lear’s eyesight is not that sharp and he has begun to mistrust his senses. There is a constant theme of one’s senses being at odds: one’s nose may descry what eyes and ears are fooled by (and Cordelia-Fool’s close proximity to Lear seems to have an effect, and the sense of smell is closest to memory).

On Tragedy

If Cordelia is to rank alongside the other tragic figures in the play, she has to make a fateful choice, like Lear, Kent, Gloucester, Edmund, Albany, even Cornwall’s unnamed servant-executioner. The only space in the play for her to make such a choice is to refuse to accept banishment, and stay beside her father in the time of his greatest need, in the diguise forced by necessity. On the framing of the play, it is clear that Cordelia does rank with those others, her death is more significant than any other in the plot (if Cordelia survives, there is no tragedy). We do not see her making any such choice, unless it is as Cordelia-Fool.

On Comic Relief

Some people have historically seen King Lear as an unremittingly bleak play. Yet with Cordelia-Fool in play, there are a number of comic notes and touching elements that relate to Lear not being abandoned by his beloved daughter Cordelia, who charges the Fool’s lines with new pathos and meaning.


Or rather inconclusion. There are elements of the text and dramatic logic that strongly support the notion that Cordelia was at some point in the development of the play disguised as the Fool character. Historically, if the characters were doubled and the same actor played both in the early productions, there is at least no dramatic obstacle for the unity of the two characters, which are never on stage at the same time. However, Cordelia makes no direct acknowledgement of this role in the text, nor do the stage directions support the idea of Cordelia-Fool.

The play’s natural tripod cannot be sustained by Kent, Edmund and a missing leg of Cordelia.

A modern staging of the play could support the unity of the Cordelia-Fool character with dumbshow and the like without altering the text at all, and perhaps make better sense of the tragedy of King Lear. Which is that to be true in one’s role morality to another, may sometimes require subterfuge, and is not the same as plain honesty.

Painted sketch divided down middle between half-portait of Cordelia on the left, and half-portrait of Fool on the right.

Enter Cordelia, disguised as Fool by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thursday, 3 September 2020

The Lorax Amendment: Retro-fitting Green Authoritarianism to Parliaments


Thoughts on how to give the environment a decisive voice in currently human-dominated Parliamentary systems.


This is probably a bad idea. There are probably many better ways of achieving this goal. Implementing this could obstruct better solutions. Nevertheless…

In Dr Seuss' The Lorax, the environment is being chopped up and poisoned by a capitalist entrepreneur to make stuff nobody needs. I advise reading the book, not the rather redundant animated movie. Anyway, up pops a creature calling itself The Lorax, claiming to speak for the trees, and all the other living things that cannot protest at their mistreatment for themselves.

So the question is how can humans give non-humans an effective voice in the decisions humans make that affect all living things on the planet.

Simple Model of a Parliamentary System

Typically, a Parliamentary system has one or two Houses or Chambers where lawmakers debate and make laws and do related stuff. Let us take an example where the Lower House is filled with representatives of the People, and the Upper House is filled with representatives of Interests.

Lower House

Representatives in the Lower House might belong to political parties. Each party might have a more-or-less distinct programme of policies, usually slanted towards one or other groups of humans, or sometimes claim to serve a higher entity like God or The Economy. Even Green or Environmental parties tend to focus a lot on policies for humans, even if they claim to serve The Environment (who never seems to get invited to speak).

Red, yellow, blue blocs of a horseshoe, each with a cartoon argumentative person or two.
Coloured human political party blocks of seats in parliamentary chamber, divided three ways.
Upper House

The Upper House may be filled with similar party-people as the Lower, or just stocked with people who look like the Lorax but spend most of their time sleeping and are a lot less switched on. The Upper House may serve the interests of the Old Money in the country, perhaps landowners left over from feudal times, or church people who are there for reasons nobody can remember; or perhaps serve the interests of New Money, conventionally passed to them in brown envelopes with a traditional nod and wink.

Revised Model of a Parliamentary System with Lorax Amendment

So how do we change such a system to give the living world a decisive voice? I am glad you asked. And I will reverse the order of Houses to keep you awake.

