[FICTION] Hamlet and the Philosopher's Stone

by HonoreDB1 min read25th Oct 201161 comments


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So I did actually write it.

Its first title was Rationalist Hamlet, back when it was a short fan contribution to the Alternate Parallels section of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  When I found myself actually trying to write the full thing, its working title became A Will Most Incorrect to Heaven.  When I realized I was going to try to make it something approaching marketable, I saw that the only logical title was Hamlet and the Philosopher's Stone.  But the actual, official title is, simply, The Tragedy of Prince Hamlet and the Philosopher's Stone, or, A Will Most Incorrect to Heaven by William Shakespeare.

It's a full-length play.  I wrote it to be performable, but mostly I wrote it to be read.  As of today, I'm self-publishing it and selling it as an e-book for $3.00 (that's the standard e-book price of $2.99, plus a cent to help people make a more rational purchasing decision).  If you don't have a bank account and you have 50+ karma on this site, send me a private message with your email address.  But I would prefer people paid for it (here's the link again, and here's an excerpt).  Charging may seem gauche, but I suspect there's the illusion of a social norm against charging for fanfiction just because it's normally illegal.  This work is an exception: the Harry Potter content is purely allusive, and Shakespeare won't be complaining.

The mission statement of the play is roughly the same as that of Methods of Rationality or Alicorn's Twilight re-imagining Luminosity.  The philosophy in it is of course my own, but I don't disagree on any major points with Eliezer.  As with Methods, I've written it to be enjoyable to people who have no direct exposure to Shakespeare's Hamlet and also to Shakespeare aficionados who have never heard of Less Wrong or even of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The play is a rewrite of Hamlet that preserves much of the original style, language, and plot, while injecting references to modern culture, epistemology, and ethics. It's perhaps what Shakespeare would have written, had he been simultaneously trying to appeal to audiences of both his time and our own. The Philosopher's Stone, for example, would be familiar to subjects of either Queen Elizabeth. The play's formatting is modeled after the way most of us encounter written Shakespeare: the spelling is updated and standardized, the stage directions are minimal and mostly of the sort that can be inferred from the dialogue, and the language is Elizabethan English from circa 1599; any anachronism is unintentional, aside from a certain wry punctuation mark and other allusions to future art.  The only major change to the structure is the play's length: while unabridged productions of Hamlet can run up to five hours, the more concise Tragedy of Prince Hamlet and the Philosopher's Stone, or, A Will Most Incorrect to Heaven by William Shakespeare clocks in at well under two.  Oh, and I changed all the words.  There are only a few lines from the original in there.

I'm eager, of course, for feedback.  Hope you enjoy!


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61 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:02 AM
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Bought it, read it, loved it. Well worth the $3 for the entertainment value (large value), for helping me understand Shakespeare by providing modern pop culture references in a Shakespearean-style comic dialogue (medium value), and for colorfully illustrating some rationality techniques (small but still positive value).

I have read, watched, and enjoyed several other Shakespeare plays, but never Hamlet. I was still able to follow along; the overall plot and characterization was quite clear. The quality of the jokes, the pace of the narrative, and the density and execution of the plot twists were all excellent. I would rate this piece in the top 20% of fiction of a similar length that I have paid for.

As constructive criticism, I would say that: (1) shortening the play might make for a more entertaining performance, but it also makes for a less entertaining read. There was just less in this play than in King Lear, or Romeo & Juliet, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Macbeth. Fewer characters, fewer plot lines, and fewer things that make you say "hmm." If you write another play, you might try for the full length next time. (2) Not having read either Hamlet or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead, I wasn't really able to follow along with either the humor or the plot of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. This affected my enjoyment of the ending. If there's something you can do to flesh out these two characters a bit more, I thin you should. (3) The meter could use some improvement. It's perfectly serviceable for fanfic, but if you wanted to make a polished literary work, then you should go back over your lines and ensure that the length of each phrase and each paragraph is serving some kind of auditory and/or dramatic purpose. I thought you did this only inconsistently; there was a line that struck me as 'off' of the appropriate meter (and instead just written in ordinary 21st century conversational tones) about every twenty lines.

Again, these are nitpicks. They are my thoughts on what you would have to do to create a play that was every bit as good as Shakespeare's are. While today's physicists routinely outperform Newton in terms of the quality of their models, it is somewhat harder to do this in the fine arts, because the fine arts are less replicable then the physical sciences. So, congratulations! I think you've done something special here, and I hope you'll do it again.

This, basically. The ability to write like Shakespeare, rather than like what people think of Shakespeare, really brings him to life, and doing it so that a modern audience can get the jokes is something the world needs more of.

