Much Ado About AI: Why I Built a Tool to Modernize Shakespeare’s Verse

From School Library Journal:

There’s a good argument that Shakespeare is the world’s most popular author. About 90 percent of American schools assign Shakespeare to students. His work has been translated into more than 100 languages. Declare “To be or not to be,” and most will answer, “That is the question.” The Bard’s work is widely integrated across culture, education, and the modern English language. Despite this, people find Shakespeare hard. Some might even say too hard.

In a recent survey of 500 teachers, 56 percent said their students found Shakespeare difficult to read. Of these teachers, 60 percent said the Elizabethan language was the biggest obstacle for students reading the plays. The themes of love, betrayal, and ambition are timeless—but maybe Elizabethan English isn’t. For many first-time readers, Shakespeare’s plays are full of unfamiliar words, phrasing, and grammatical constructions.

This reported difficulty with the language shouldn’t be viewed as a problem with Shakespeare. Elizabethan English didn’t suddenly become dated in 2023. It’s been unfamiliar and antiquated to readers for many decades. But increasingly, the language is a barrier to new readers starting a love affair with the material.

Here, in my view, artificial intelligence (AI) offers a unique benefit: facilitating the reading experience of Shakespeare’s works. Large language models (LLMs: the AI systems that power popular products like ChatGPT) have exciting potential to help people read older texts with relative ease.

If you provide AI models with text, they can instantaneously synthesize, explain, and contextualize it. They offer definitions of words, historical context, and other details that might escape a modern reader. If you’re reading War and Peace and have a foggy sense of Russian history, running a passage through an AI model quickly provides bullet points on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as well as definitions of period-specific terms.

AI can also accurately paraphrase Elizabethan language into modern English so readers can understand any line of Shakespeare. This strategy isn’t intended as a substitute for reading the original text, but as a “reading copilot” on hand to help.

Bard-themed AI tools are gaining popularity. One I created, Shakespeare Translator, has been used by over 50,000 readers. These AI models aren’t deterministic systems with pre-written translations mapped to certain lines. Rather, the tools use LLMs to analyze the context and language patterns, providing modern interpretations.

Many are quick to critique AI-powered reading tools. The arguments essentially center on the idea that using AI waters down the joy and rewards of reading. But using AI isn’t about replacing reading. It’s about helping more people appreciate difficult material, more readily, and with fewer barriers to entry.

. . . .

How useful are these translations? Are they accurate? Do they actually help students grasp the meaning of lines? Judge for yourself.

Here’s the original text of the famous Hamlet speech
“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die; to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

Run through a Shakespeare translation tool, this is paraphrased to
“The big question is whether it’s better to keep on living or to end it all. Is it nobler to endure the hardships and misfortunes that life throws at us, or to fight against all the problems that come our way and put an end to them? Death would mean eternal rest and therefore an escape from the pain and suffering that life brings us.”

Or consider this from Richard III
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

“Our unhappiness has now turned into joy due to the presence of the ruler from York; and all of our worries and troubles are now in the past.”

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

Here’s a link to  Shakespeare Translator

PG’s Borrowed Thoughts:

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Carl Sagan

7 thoughts on “Much Ado About AI: Why I Built a Tool to Modernize Shakespeare’s Verse”

  1. I’m with Sagan on this one. None of those passages were difficult to comprehend. I’m reminded of why I began to have contempt for Yale Law School students, when an article said they were having trouble grasping the Federalist Papers. The Papers were published in the newspapers of their day, and were meant to influence *voters*, who may not have gone beyond eighth grade (if that). In other words, the common folk. Ivy Leaguers should be a cut above that, no?

    The gorgeous prose of the newspaper articles covering the Carrington Event of 1859 is another example:

    At that time almost the whole southern heavens were in a livid red flame, brightest still in the southeast and southwest. Streamers of yellow and orange shot up and met and crossed each other, like the bayonets upon a stack of guns, in the open space between the constellations Aries, Taurus and the Head of Medusa—about 15 degrees south of the zenith. In this manner—alternating great pillars, rolling cumuli shooting streamers, curdled and wisped and fleecy waves—rapidly changing its hue from red to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to white, and back in the same order to brilliant red, the magnificent auroral glory continued its grand and inexplicable movements until the light of morning overpowered to radiance and it was lost in the beams of the rising sun.