Revised Upper House

Remember those Interests? Well let's make sure they don't outweigh the New Interests we will be adding, by a little judicious downsizing. Our New Interests will represent sections of the Environment, or Biosphere. Here is Atmosphere, here is Oceans, here is Land. Each can be broken into smaller interests, and joint committees can connect them, so there will be Shore Committee for Land and Oceans to talk to each other. Who is doing this talking? Well, just like humans were appointed to serve the previous Interests, our New Interests will need humans, or something better if available, to serve Atmosphere, Oceans, Land and whatever is decided would be a Good Thing To Do. Some countries without a seashore might not have a very big Oceans representation, but it should be there anyway, as we all know how plastics and other things end up in the sea.

Revised Lower House

A House that just represents humans, in this day and age? Not cool! We need representatives to speak for the Tree, the Tree of Life that is. And how much space on this Tree do humans take up? Very little! So squash up humans, here comes the rest of the family.

Red, yellow, blue and (bigger than these three put together) green blocs of a horseshoe, each with a cartoon argumentative person or two, except for the green which has cartoon shapes that might represent many different lifeforms, if you squinted.
Three human political parties shunted off and compacted down to make way for a majority of seats representing the non-human living environment

Who Will Speak for the Non-human World?

At the moment, we might as well appoint the people who have already been speaking out for Nature. These people (scientists, conservationists, environmentalists, ethicists and so on) do not necessarily agree, and sometimes have different priorities, but these can all be discussed in Parliament and its committees, and the public can follow and try to steer these debates and deliberations. Some will be expert in planet-sized problems, others will be expert in groups of living organisms, or ecosystems, or international law, and so on.

In the rest of this article, I will call this group of new representatives the Green Authority.

How Will it Work in Practice?

With the Green Authority's built-in majority for planetary care, and effective vetoes on government formation and policy, every decision affecting the environment will have to be passed (OK'd) by its representatives. Maybe the system won't work. But in some ways, the Civil Service already provide a kind of reality check, and this more transparent system might actually work better.

What Problems Might Arise from Fitting or Running Such a System?

There would be problems in acceptance, and in making the cultures of current party politics and planetary care work together. Lobbyists and agents for planet-damaging interests may try to control or sneak into the Green Authority side. The public might be unhappy about not getting a say (not that they do at the moment, really). Maybe politics will become boring, as Parliament starts to make all the obviously good decisions it somehow never managed to make before, amongst the scandals and mudslinging.


So, human Parliaments today mostly serve humans, and really only a few of those, and not particularly well, considering. This is pretty messed up, when you think about. Much damage is being done to the non-human world by humans. Therefore, one solution is to add majority-sized blocks of representatives for the non-human world, to make sure better decisions are made. For all of us.

And we need a new word for this combination of human democracy and green authority: call it, biocracy.

The Lorax Amendment: Retro-fitting Green Authoritarianism to Parliaments by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Grasping Hand of Tightness

When out with lads a’drinking
And it comes to buy the round
You will look in vain for Alan
While Johnny can’t be found
Yet drop some piece of coinage
Be it penny or a pound
The Grasping Hand of Tightness strikes
Before it hits the ground.

When time comes round for voting
What changes might we see:
New governments of vision
And fair equality?
Or petty calculations
For gaining more than thee?
The Grasping Hand of Tightness marks
A cross against the Me.

When slaves make all our clothing
And plastic fills our sea
When all that’s green is burning
And there’s nowhere left to flee
When a banker’s biggest bonus
Is for axing our last tree
The Grasping Hands of Tightness clench
Their fists in Victory.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

The Making of "Taxi for Mary"


The idea was to do a very short (perhaps as little as one minute long) animation on the nativity story for Christmas, with an offbeat theme. I liked the idea of giving donkeys some agency, so Mary's old donkey retires and presumably arranges for a replacement, a time-travelling taxi-driving donkey (from a future Donkey Civilization? who knows). Anyway, after some development of the story, I captured the gist in a mini storyboard.

Sketch sequences showing Mary and Joseph's journey in a yellow taxi driven by a donkey.
Mini storyboard for Taxi for Mary


I wanted to use felt shapes originally, but in the timescale I decided to use felt and other textures photographed and imported into Adobe Flash CS5. This is perhaps the last hurrah for my Creative Suite 5, since it will no longer work with the next version of MacOS. However, as the story was to be driven by the narration of the donkey-taxi-driver, I thought this character might be easier to animate as a sock-puppet, especially as it would be sitting behind the steering wheel all the time.