I'd love to have this in Main; I think it's directly relevant to the site, and I want people to see it. But since I'm charging for the actual download, posting it to Main feels a bit too much like self-promotional spam. So I'm just going to post it to Discussion and I'll leave it up to the editors and the community to decide where it belongs.

I'm not sure how long it is (I'm probably going to buy it, but not yet!), but wouldn't it be a good idea to have an excerpt

Okay, there is an excerpt. You should probably mention that in your post.

Notes while reading:

  • MACOSX folder is annoying
  • pg 3 PhD anachronism; use a contemporary title, there were plenty to choose from
  • pg 5 repeated 'what's annoying; 'oh god' not ironic enough?
  • pg 10 a reference to pestilential airs might not be amiss (current phrasings too modern)
  • pg 11 cute would be quoting from Shakespeare's own verse on this topic, eg. "What win I if I gain the thing I seek? / A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy. / Who buys a minute's mirth to wail a week? / Or sells eternity to get a toy? / For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy? / Or what fond beggar, but to touch the crown, / Would with the sceptre straight be stricken / down?" 'methods of rationality' again is too modern - how would a classically educated Hamlet put it?
  • pg 12 perhaps I am missing a joke, but 'new-forged shoe'? Other examples might be better - wine?
  • pg 16 speaking of classical texts, I've long liked this Iliad line - "O my friend, if we, leaving this war, could escape from age and death, I should not here be fighting in the van; but now, since many are the modes of death impending over us which no man can hope to shun, let us press on and give renown to other men, or win it for ourselves."
  • pg 22 'If only I were King of Denmark, / I might be safer.' strikes me as somehow too prosaic; he spoke riddlingly and not plainly to Gertrude, I recall
  • pg 23 'corse'?
  • pg 32 I love the red shirt bit (however, I can't help but muse on how to pointedly modify Reynaldo's speech preceding - perhaps 'not stick at adding an ally to the crown so gained'?)
  • pg 34 lampshading gets a tad too obvious here
  • pg 37 eh... and neither remarks on the crossdressing of Ophelia?
  • pg 40 Death Note references amuse me; I like it, but I think you can do that passage better
  • pg 42 I liked the accede/acedia joke there; as for the self-slaughter, might borrow some lines from the Carvaka eg "If a beast slain as an offering to the dead will itself go to heaven, why does the sacrificer not straightaway offer his father?"
  • pg 55 Hamlet's speech seems ill-written
  • pg 56 I commend the Watchmen allusion

Overall pretty good, but I didn't get that much out of it and wouldn't pay $3 for it as opposed to, say, re-reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Thanks for the many notes.

pg 3 PhD anachronism; use a contemporary title, there were plenty to choose from

European academics in Shakespeare's day were debating the legitimacy of the Philosophiae Doctor degree (e.g. the 1571 Oratio de doctoratu Philosophico). It was apparently an important point because in Catholic countries, a Doctor had the legal right to not be tortured, while a Master did not. The first doctorates are said to have been awarded by the University of Paris in the 12th century, at the same time the original Hamlet was first written down. I can't find the earliest use of the abbreviation PhD, but Reynaldo has a motive to choose that particular abbreviation.

pg 23 'corse'?

Archaic "corpse."

Ah; I did not know that about the PhD. Maybe a clearer insult then from Claudius, or omit the PhD from the dramatis personae in favor of Philosophiae Doctor?

What I'd do: Use the phrase "Philosophiae Doctor" right up until the reveal.

I second this.

That might work too. Incidentally, good timing - I was pondering how to ping you to ensure that this was mentioned in the next Author's note and perhaps directly in the original chapter. Guess I don't have to, now...

Now that I think about it, could this also be an anachronism ?

"Do it?" Friend Ghost, I did it thirty-five minutes ago.

That seems like an awfully precise number. Did people in ye olde Shakespearean times really measure time that precisely ?

That did bug me a little, but I couldn't think of any alternative. Shakespeare did use minutes in some places, like Puck boasts of doing something in 'forty minutes'. My current preferred alternative would be something like 'I did it half a watch ago' or perhaps 'I did it a score of minutes ago'.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

It may be the usual conceit of 'forty' being equivalent to 'many', c.f. Noah's Ark and etc.

Doe the Bible ever use the 40 cliche for something other than days & nights? I don't remember (but it's not something I paid much attention to when I was reading the Bible).

Moses supposedly lived in Egypt for about 40 years and then fled for about 40 years before being in the Desert for about 40 years.

Leviticus 12:

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. 6 “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.[a] 7 He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.

