Sample Exploratory Essay: Shakespeare in Legend of the Five Rings

What follows is an exploratory essay like that students are asked to produce for the Expl assignment in my section of ENGL & THRE 3333: Shakespeare: Comedies & Sonnets during the Fall 2016 instructional term at Schreiner University. As with the sample proposal from which it arises (and which it echoes), its topic is slightly aside from that allowed to the students; rather than treating a single work, it treats a more general Shakespearean reconstruction, looking for what prompts continuance of the Bard in popular culture. It does, however, adhere to the length requirements expressed to students; they are asked for 1,300 to 1,625 words, exclusive of heading, title,  page numbers, and any necessary Works Cited entries, and the essay below is 1,527 words long, assessed by those standards. Its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

Set in a fantastical analogue of feudal Japan and China, the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a tabletop gaming property that, across the first two decades of its existence, encompassed a collectible card game, a role-playing game, miniatures wargaming, and more “traditional” table games. (As of this writing, the property is undergoing a transition associated with new ownership. A card game is promised, and a role-playing game is suggested, as being forthcoming, but what connections to earlier incarnations of the property will be in place are unclear.) Each partook of an ongoing, player-driven storyline; that is, while there was an over-arching plotline for the whole gaming property, many of the points of that plot were determined by players, whether explicitly by fiat or through results achieved by victories at major gaming events. The direct and identifiable impact on storyline by players accounted for much of the game’s popularity and the loyalty of its player base. It also commanded a rich and detailed back history for the player-current narratives to emerge from, and that, in turn, included consideration of faux-historical cultural figures. One of them, Shosuro Furuyari, is a clear send-up of a particular view on William Shakespeare–one that is, unfortunately, not the most accurate view of the Bard to be found.

The focus of L5R is on the noble classes of the land of the Empire of Rokugan, the aforementioned analogue of feudal Japan and China. As noted in the core rulebook of the L5R role-playing game’s fourth edition (Carman et al., 13-71), the members of those noble classes are divided, for the most part, into various Clans and Families. The mightiest of the Clans, the Great Clans, originally descended from the divine children of the Sun and Moon, and their social roles and overall philosophies derive in large part from their founders. Each of the Clans adopts an animal totem to serve as its dominant heraldic emblem and as an overarching metaphor for the Clan as a whole. One such is the Scorpion Clan, descended from the underhanded Bayushi; its members are the spies and assassins of the Empire, those willing to take most any means to get done whatever jobs need to get done, regardless of the stains on their personal honor. They find secrets and keep them, doing much to disguise such truths as may not be palatable or helpful–and as part of their disguising, they maintain extensive groups of actors and workers associated with acting. This includes no few playwrights, among whom is the figure of Shosuro Furuyari, acknowledged as the greatest dramatist in the milieu–and a clear incarnation of Shakespeare.

To be fair, the nature of the tabletop role-playing game, even one with as involved a backstory as L5R, precludes full historical development. As it is, the in-game history of Rokugan is only cursorily sketched, more than a dozen centuries of material compressed into forms easily accessed by casual players (who still often find themselves daunted by the scope and extent of the material). That history occupies scores of pages across nearly two dozen books in the fourth edition of the role-playing game–as well as hundreds of other pages in the previous three editions of the game. Although the game texts are supplemented by no few works of fiction, written by the game’s writers and reflecting “official” developments of the storyline, there is still a paucity of evidence upon which to base any assertions about in-game historical figures.

Such evidence as exists, however, serves to associate Furuyari with Shakespeare. For one, the very name of the character connects the Scorpion dramatist to the Bard. The character’s personal name, Furuyari, can be read as furu + yari–and in a language deliberately patterned after (sometimes poorly translated) Japanese. At least one meaning of furu, depending on the transliteration, is “shake,” and at least one meaning of yari is “spear.” The name therefore reads as “shake spear,” a slightly punning reference to the name of the Swan of Avon of which the man himself was evidently aware, given his work in securing his family’s coat of arms (Wolfe). It is a fitting name for a premiere dramatist in another milieu, and its deployment makes clear that the game’s writers are using the figure as a representative of the most famous of all playwrights.

Other evidence functions similarly. For example, one of Furuyari’s best known plays is One Winter’s Snowfall (Wulf et al., 32), the title of which evokes Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Another of his major works, Death of the First Hantei, presents a scene in which many people lie to their lord to ease his mind–but one refuses to do so (Soesbee 28); the scene evokes Cordelia’s refusal to tell sweet untruths to her father in King Lear. Yet another of his plays is described as “a three-part epic” (“Honest”), calling to mind the Bard’s three plays about Henry VI. Admittedly, no more than snippets of the texts of the plays are available–although role-playing games are themselves necessarily associated with theater through their performative nature, it is not often that full scripts are presented within them. But even that can be read as evocative of Shakespeare, given such theorized lost plays as Love’s Labour’s Won. There are connections, therefore, to be made between the role-playing game’s character and the Swan of Avon.