Sketch of donkey driving yellow taxi with woman (blue robe) and man (green robe) passengers.
Visualization of donkey-driven taxi

I thought about a uniform or cap for the donkey, but that seemed too fiddly and unnecessary, so I looked for more naturalistic style.

Some visualisations of the donkey's head

I used an old sports sock, cutting two holes for little finger and thumb (for donkey's forelegs to operate steering wheel) and a large gap for the mouth. I covered the sock with felt and sponge padding (cut from an old seat filling), only receiving a few mild burns from my hot glue gun. Note to self: upgrade health and safety. The donkey's ears were wire loops at each end of a wire bent to include a neck support, covered in moulded wire mesh, masking tape and a top layer of felt. The idea was that the ears would be bent as if by the roof of the taxi cab. The forelegs were made as separate digit-mittens, with moulded black plasticine hooves with neodymium magnets embedded to (hopefully) contact with the metal steering wheel, made from a jar lid. The donkey's mouthparts had space at top for middle finger and below for the other two fingers so I could animate the mouth for rough lip-synching.

The steering wheel was stuck inside a frame built of LEGO®, clamped to sturdy laptop desk, placed in front of green card, and lit by three LED lights. The video camera was placed on a tripod and zoomed in to accommodate the frame. Then the donkey sock puppet was positioned with its hooves holding the wheel, and videoed lip-synching with the pre-recorded (in Apple GarageBand) narration.

Photographs of a green-screen frame with a steering wheel, and the same frame occupied by a donkey sock puppet.
Green-screen frame for the donkey puppet

The video was then taken in segments into Apple iMovie, synchronised manually to the audio output in segments from Garageband, and edited to length. Each video segment (still rotated 90° from upright) was then exported as QuickTime movies. To crop, rotate and remove the green backgrounds, the videos were then imported into Apple Motion. After cropping, rotating and resizing (to about 540 pixels square) the keyer filter was applied, which automatically detected the green colour, and then the right slider in the spill contrast had to be slid all the way to the left to fully remove the background. The video was then exported with the alpha (transparency) channel.

To get the video into Adobe Flash, it was first converted into FLV (Flash video format) by Adobe Media Encoder. Once in Flash, it was placed like any imported video without using a surround. The audio was retained in the imported video through these operations.

The rest of the work in Flash was relatively straightforward. Some simple effects were used, and mostly very simple shapes with imported textures as bitmap fills with minimal animation were created.

I wanted to finish up back at the start (Mary and Joseph's Carpentry in Nazareth) to illustrate that the original donkey had retired, not "retired", as might have been implied by the narrator, and indeed had been joined by her replacement. This is where a photograph of the puppet was broken up into slightly simplified Flash shapes, and a slightly smaller mirror copy was elderified into an old white donkey. This hopefully help tie up the different visual styles and produce an adequate ending to animation already about 2 minutes long.

Sketch showing two donkeys reclining on deckchairs, one with glasses and knitting.
Donkeys at rest visualisation


Reflecting back, a major theme was time, probably not surprising considering how time-consuming animation can be, and in this case a looming deadline of Christmas Eve, which I met before tea-time when I uploaded the video and English captions. There were some weak gags and observations, and Mary was not simply a passenger either. While this project was essentially another animation test (and my first green-screen foray, thanks to a useful tip from the Internet), it also met my original concept and was completed on time (even if I had to buy Apple Motion, it was worth it).

Sunday, 3 November 2019

No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls


There are around 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare, written around 1590–1615, ranging through tragicomedy, comedies, tragedies and histories. They were produced at a time of absolute monarchy, where disloyalty to the monarch could mean death, and political censorship of the theatre was imposed by church and state. Yet within a generation, the conflicts of the English Civil War was challenging these ancient authorities, and by 1649 had deposed, tried and executed the King, disabling the monarchy for a short period.

Although Shakespeare's plays are peopled by kings and queens, dukes and nobles, they more often offer a critique of power, and particularly the flaws in hereditary rule.

The text of the plays, only published after Shakespeare's death, exists in different versions. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (ISBN-0-86288-146-3) and in some cases to BBC Television's The Shakespeare Collection on DVD (2005).

