When I first started teaching English years ago, Kartouche was available in my school. This was a virtual environment which allowed you to construct scenes from various Shakespeare plays and control the characters within them, manipulating their voices and their actions. It was clunky and difficult to use and the students didn’t really enjoy working with it; the UI was difficult, at times impenetrable. The product’s still around but it appears to have moved away from its Shakespearean focus.
Although Kartouche wasn’t a successful execution of a virtual, interactive Shakespearean environment, I have always liked the concept of using VWs to teach English. When I was a teenager, Shakespeare only came alive for me when I finally made it to the theatre to see King Lear. Film adaptations get close but I think it would be interesting to explore whether VWs get closer to evoking a sense of immersion within the action of the play.
I decided to see if such environments were available in Second Life.
Googling brought me to the Metaverse Shakespeare Company (previously the SL Shakespeare Company) which looked wonderful. They staged virtual performances of Shakespeare’s plays within an in-world Globe Theatre.
However, further searching revealed that the company had folded due to funding issues and their virtual Globe no longer ‘existed’.
What a shame that virtual realities are affected by real-world economics.
I eventually found Macbeth, a space inspired by and evocative of the play. It’s an exploratory world, rich in ambient sounds and imagery; quotes from the play whirl around the space, snatches of songs are heard. Upon arrival, you find yourself above the witches’ cauldron and the words of their spell can be heard and seen.
It’s a bleak space to arrive in and it is always night – even if you adjust the time of day within SL. Walking away from the cauldron, I felt a sense of tension. I know the play, its horrors and its violence, and I was concerned about what I might find. The space was coherent in terms of mood: it was dark and echoed the tones of the tragedy throughout.
My first visit threw up some anomalies within the space. There were some boxes which
didn’t appear to do anything and a modern building which was definitely not in the original play; I later realised that this was located on a nearby island onto which I wasn’t permitted to land. Exploration of this space by secondary age pupils would require careful scaffolding and direction: the teacher would need to be an effective tour-guide.
I also found some interesting learning ‘artefacts’ within this domain. Leather-bound copies of the play were scattered around the space and, when opened, presented me with a number of tasks and activities to do ‘in-world’ and ‘out of world’.
In certain spaces I was encouraged to interact with the objects and in others, my actions invoked responses: when I sat on the throne, for example, there was cheering which quickly gave way to sobbing.
It is an evocative space filled with shadows, ghostly figures and hints of chaos.
When I discovered the dagger, I quickly found myself in the ‘Chamber of Blood’ and was asked to think about what it felt like to be in this space but also to reflect on the particular SL experience of what it felt like to lose control of my avatar.
There are also playful and engaging moments of accidental agency; by mistake I sat on a crow and ended up flying in the night sky.
SL Macbeth offers a virtual environment where you could explore the play with students; it is by no means a ‘complete’ space – I have yet to discover the banquet or Birnam Wood – but it is consistent in its rendering of the atmosphere of threat which pervades Macbeth.
It would be an interesting activity to take the students there and explore the micro spaces, discussing with learners, what happened here, who is this and who says this? It also offers a rich space for (re)enactment, with the students’ avatars fulfilling the roles of the characters within Macbeth. The students could, potentially, build within this domain, creating other scenes, vignettes and echoes of the events, themes and characters within the play.
It is, above all, a compelling and immersive place, suggesting the dark tones of the tragedy and offering a creative space within which to explore Macbeth.