By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Immortal Bard’ is a short story by the science-fiction author and prolific non-fiction writer, Isaac Asimov (1920-92). The story’s title wittily plays on the phrase used to describe William Shakespeare, who lives on and is thus ‘immortal’ thanks to his work. In the story, Shakespeare himself is rendered ‘immortal’ after a fashion, when a physicist invents a way of bringing him into the twentieth century. The story was published in the May 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction.
‘The Immortal Bard’ takes the form of a conversation between two academics at a university: Dr Phineas Welch, a physicist, and Scott Robertson, a young English instructor. They are drinking together at the college Christmas party.
Welch tells Robertson that he has discovered a way to bring famous people from the past into the present, via time travel. He brought Archimedes, Isaac Newton, and Galileo into the present time, but he says that they couldn’t adjust to the culture, getting lonely and frightened by the modern world, so Welch sent them back.
He then tells Robertson that he brought William Shakespeare into the modern age. He didn’t look like the famous portraits of him (although he was bald), and spoke with a thick (Warwickshire) accent. Welch shows Robertson the playwright’s signature, which Shakespeare had apparently written on the back of a hardware company’s business card.
Robertson is keen to know more details, and Welch tells him that he showed Shakespeare some of the numerous commentaries that have been written about his plays and poems in the last few centuries. Shakespeare was fascinated by these, and amazed that people had found so much to say about his work.
Welch then tells Robertson that he had enrolled Shakespeare on Robertson’s evening class – a class on Shakespeare. The Bard had attended the class under a pseudonym. Robertson dimly remembers a man with a strange accent who had attended that class. ‘The Immortal Bard’ ends with Welch telling Robertson that Robertson had flunked or failed Shakespeare – as a student taking a course on his own plays!
‘The Immortal Bard’ is a light squib of a story, which comprises just 900 words, as Asimov observes in his first volume of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. Asimov also notes that the story was ‘directly inspired’ by a remark made by Gotthard Guenther to Asimov, two years before he wrote the story. Guenther had claimed that an author did not need to know anything at all about the meaning of their own story.
This is an interesting point. When I was a student of English Literature, a professor who taught me used to say of Shakespeare, ‘we can’t dig him up and ask him what he meant when he wrote this’ (where ‘this’ could have been a Hamlet soliloquy or one of the Sonnets or perhaps a line from Richard II).
But would it do any good if we could? Authorial intention should matter when we interpret a work of literature, but should it be the be-all and end-all (to use a phrase invented by Shakespeare himself), or merely one of the factors we take into account?
There’s a famous line in Macbeth spoken by Macduff. It’s just four words long: ‘He has no children.’ We cannot tell whether Macduff is talking about Macbeth’s childlessness, or Malcolm’s (whose words Macduff is responding to here).
Even if we knew he was talking about Macbeth not having any children, we cannot tell whether Macduff is ruling out the possibility of revenge (Macbeth has had Macduff’s children killed, in ‘one fell swoop’ – there’s another now-famous phrase), or pointing out that the only reason Macbeth could slay the innocent is because he doesn’t have any children himself, so doesn’t understand what it is to fear losing them.
Would Shakespeare coming back from the dead and telling us which of these interpretations is the ‘correct’ one be a good thing?
This is one of the liveliest debates in literary-critical circles, and in English Literature classrooms. Roland Barthes, in an influential essay from the 1960s, called for ‘the death of the author’ in order to make way for ‘the birth of the reader’. The latter, he maintained, cannot happen without the former occurring first.
That said, Asimov is also playing on the fact that ‘Shakespeare’ (as in, the body of work) has been altered over the last four centuries by all of the scholarship and commentary that it has attracted. Our perception of the work’s meaning is dependent on this scholarship and how it has shaped our response to Shakespeare’s writing, and this is one reason why the playwright flunks a class in his own plays.
The story also reminded me of the funny fact that Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton lookalike contest – and lost.