Anarchy in tragicomedy: The Tempest

Ancient and trusted advisor Gonzalo, trying to distract and amuse his apparently-bereaved King Alonzo, launches into a vivid description of how he would settle the pleasant isle on which they are stranded.

I'the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things: for no kind of traffick
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none:
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil:
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too; but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty:—…
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foizon, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people…
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.
The Tempest, Act 2 scene 1

The apparent contradiction of ruling this land-without-sovereignty is not lost on his listening critics. Yet there is safety in not rejecting kingship completely when your words are carried to your monarch. Does Gonzalo (held in esteem by philosopher-king-like Prospero) make sensible points here?

We should be clear that Gonzalo's idyll is not colonialism: there is no dispossession of others, no force, no living sweetly off the sweat of others. Nature is the provider, and his innocent and pure subjects live uncommanded in a state of Nature. The enemies of their golden age appear to be agriculture, toil, law, property, violence, coercion, corrupting luxuries, trade, need. Gonzalo's idle sketch may be an unsatisfactory model of an eco-anarchistic commune, yet his musings lead to sharper questions. For example, how can you call Elizabeth I's reign a 'golden age' if people went hungry?


If humans are happiest in a state of Nature, are they above Nature or other animals? People are compared to animals throughout the plays, and in Two Gentlemen of Verona, servant Launce takes a whipping to spare his dog (Act 4 scene 4) (true love?) amongst other sacrifices. The forest bandits appear to be getting along fine without a leader, perhaps because they live as social animals.

But perhaps human societies should have culture to thrive, and norms of behaviour? There is a kind of levelling in the Merry Wives of Windsor, where an economy of dishonesty and errand places power in intermediaries, and the final fairy forest gathering is perhaps an anarchistic idyll of communal justice over the highest ranked but greatest offending member. Puritans seem to exclude themselves from these groups (John Rugby? Malvolio in Twelfth Night facing an anarchist group of tormentors?).

Looking at the problems of rule, Measure for Measure suggests that the corruptions of power lead inevitably to problems. A monarch cannot easily embody both terror and mercy, and the paradox of power is that false communications between ruler and ruled render unreliable worldviews. The Duke seems to achieve more by persuasion in his meddling monk guise than by command.

So here we might consider if the essence of Shakespearean drama, with human agency and responsibility, requires persuasion to move the plot and characters, rather than command. It would, after, be a dull play if people simply obeyed orders from those of higher ranks or offices.

Persuasion forms part of collective decision-making, and an essential decision is often about justice. The pro-Hero conspiracy in Much Ado About Nothing is joined by reason and compassion rather than ruled by rank or its allegiances. An interesting aspect of the play is that those elected to office by the populace seem dumber than average.

What upsets Nature in the forest of Midsummer-Night's Dream? Perhaps abuses of patriarchal power by Theseus, Egeus and Oberon. Post-ordeal, two forest couples reach a state of maturity away from oppressive Athenian law (yet still make fun of the rude mechanicals when they return, and rank and privilege are re-established).

What sets nobles above commoners? In Love's Labour's Lost, the nobles profess a meritocracy of wit, yet commoners may outwit nobles (yet we see the divisive nature of language(s)). A field-court may make up its own rules (from a Natural environment?). In their Renaissance humanities, the proper study of man is woman, and vice versa? There is equality in that.

What of the Prince of Arragon in Act 2 scene 9 of the Merchant of Venice, appearing to rail against the corrupt obtaining of estates, degrees and offices and supposing a meritocracy would raise many honourable peasants while stripping and lowering society commanders. How far might common humanity heal the divisions in the play?

What if, as Celia fantasises in As You Like It, Fortune's gifts were bestowed equally? But Nature gives and takes separately, Rosalind claims. Natural differences will have to be accommodated in society. Life in the Forest of Arden is away from the rat race (Act 2 scene 2), and provokes its banished refugees to consider the rights of animals, who they may seem to tyrannise. While there is no in-system redress against the tyrannies of Duke Frederick and Oliver, which makes the play's resolution (by strange conversion) an unsatisfactory failure to meet and match the mores of forest (Corin's Glad of other men's good) and court (Touchstone's I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways.).