    The above was from the NYT. Here is from a Cincinnati paper:

    Later, these strange fires overran the entire heavens—now separating into streamers, gathered at the zenith, and forming a glorious canopy—then spreading evenly like a vapor, shedding on all things a soft radiance; again, across the sky waves of light would flit, like the almost undistinguishable ripple produced by the faintest breeze upon the quiet surface of an inland lake; a pale green would now cover half the firmament from the east, while rich crimson met it from the west—then the ruddy light would concentrate itself at the zenith, while beneath it fell in folds of beauty the mild purple and green. To the east and to the west lay huge fields of luminous clouds, tinted with a bright rosy flush, wholly unlike that produced by the rising sun and if possible even more beautiful.

    People commenting on the story noted the same thing: you don’t read that kind of writing in daily papers any more. I emphasized “firmament” because I had a beta reader get thrown off by my using that term. In high school I was pleasantly surprised that Shakespeare wasn’t as difficult as sitcoms made it out to be, but I now suspect it’s because I grew up reading the KJV (before I switched to other Bible translations).

    And I point out these were excerpts from newspapers, because at least in my early journalism training we were told to write to an eighth grade level. Later I was told to a sixth-grade level, but the prof might have misspoke there. At any rate, people in the olden days didn’t necessarily get sixth grade educations — I’m told my own grandfather only went to the fourth — yet they could understand this “overly complex” writing in the excerpt. In one of his episodes of Tasting History, Max Miller read diary entries and letters of low-level soldiers (I think from the Civil War era), and people were again impressed by the everyman’s quality of prose.

    I would really rather schools returned to teaching kids how to read. And bringing them up to the formerly commonplace ability to understand the poetry of those Shakespearean passages. I won’t ask for them to do as the elites of old, who had to translate Greek and Latin to even get into college. Just teach everyone to read Ye Olde Masters, so they are not utterly cut off from the foundations of their own society.

    • Two bits of “AI” news today.

      The first is right off your wishlist:

      “Microsoft is partnering with Inworld AI to develop Xbox tools that will allow developers to create AI-powered characters, stories, and quests. The multiyear partnership will include an “AI design copilot” system that Xbox developers can use to create detailed scripts, dialogue trees, quest lines, and more.”

      It might make it to ELDER SCROLLS VI. Too late for FABLE, methinks. 😉

      • The second I don’t think many saw coming. Certainly not the idiotpoliticians or handwringers:

        “AI” goes DYI.

        “OpenAI, the company whose ChatGPT brought AI chatbots to mainstream awareness, said Monday that it’ll let you build your own special-purpose version of its artificial intelligence technology. And with a new app store coming that’ll let you find or share these GPTs, as the company is calling the special-purpose bots, OpenAI looks like it’s hoping to have something of an iPhone moment.”

        “You don’t need to know how to program to make a new GPT. You have to give it plain-language instructions, upload some of your own knowledge in the form of PDFs, videos or other files, then steer the bot’s purpose in a direction like creating images or searching the web.

        “GPTs are tailored versions of ChatGPT for a specific purpose,” OpenAI Chief Executive Sam Altman said at the OpenAI DevDay conference in San Francisco. He demonstrated the technology, telling the build system to create an advice-giving app for startups that draws from videos of his own talks that he uploaded. And he expects many more GPTs to arrive.
        “Eventually, you’ll have your personalized GPTs that can call out to lots of other GPTs,” Altman said. “You’ll be able to accomplish very complex things by bringing different services together.”

        “The technology could help take AI to a new level. For one thing, the GPT app idea could help people get more use out of AI with focused tools. For another, being able to tune those tools to your own needs — for example with a particular data set or image style — could improve AI beyond the vast, generic abilities that come with ChatGPT today. Last, building an app store is a tried and true way for a big business to turn a broad computing foundation into a business that lots of people pay to use.”

        A few years earlier than I expected.
        Let’s see them regulate *that*.

