Sample Final Paper: Shakespeare in Legend of the Five Rings

What follows is a conference paper like that students are asked to produce for the FinPap assignment in my section of ENGL & THRE 3333: Shakespeare: Comedies & Sonnets during the Fall 2016 instructional term at Schreiner University. As with the sample proposalsample exploratory essay, and sample annotated bibliography 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. Additionally, it deviates from recommendations of composition made to students (although recommended order and obligated content differ–and the latter is addressed). It does, however, adhere to the length requirements expressed to students; they are asked for 2,600 to 3,250 words, exclusive of heading, title,  page numbers, and Works Cited. The paper below is 2,604 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 frequently derived from documented history and interpretations of it. (Indeed, the name of the game itself derives from Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, and its core rulebook is patterned explicitly on the work; no few other works are brought into the game, not seldom by name in-milieu and out.) One such faux-historical figure, 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–its ninja–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. The set of workers 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, some of which clarify historical circumstances for the benefit of players who wish to work in the deeper history of the game-world–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, as well as “flavor text” on any number of the associated playing cards, 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. The Bard himself was evidently aware of the joke, given what Heather Wolfe reports of his work in securing his family’s coat of arms–a spear emblazoned on the family shield, the family crest an eagle holding a spear upraised in one claw. It is a fitting name for a premiere dramatist in another milieu–how better to be shown as such than to be named with the same name as the first among playwrights?–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 liege lord to ease his mind–-but one refuses to do so, noting that he will, indeed, die while the others say he will live forever (Soesbee 28); the scene evokes Cordelia’s refusal to tell sweet untruths to her father early in King Lear. A further work, The Mask, makes much of one Scoprion leader whose identity is open (the Clan as a whole wears masks as a mocking commentary on honesty and public presentations [Wick 33-34], with the Clan leader more obliged to do so than most [Wulf et al., 5]); masking and mistaken identity serve to undergird such of Shakespeare’s plays as As You Like ItTwelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice. A focus on the topic, then, serves to link the in-game works to the traditionally canonical, thus tying the authors together in some way.

Yet another of Furuyari’s plays is described as “a three-part epic” (“Honest”), calling to mind the Bard’s three plays about Henry IV and Henry V or the triad concerning Henry VI. Still another of Furuyari’s plays is titled Father and Daughter, and the relationship between father and daughter recurs as a plot point in Shakespeare’s corpus, comedies and tragedies both; Much Ado about Nothing, earlier portions of Othello, and the aforementioned Lear are standout examples, but they are not the only ones, by any means. 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 (as is argued at some length by Daniel Mackay), 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; the corpus ascribed to the Bard is incomplete, so having an incomplete corpus from the foremost Rokugani playwright makes the character mimetic of Shakespeare. There are clear 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, one whose supplementary materials and player involvement make much of figures of the past that can explicitly and forcefully enter into the game-world of the present–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 is hard to argue that either a traitor or a fraud is venerable.

There is, admittedly, some justification for the game to use a view of the Bard as a fiction in its own fiction. Some scholars hold such views; one such is Donna N. Murphy. In The Marlowe-Shakespeare Continuum: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and the Authorship of Early Shakespeare and Anonymous Plays, she argues that Christopher Marlowe–notable as a playwright and poet for such works as Edward IIDoctor Faustus, and “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”–is the actual author of those works ascribed to Shakespeare. She bases her view largely on commonalities of linguistic data (such as those featured in an NPR report of 24 October 2016 in which Gary Taylor, co-editor of the forthcoming edition of The New Oxford Shakespeare, discusses Marlowe’s co-authorship of the Henry VI plays) and the lack of reporting about Shakespeare by contemporary gossip-monger Thomas Nashe. Although Murphy’s stated views post-date initial revelations about Furuyari to the L5R player base, they reflect and emerge from a long-standing line of thought among some scholars and members of the general public that “Shakespeare” as Shakespeare is a longer-standing lie, that there was no such man writing poems and plays at the time–and if scholars who take early modern Englishes and their literatures as their specialized field of study can have such thoughts, then game designers working well outside that field can surely be forgiven for sharing them.

Or they can in part. Such scholars as Murphy are decidedly in the minority among those who make early modern Englishes and their literatures their particular areas of expertise; some will sidestep the question of “real” authorship entirely, citing the effect of the plays on prevailing understandings as more important than accidents of whose hand or hands put the words to their pages, while many more will note that Shakespeare was as real as any other author, citing not only the words of other contemporary and near-contemporary authors to do so, but also documentary evidence. And, indeed, the work of which Taylor speaks, work that would seem to support at least parts of Murphy’s conclusions in finding that some of Shakespeare’s work can, indeed, be ascribed to Marlowe, is explicitly presented as belying such assertions as Murphy’s; Taylor flatly states that “Shakespeare was not a fraud. Marlowe did not write all of Shakespeare’s works.” He is not alone in doing so, and as such, even if L5R has made some efforts to reflect scholarly thought (which it has, as the explicit invocation of the works of Georges Polti and Carlo Gozzi [301-08] in the fourth edition of the L5R role-playing game, its list of references included [384], and John Wick’s dedicatory comment to Way of the Scorpion [2] suggest), it has made inconsistent efforts–which is a shame for the game, which has otherwise done much well.