In All's Well That Ends Well, the poorer born must shut up their wishes, hide their thoughts, while courtiers seem to need martial exploits or turn diseased. A hierarchical society disdains and bars merit, as even the King sees; yet he treats Bertram as a slave. The Clown thinks many rich are damned and courtiers are low-skilled. Yet the Patriarchy ends up on trial through the collaboration of women inspired by a young, title-less female doctor. Another way is possible.

Or is it? Does the Taming of the Shrew suggest that happiness must be bought with unfreedom?

Certainly patriarchal tyranny threatens happiness in Winter's Tale, although Paulina will not be ruled by husband in honourable actions. An (anarchistic) friendship group may have corrected Leontes; a healthy society must encourage making amends, turning to good.

Gender equality is raised by Adriana in Comedy of Errors (Act 2 scene 1) Why should their liberty than ours be more? yet servants must suffer unredressed beatings. The play raises some profound nature–nurture questions without, unfortunately, really addressing them.


The History plays are, on the face of it, concerned more with monarchical systems, although these vary (monarchs can achieve top spot by election, nomination, divine approval, right of conquest as well as primogeniture). Indeed, in Macbeth, Malcolm (Act 4 scene 3) tests Macduff with visions of appalling kingship based on precedent. Perhaps only the witches disdain hierarchies and property.

The King John play shows how, without a republican alternative, people turn to foreign monarchs, and opportunistic regicide.

An extreme monarchical position is shown in The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, where Richard loftily claims (during a momentary high) that:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king:
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, Act 3 scene 2

Yet all is not quiet in the garden, where the Gardener says (Act 3 scene 4):

All must be even in our government.

To which the Queen responds with:

thou little better thing than earth

Effectively the aloof English royals appear to reject the Christian equality of soul whilst claiming divine appointment.

Yet when masters and servants keep each other's company, as in the King Henry the Fourth plays, their behaviours appear to copy and merge, even if people seek out 'inferiors' to content themselves superior.

Commoners have no redress against a monarch's wrongs in King Henry V.

Did commoners once have ancient freedoms, taken away by successive English monarchs? So says rebel John Cade in the Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, when he incites oppressed commoners to resist enclosures. The only idyll here is Iden's peaceful, level Eden which does not survive his reward for killing Cade. No rational alternative to kingship is on offer here.

Nor in The Life and Death of King Richard the Third, who seems too easily to beguile the masses.

Nor in the tyrannous King Henry VIII, for all he says:

We must not rend our subjects from our laws, and stick them in our will.

All in all, the Histories offer poor prospects for glimpsing anarchistic society, yet there is potentially an impression that a pre-monarchical society must have existed in England, or at least one where commoners had extensive rights. In other words, the Histories may be describing a long descent into tyranny, which projected far enough backwards may reach its opposite in a distant, suppressed past.

Perhaps Shakespeare's only 'good' king, Henry V (yet a scheming war criminal), relies on his ability to communicate with commoners for his success, gained from consorting with criminals and low-lifes while avoiding the corruption of the court.


The Shakespearean tragedies often focus on individuals standing against social pressures or norms, and pose questions for any kind of society. Only a few have anything to say about anarchism, and less about an idyllic form of it.

Timon of Athens is essentially a critique of capitalism. If everyone in Athens agreed with Timon's early contention We are born to do benefits then society may need little coercion. As shallow Timon gives benefits without receiving return on his social capital investments, he lurches from optimism into misanthropy, eventually holding that the Earth should be given to animals to save it from monstrous humans. But as philosopher Apemantus says (Act 4 scene 3):

the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends

We can only infer that a life without the corruption of gold, with the innocence of animals, away from extremes depicted, hold out some hope for the good life.

Coriolanus suggests that, at least in ancient republican Rome, anarchy would fail because the many-headed multitude of democracy and the prideful, warmongering elite need each other. The play suggests that speech leads eventually to self-contradiction, confusion, persuasion (maybe only speech-less animals can be functional anarchists, then).

It is possible for humans, away from court and living in caves, to live in anarchy, suggests the play Cymbeline, but speech creates tensions, as Belarius' tales of great deeds creates dissatisfaction with their humdrum existence in his adoptive sons, however much Belarius insists it is nobler. Humans appear destined for greater things than living like speech-capable beasts, and greater than corrupt monarchy where the law protects not commoners. The balanced human, perhaps the only real hero, is servant Pisanio (and even he is foolish in accepting the Queen's cordial). At least soldiery appears meritocratic.