“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. 8 But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

7+33=40 days, 14+66=80 days.

See also the spies (40 days), Noah waiting to open the Ark (40 days), and more here.

The "embalming" is an interesting inclusion because it tells of an Egyptian practice, which might stem from the same cultural idea of 40 days/years being a complete unit or is a projection onto them, or be a transcription of an idea directly into metaphor, (nearly) ignoring the literal truth of how long it took, or be erroneous projection. Genesis 50:

1 Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. 2 Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, 3 taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.

4 When the days of mourning had passed, Joseph said to Pharaoh’s court, “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me. Tell him, 5 ‘My father made me swear an oath and said, “I am about to die; bury me in the tomb I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.’”

6 Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.”

7 So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt— 8 besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Only their children and their flocks and herds were left in Goshen. 9 Chariots and horsemen[a] also went up with him. It was a very large company.

10 When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.

I included the full length of that so no one says "Aha! Apparently the writers were willing to say '70 days' when something took that long, so the 40 is not a metaphor." Consider that the other mourning period is a multiple of 7.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

In a word: yes, it uses it all over the place. I believe also in the original Hebrew for the OT; I don't know anything about the NT. I was going to list some examples, but you can grep the Bible just as well as I can.

EDIT: Oh, I misread your question. Gimme forty seconds to go look.

RE-EDIT: 40 years in the wilderness.

Using Gutenberg's KJV, I get 111 hits for ' forty '; filtering 'forty and' (for numbers spelled out like 'forty and two') gets me 72. Filtering out 'days' and 'years', none of them seem to be the trope; so the Bible seems to use it solely for days and years, but not months, minutes, weeks, etc.

[-][anonymous]9y 0


It was just a reference to Watchmen. Rot13 spoiler:

Bmlznaqvnf, va Jngpuzra.

Ur qrgnvyf uvf cynaf gb, onfvpnyyl, gevpx gur jbeyq vagb guvaxvat gurl ner haqre nyvra vainfvba gb pbrepr gur angvbaf bs gur jbeyq gb onaq gbtrgure va crnpr ntnvafg n pbzzba rarzl. Ur qbrf guvf ol perngvat n ynetr-fpnyr jrncba bs znff qrfgehpgvba cbjreshy rabhtu gb naavuvyngr Arj Lbex nyzbfg ragveryl. Bapr haqre gur oryvrs gung gur jbeyq vf haqre nggnpx ol rkgreany sbeprf, uhznavgl jvyy havsl va crnpr ntnvafg gurve creprvirq nggnpxref.

Jura gur urebrf nfx uvz, "Guvf vf znqarff! Jura jrer lbh rira cynaavat gb qb guvf?" gur ivyynva erfcbaqf jvgu bar bs zl snibevgr yvarf va nalguvat rire. "'Qb vg?' V nz abg fbzr genqr frevny ivyynva. Qb lbh ubarfgyl guvax V jbhyq tvir lbh gur vagvzngr qrgnvyf bs zl znfgrejbex vs lbh unq NAL punapr bs fgbccvat vg sebz unccravat? V nyernql qvq vg guvegl-svir zvahgrf ntb."

Phg gb gur pvgl bs Arj Lbex orvat boyvgrengrq naq arneyl nyy bs vg'f pvgvmraf xvyyrq va bar fvatyr oynfg.

[/hadhbgr] V unccra gb unir ernq guvf whfg n srj zvahgrf ntb va n pbzcyrgryl haeryngrq sbehz, naq gubhtug bs gur eryngrq yvar va Engvbanyvfg Unzyrg, fb V pnzr urer, fnj guvf dhrfgvba, naq pbcvrq gur ragver fcbvyrerq nern bs gung cbfg.

Well, yes, everyone gets the reference. That doesn't bear on whether it is an anachronism for anything written as an Elizebethan work. 'Anachronism':

A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists

If minutes were not commonly used in that period (as might make sense given the rarity of accurate mechanical clocks and limited accuracy of the ones that existed), then using minutes may be an anachronism.

I agree with gwern regarding the Death Note reference... of all your pop culture references, this one is definitely the most contrived, and thus it feels a bit out of place.

Strange, that's the one reference that I only got on a reread -- it seemed to flow decently enough by itself (I've taken the King, I'll need Laerters, after K & L will there be some M & N further) that I didn't realize it was referencing anything at first. So I don't think it felt out of place.

The 90's just called, they want their background back.

(ETA: the actual writing looks good, though...)

The 90's just called,...

Did you warn them?

You're probably right. I'll change it when I get a chance.

