Monday, October 10, 2011

Shakespeare's Infinite Monkeys in Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Episode Two." By Douglas Adams. Perf. Peter Jones, Simon Jones, David Dixon, Sandra Dickinson, Mark Wing-Davey, and Stephen Moore. Dir. Alan J. W. Bell. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Season 1, episode 2. BBC. 12 January 1981. DVD. BBC Worldwide, 2002.

The Shakesphere recently re-considered the perennial question of whether an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time could re-create the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare Geek, for example, mentioned it, and I've seen other articles debunking the methodology or the theory or wondering whether it wouldn't be better, in today's technology-driven market, to give the monkeys an infinite number of iPads instead.

In becoming re-aquiainted with the idea, which is drawn from probability theory, I remembered that Douglas Adams had played with the idea in his masterful Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the plot of the book, a new mode of space travel has been invented—a ship that generates improbability fields, enabling it to travel through the universe enormously quickly and causing wildly-improbable things to happen as it does so. In this scene, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent have just—wildly-improbably—found themselves on board the ship:


The television show's imagining of the scene does not quite come up to the image the text paints—though it's probably the best they could do with the budget and the technology they had. [The more recent film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a disgrace in nearly every conceivable way, leaves out the monkeys completely.] Here's how Adams describes the scene in the novel:
Ford and Aurthur were in a small luminous pink cubicle.

Ford was wildly excited.

"Arthur!" he said, "this is fantastic! We've been picked up by a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive! This is incredible! This is incredible! I heard rumors about it before! They were all officially denied, but they must have done it! They've built the Improbability Drive! Arthur, this is . . . Arthur? What's happening?"

Arthur had jammed himself against the door to the cubicle, trying to hold it closed, but it was ill fitting. Tiny furry little hands were squeezing themselves through the cracks, their fingers were inkstained; tiny voices chattered insanely.

Arthur looked up.

"Ford!" he said, "there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out." (59)
That, then, is one of the connections between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Shakespeare. And the joke is a funny one.

But what interests me is an overlooked idea. Once you set these infinite monkeys to work, they are not only going to type up the known works of Shakespeare—they're also going to re-create the lost works of Shakespeare! Somewhere in the infinite text generated by the Infinite Monkey Code (IMC) is the complete text of Love's Labour's Won and Cardenio at the very least! Not only that, but they're also generating sonnets we never knew were lost, all the rough drafts of all the Shakespeare plays, all the plays Shakespeare never got around to writing, and the complete works of Christopher Marlowe.

Who's up for reading through the infinite number of pages generated by the IMC to find these lost works?

Works Cited

Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Del Rey, 2002.

Links: The Television Series at IMDB.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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