        • Hmm. So if the Chatbot has “read” or is dedicated to a particular topic, I could feed it a query on that topic and get answers without leaving home. A dedicated ‘bot would make itself useful here. “History bot, tell me about the judgeocracies of medieval Sardinia. Go.”***

          Sometimes when researching online, I discover multiple sites all spouting identical nonsense on a particular topic. They’re all quoting the exact same source material. So I use certain keywords or phrases, because if that keyword is present in an article, chances are it’s surrounded by content of actual value. If I can program a bot to learn the high-quality sources, I could get it to find others. I’m imagining something like this could change the way teenagers do homework, for that matter. Exciting things to come.

          ***Because I simply must use this concept somewhere. And have a character who is titled “judikessa” (like Eleanora of Arborea).

      • *Cackles with glee*

        Already I’m thinking of scenarios for this one. I remember a moment in Dragon Age: Origins, where my PC is exploring the camp at Ostagar after having become a Grey Warden. I spotted Alistair leaving the place where we had the induction ceremony, and follow him. Turns out he’s simply heading to the bonfire where we were to meet up with Duncan for another mission. That’s where Alistair chills, until you approach him and trigger a cut scene.

        With improved AI: NPCs can be given a routine where you might see them at a pub in th evening, their shop in the daytime, and their house at night / early morning. In between those times you might find them traveling along their routes from A to B to C. So when bandits are attacking the pub, you may be able to intercept the NPC while he’s on route from his shop, and keep him from becoming the next victim. The NPC might accompany you to defend the pub, or run away. And reaction to your interception unlocks other quests …

        And that’s just a minor possibility off the top of my head. Games are about to get really cool. I know it won’t happen overnight, but I’m still hoping we might see something in the next year.

        • MORROWIND, OBLIVION, FALLOUT, and SKYRIM significant NPCS have routines based on time of day. Traders are at their stores during the day and at home at night. They lock their doors when they go to sleep. Some you can break in and kill in their sleep. OBLIVION Skill trainers take walks, go to the pub, eat dinner, visit friends. A couple camp in the woods and hunt. A bear to track down, literally in one case. 😉

          A friend of mine joined the assasination death cult in MORROWIND and killed every last non-essential NPC. She still remembers it fondly. I exterminated the cliff racers. They annoyed me. I was godlike and could kill with a spoon. Literally, you can equip dinnerware as weapons. BETHESDA has always been ambitious in their RPGs. The newer ones are even more elaborate. (STARFIELD traders are open for business 49 hours a day, though. They never go home.) Time sinks, every last one.

          Good news is all their RPGs are still playable on PC and XBOX via GAMEPASS. Graphics are a product of their times but they have updated the latter games somewhat to modern standards. Stories stay the same.

          BETHESDA by themselves pretty much killed any potential market for interactive books by setting the bar so high even other big studios fall short. (Best $9B Microsoft ever spent, snatching BETHESDA out of SONY’s claws.)

  2. One wonders what the most literal-minded of the my-version-of-the-holy-book (whichever holy book one means — the Torah, the Bible as made canon at the Council of Damnia, the Bible with apocrypha and/or pseudopigrapha, the slightly-reduced canon of the King James version, the Book of Mormon, the Q’ran, and that’s just the most-common Abrahamic holy books…) is divinely inspired Word of [insert name of deity here] will/would do with the New Revised AI Version thereof. And how they’d explain the divine inspiration.

    This is darkly appropriate to the OP because one theory not uncommon in the early part of the last century was that Shakespeare was one of the translators of the King James version. Proof: His name is “hidden” in the 46th Psalm with slightly bad math (46th word from the beginning is “shake”, 48th word from the end is “spear”). I doubt it, since that Psalm is a corrected-spelling version of one of the very first English-language printings, the Coverdale printing if I recall correctly; that would be truly divine inspiration to have put those words into Coverdale long before the Bard’s birth, wouldn’t it? (Aren’t self-ratifying conspiracy theories fun?) Of course, given the bizarre politics surrounding the King James Version, I would have suspected Kit Marlowe, particularly given what he did when not either writing or drinking in disreputable pubs in Deptford, but the latter got him long before work began on the KJV. Or maybe it was the “day job” for Sir Francis (the only way a real spy ever comes in from the cold is in a pine box, just long enough for an unattended memorial service). Sounds a bit like a side plot left out of the Scottish Play to keep the performance time down…

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