It seems like you removed the background altogether -- was that intentional ? The current featureless gray doesn't melt my face like the old background did, but it also looks weird, especially in conjunction with the "About" and "Read an Excerpt" overlays. I still prefer this version over the old one, however.

To be honest, if it were me, I'd probably dispense with the CSS tricks and the gigantic graphics. Instead, I'd just make a regular web page, with regular links, and a modestly-sized image of the cover; then I'd maybe add a "blurbs" section at the bottom. I understand that you are not me, however, so my advice is definitely not worth much; take it with a huge grain of salt.

I will tell all, but let's retreat. 'Tis dawn.

In the excerpt. Maybe an artifact of the conversion to HTML?

(Seemed impolite to put a typo notification where it'd be the first thing everyone saw.)

Thanks, fixed.

That background is indeed quite face-meltastic.

That was excellent! I'll recommend it to my friends.

My one nitpick: you missed the chance to make a Great Philter joke.

I...can offer no excuse for this omission.

I've paid the 3 dollars because it is such a small amount. The marvelously awful Harry Potter puns alone made it a bargain.

I love you.

And I haven't even read it yet. Just Hamlet x Methods, actually written makes me that happy.

I just finished the book; it's more like (Hamlet x Methods) ^ (pop culture references) .

Was our Shakespeare a Will most incorrect to heaven?

Bwahaha! Man, now I have to get a Paypal account.

Also, would you recommend I read Hamlet before or after?

If you're going to read both, it's probably better to read Shakespeare's first. My play has allusions to his, but the reverse does not appear to be true.

Yay! I liked the excerpt, and I'll buy it as soon as I can get to my paypal account. Until then, have an upvote.

What is the goal of this document? If it is significantly contributing to the dialogue about rationality expressed by the community, then why would you put it behind an arbitrary paywall?

The paywall isn't arbitrary; its purpose is to make the author money.

There are multiple goals. I felt they would be best served by making payment mandatory for the world at large, but optional for this community.

...Because people are willing to pay?

[-][anonymous]9y 0

The paywall isn't arbitrary; its purpose is to make the author money.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

This paradigm reversal amuses me.

I've read part of Romeo and Juliette and I hated it. Is Hamlet different? Should I read it, or just this?

Of course it depends on why you hated R&J. That said, while they're different in many ways, they share many of the differences that are likely most salient to a modern audience. So if I had to guess, I'd guess that if you hated R&J you won't care for Hamlet either.

I must admit that when I read Hamlet for the first time, I understood maybe 30% of it. Sometime later I read the annotated version, and enjoyed it a great deal more. Hamlet is full of pop-culture references and off-color jokes that are centuries out of date, and thus inaccessible to the average person, but the annotations help to rectify that.

Just letting you know, I managed to purchase and download it, without errors, so seems to be working now.

I'm so excited to read this. I loved the Alternate Parallels piece.

EDIT: Now I have to read Hamlet!

I tried buying the story, and I got this:

exception 'Exception' with message 'Failed to pay. Response from paypal was [REDACTED, but to the extent of, "invalid argument"] Sorry, this didn't actually work--probably the paypal authentication didn't go through, or something like that...

So, what do I do ? Do you have my money ? If not, how can I give you some ?

Argh, sorry, that's two strikes against my sitebuilding. I don't have your money; you could try again, or I could just email it to you. Might help if you PM'd me the full error message.

I got that same error, and no access to the full text; but upon later inspection of my paypal account the payment actually went through. That's the kind of error that tends to upset people; you might want to take the site down or convert the pay button into a tip button while leaving the text open, until you're certain you have that fixed.

Gah! Please, if this happens to anyone, just email me at at histocrat@gmail.com and I'll send you the book. I'll put up a warning on the site. This seems like a Paypal glitch; I'll try to get support from them.

Message sent. I can probably just PayPal you $3 to the email address that you'd listed in your own error message wrapper -- would that work ?

Thanks! The email that's linked to my paypal is histocrat@gmail.com.

Bought it on the kindle store for $4.00. Best four bucks I ever spent. I am now posessed of a strong urge to push for this to be performed in my community as soon as possible.

I hope you don't mind if I advertise this for you in a couple forums I'm a regular in.

That'd be great!

Does it have zombies in it? ;)

This is most excellent!! I've already bought and read it -- and enjoyed it quite a lot (I've enjoyed it even further when I went back and noticed some references I had missed, like "M" and "N", heehee)

The good thing about Shakespeare (as opposed to Harry Potter) is that all rights are expired and so you would be free to try and professionally publish this, if you want -- though I wonder if just naming it "Hamlet and the Philosopher's Stone" may make it more marketable as a parody.