Yet good soldiers can be poor decision-makers for society, a picture-lesson Titus Andronicus paints in blood, as Titus' choice of Saturninus for emperor goes immediately and spectacularly wrong. Kings will enslave you, erode the rule of law, mock your traditions and values, act in haste, be led astray (which seems to have echoes of God's warning to the Israelites). Beginning as arch-authoritarian family patriarch, Titus' remaining family is levelled by grief, and they begin working as a team. The play is full of repudiations to people who see others as inferior. Perhaps you should treat your enemies as human beings too.

King Lear also contains such repudiations of worth, as when a servant mortally wounds Cornwall in just reprimand, inspiring other servants to revolt (Act 3 scene 7). It takes Lear's fall from power for him to see from a commoner's perspective what a bad job he has done for his people as King:

I have ta'en too little care of this
King Lear, Act 3 scene 4

The question of whether animals who have developed such complex speech as humans can ever rule themselves is taken up in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a play all about communication and miscommunication. In many ways, Denmark at peace under talker Claudius may be better for the populace than Denmark at war under fighter Hamlet-senior. What kind of a world is it when corrupt and plotting diplomacy offers a better life than plain-talking warmongering? The escape from this false dichotomy may lie in the once-perfect communication between Ophelia and Hamlet, destroyed by the impositions of their differences in rank.

And there you have it. Animals without speech can live happily in a state of Nature, but humans with speech aspire to more. An aspiration to higher rank brings the abuses of hierarchy and divisive speech. But humans on equal level can achieve a more perfect form of communication, and tread a path between the savage and the corrupt, fulfilling themselves in the company of each other, and finally living to do benefits in harmony with Nature.


Shakespeare may have exploited anarchistic situations for dramatic reasons, but as a deep political thinker he may have been exploring alternate forms of social arrangement.

In some ways, his stages worked as alternative Parliaments, more interactive than the performances we generally see today.

Gonzalo's idle vision may have been too boring to succeed, but he may have a point about connecting with Nature, and a relaxed communal spirit that rejects the symbols and causes of division and coercion. He strongly implies equality between men and women, the importance of self-sufficiency and no-one going hungry.

The Comedies suggest an alternate lifestyle exists away from the hierarchies of the court, perhaps in one of many forests. The Histories suggest that social unity can only happen when we all speak the same language or at least communicate on a level. And the Tragedies suggest that if we do not perfect this communication we may be doomed.

It seems fair to say that the Shakespearean plays offer much political criticism but little in way of templates for success. In giving substantial roles to all ranks, anarchy is enacted rather than modelled. Yet glimpsing between the lines, peering into the negative space left by the failed social structures, we may see the faint glimmer of a community that escapes the dull living of dumb beasts and yet avoids the savage-martial/corrupt-courtierly/rank-ridden cultures exposed in the plays. A Natural leveller paradise, communication as perfect as before the Tower of Babel: an anarchist idyll, brought to you on stage.

Creative Commons Licence
No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls by Sleeping Dog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Three Communisms that Shape Our Modern World: Global Science, Open Technology and the Digital Commons


Ideas are the means of production of more ideas (💡+💡=💡💡💡), and this:

  • applies in science (hence Isaac Newton’s standing on the shoulders of giants),
  • applies in technology (most obviously in digital technology built of components in layers on top of standards), and
  • applies in the digital commons, where creative works bubble with the influences of others in shared and standardised languages (text and visual, say) and forms, freely available for all to use.

Each of these communisms is formed from a community of communities (👩‍🔬👨‍🔬👩‍🔬 + 👨‍🔬👩‍🔬👨‍🔬 + …) with a commons (📚📚), and a set of collectively-decided rules and conventions (📖) on how to use and run it (and proscriptions against abusing it).

These commons have long ago transcended national borders. From The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, Samuel Moore translation, Penguin Classics):

The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

Global Science

Efforts to create a global (unrestricted by national or imperial boundary) commons of science go back further than the Encyclopédistes of the French Enlightenment or the Translation Movement of the Islamic Golden Age.