It might also 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. Thus, what L5R does matters, and if it does things poorly, those things end up mattering.

Additionally, Gary Alan Fine remarks that broader, prevailing social structures are themselves composed of many smaller constituent parts–of which gaming communities are prominent examples, so that what they believe comes to shape how the broader systems of which they partake operate. Further, Teresa Copeland and her co-authors, as well as both Liz Danforth and Kat Werner, assert the utility of the role-playing game to the school and public library, and such experiences as present themselves in schools tend to shape all that follows. Paul Burda and Mark Silcox both independently argue that the role-playing game merits serious scholarly consideration, advancing their views for different reasons but to the same end–an end that moves aside from common complaints of the uselessness of academic studies, embedding gaming into what continues to happen in mainstream culture far removed from the tabletop. Finally, Stéphanie Daniau makes the case that role-playing games have a transformative power that enables more fully realized humanity, which makes their content potentially foundational to human experience. For L5R to put forth a view of Shakespeare that holds him a fiction–and one easily exploited for nefarious purposes–is therefore 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 its problems of execution, though, 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 although taking it far further in the game than the Bard takes his characters on the stage (Wick 15-17). That it does so in Furuyari and elsewhere is itself an important thing. Among others, it reaffirms the central place of Shakespeare 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 the Bard and studies thereof are far from exhausted. More is being done in the prevailing cultural consciousness with Shakespeare, so more is yet to be done with what is being done, and both such mores offer no small hope for those who will continue to undertake academic study of the humanities.

Works Cited

  • Burda, Paul. “Roll a D20 and the Author Dies.” From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom, edited by Paul Budra and Clint Burnham, Indiana UP, 2012, pp. 1-14.
  • Carman, Shawn, et al. Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game, 4th ed., Alderac Entertainment Group, 2010.
  • Copeland, Teresa, et al. “Three Different Paths for Tabletop Gaming in School Libraries.” Library Trends, vol. 61, no. 4, 2013, pp. 825-35. Project Muse, Accessed 7 November 2016.
  • Danforth, Liz. “Gender and Games.” Library Journal, vol. 136, no. 13, 2011, p. 53. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 7 November 2016.
  • Daniau, Stéphanie. “The Transformative Potential of Role-Playing Games–: From Play Skills to Human Skills.” Simulation & Gaming, vol. 47, no. 4, 2016, pp. 423-44, Accessed 7 November 2016.
  • Fine, Gary Alan. Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Action and Culture, Russell Sage Foundation, 2012.
  • 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 Accessed 5 October 2016.
  • Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, McFarland, 2001.
  • Murphy, Donna N. The Marlowe-Shakespeare Continuum: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and the Authorship of Early Shakespeare and Anonymous Plays, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
  • 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, Accessed 29 September 2016.
  • Shakespeare. As You Like ItThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 150-89.
  • —. King Lear.The Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 656-709.
  • —. The Merchant of VeniceThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 74-112.
  • —. Much Ado about NothingThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 113-149.
  • —. Othello, the Moor of VeniceThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 605-55.
  • —. The Taming of the ShrewThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 2-41.
  • —. Twelfth Night; Or, What You WillThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 190-226.
  • —. The Winter’s TaleThe Necessary Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th ed., Pearson, 2014. pp. 802-44.
  • 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, Accessed 29 September 2016.
  • Taylor, Gary. Interview by Robert Siegel. “Christopher Marlowe Credited as Shakespeare’s Co-Author on Henry VI Plays.” All Things Considered, NPR, 24 October 2016, Accessed 7 November 2016.
  • Werner, Kat. “Bringing Them In: Developing a Gaming Program for the Library.” Library Trends, vol. 61, no. 4, 2013, pp. 790-801. Project Muse, Accessed 7 November 2016.
  • Wick, John. Way of the Scorpion, Five Rings Publishing Group, 1998.
  • Wolfe, Heather. “Shakespeare Coat of Arms Discovery.” Folger Shakespeare Library, Accessed 3 October 2016.
  • Wulf, Rich. “Unfinished Business, Part II.” Kaze no Shiro, 2016, Accessed 4 October 2016.
  • —. “Master of Secrets.” Kaze no Shiro, 2016, Accessed 4 October 2016.
  • Wulf, Rich, et al. Secrets of the Scorpion, Alderac Entertainment Group, 2003.

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