Unfortunately, the Shakespeare stand-in in L5R is a fraud, a non-existent person used as a cover for others. In its origins, the façade serves to cover over dramatists uncertain of the reception of their plays and as a convenient vehicle for the Scorpion to maneuver into positions from which to gather intelligence (Wick 36). Agrarian feudal societies do not necessarily offer much in the way of entertainment, so traveling groups of performers were likely to be welcomed warmly–and in the hours after the plays and after-parties ended, as the grateful hosts slept, the actors could creep about and find out more than had already been revealed by careful observation and drink-loosened tongues. Later, the returned spirit of a villainous figure–again, L5R is a fantasy game–assumes the identity of Furuyari, using the reverence in which the setting holds the (imagined) writer to maneuver into positions of power and influence and thence to attempt a coup against the current rightful rulers; for a time, he stands among the closest advisers of the lord of the Scorpion Clan, only to be exposed–and to confess himself as–a traitor to that lord and to the Empire as a whole (Wulf, “Master”). Subsequently, he actively works to undermine the legitimate authorities of the Empire (Wulf, “Unfinished”). That is, by posing as the playwright, the pernicious antagonist accrues influence that is then put to vile–and objectively evil, in the context of the game–ends. Neither view of the Shakespeare-analogue–and therefore of the Bard, by proxy–is favorable.

It might be argued, and with some justice, that L5R is simply a game and that the assertions made in it are not to be taken as representative or directive–and the implications of it are far less so. L5R is a series of games, and there is a disjunction between the world of the game and the world that enfolds the game. Too, the contextual materials the game offers are scanty, as any simulation’s must be. But L5R is also a sprawling narrative, one that has pulled in thousands of audience members across decades, and it is no secret that the kinds of fans associated with tabletop gaming are often intense in their devotion to the objects of their fandom. As Flegel and Roth, Roth and Flegel, and Stein and Busse assert, fandoms take into themselves no small part of those properties of which they are fans, integrating with them in familial, communal ways; what the properties do exerts influence on who its fans are. For L5R to put forth a view of Shakespeare that holds him a fiction–and one easily exploited for nefarious purposes–is dangerous, even if the view is occluded and partial. That a thing works subtly and through suggestion does not mean it does not work, after all, as the victims of any number of half-heard rumors can attest.

Even with such problems, though, the fact that L5R does engage with Shakespeare–and not only in Furuyari; for example, the plot of a foregrounded scene from a work of prominent in-world fiction closely mimics the final scene of Taming of the Shrew, highlighting a wager of obedience (Wick 15-17)–is itself an important thing. Among others, it reaffirms the central place of the Bard to the narrative communities that have succeeded him. It shows that the Swan of Avon still swims through the currents of popular consciousness in the English-speaking world, even in those eddies which may be thought to be far removed from the main stream, and it offers promise that the utility of Shakespeare and studies thereof are far from exhausted. More is being done, so more is yet to do, and that offers no small hope for those who will continue to undertake academic study of the humanities.

Works Cited

  • Carman, Shawn, et al. Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game, 4th ed., Alderac Entertainment Group, 2010.
  • Flegel, Monica, and Jenny Roth. “Legitimacy, Validity, and Wriitng for Free: Fan Fiction, Gender, and the Limits of (Unpaid) Labor.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 47, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1092-1108.
  • “An Honest Ant.” Kaze no Shirowww.kazenoshiro.com/kazenoshiro/1/hhorant.php. Accessed 5 October 2016.
  • Roth, Jenny, and Monica Flegel. “It’s Like Rape: Metaphorical Family Transgressions, Copyright Ownership, and Fandom.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 28, no. 6, 2014, pp. 901-13, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2014.964175. Accessed 29 September 2016.
  • Shakespeare. The Taming of the ShrewThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 2-41.
  • Soesbee, Ree. Winter Court: Kyuden Seppun, Five Rings Publishing Group, 1999.
  • Stein, Louisa, and Kristina Busse. “Limit Play: Fan Authorship between Source Text, Intertext, and Context.” Popular Communication, vol. 7, 2009, pp. 192-207, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15405700903177545. Accessed 29 September 2016.
  • Wick, John. Way of the Scorpion, Five Rings Publishing Group, 1998.
  • Wolfe, Heather. “Shakespeare Coat of Arms Discovery.” Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu/shakespeare-coat-of-arms-discovery. Accessed 3 October 2016.
  • Wulf, Rich. “Unfinished Business, Part II.” Kaze no Shiro, 2016, www.kazenoshiro.com/2008/10/06/unfinished-business-part-ii/. Accessed 4 October 2016.
  • —. “Master of Secrets.” Kaze no Shiro, 2016, www.kazenoshiro.com/2008/08/15/master-of-secrets/. Accessed 4 October 2016.
  • Wulf, Rich, et al. Secrets of the Scorpion, Alderac Entertainment Group, 2003.
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