It was the European scientific commons that gave their empires an eventually-decisive edge against those empires outside it. Global science today has its biases and controversies, but is characterised by the components of the scientific method which require open publishing.

Non-communistic or privatised science gives us alchemy instead of chemistry, astrology instead of astronomy, or (ideologically speaking) Lysenkoism instead of biology.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards logical and testable consistency, with special attention given towards anomalies.

Open (Source) Technology

The modern world not only runs on open technologies and standards, it could not exist without them. All the proprietary attempts to build the Internet failed, and the essential interoperability of digital technology is guaranteed and underpinned by open standards.

You find notable areas of this global commons such as:

  • programming languages
  • Internet stack
  • web servers, web browsers
  • maker movement
  • web and data standards

With so many attempts to 'own' common technology (often as horrifically absurd as British Telecom's claim over the hyperlink), robust legal protection is required, for example in patent control.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards interoperability and continual improvement of ideas, with special consideration of resolving the tension between these two aims.

The Digital Commons

There are the well-known licence-smiths like Creative Commons, the content organisers like Wikimedia Foundation and the archivists of public domain like Project Gutenberg, but digital commons are spread much more widely than these examples.

Wikipedia is now something of a battleground in the various wars of ideas that spring up globally and locally, as well as a target for the enemies of idea-communism itself.

Any high-profile digital commons based in places like the USA tend to be coy about the communistic aspect of their work to avoid drawing down the ideological lightning, but I doubt it is the general publics of the Earth they have to fear.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards diversity of content and form, and support a multiplicity of views and approaches, while fostering critical means to assess on dimensions of quality.

The Enemies of Global Commons

While corporations, states, organised ideological groups may benefit greatly from commons, their activities are often geared towards exploiting, undermining, manipulating or destroying them.

For example, Fascists and other factional authoritarians may have an ideological concept of science that is not communistic, perhaps that scientists should serve the state, possibly not contradict government policy/religious authority, and so on. Their antipathy to global science goes far beyond resentment of any particular research finding or area. They will oppose such things as globally-focused public libraries and digital commons for the same reasons: ideas are the means of production of more ideas.

Some other groups like flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers and/or Creationists may hope to discredit the notion of public collective-decision-making, and even democracy itself. The idea of a shared, objective 'truth' outside of central/authoritarian control or overriding a preferred subjective worldview can be threatening to some, even if an actual commons reflects a plurality of worldview or beliefs.

The Dangers of Unconstrained, Partisan or Militarized Idea-Communism

With the awesome effectiveness of these global communisms of ideas comes some dangers, especially when knowledge can be weaponised. There are currently great concerns over whether DNA sequences of certain viruses should be released beyond a few researchers, since viruses can be increasingly easily be made by automated machinery.

Other risks are that an ideas community or commons becomes contaminated or manipulated by outside forces, develops its own biases, contains gaps, excludes people or ideas in way that harms the globally-beneficial intent. Nowadays, many private corporations parasitise off of the global scientific commons, and pollute it with paid-for results (suppressing research findings that interfere with profits).

And as previously mentioned, when one part of human society wields the power of an idea commons against other parts, such as happened during European national-imperial expansion, then this constitutes a threat to those who wish to live in peace.


Not every scientist, technologist or digital contributor is a communist. But many are part of a community of communities who contribute, run and draw from a commons of ideas and decide on its rules.

When Marx and Engels wrote "All that is solid melts into air…", they presumably did not have the digital revolution in mind, that allows their Communist Manifesto to be beamed through Wifi into your device.

However, given the revolutionary changes of the information age, and the many vast global challenges human societies face, it would be foolish a) to fail to use the greatest means at our disposal to meet these challenges, b) to fail to recognise the communistic nature of them, and c) to reject using these means because of some ideological objection to communism based on indoctrination or misunderstanding the essential nature of something which has been portrayed as a bogeyman, a Spectre to frighten children with.

Some of the most advanced privately-funded research organisations and technology corporations are joining the global community and sharing in the global commons precisely because it is the rational and responsible thing to do, and adjusting their business models accordingly. Having already profited enormously from these three great idea-communisms, it is the right thing to do in every way. Indeed, communism could become the new normal.

Creative Commons Licence
Three Communisms that Shape Our Modern World: Global Science, Open Technology and the Digital Commons by SleepingDog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.