An experiment involving more than 100,000 monkeys in different locations around the world, to investigate whether, if left alone with a typewriter for long enough, one of them might come up with the entire works of William Shakespeare, was back to 'square one' yesterday after one of its promising 'typists' floundered in the final stages, and made a complete hash of things.
The animals in the experiment have been accommodated in luxurious apartments with every convenience provided, and have received expert across-the-board literary tuition, not to influence them in their task, but to make them aware of a multitude of literary genres, styles and devices. Exercises have been set, and assignments given, and experienced animal psychologists have guided the chosen monkeys through the human emotions of love, desire, happiness, yearning, rejection, heartbreak, sorrow, sadness, and the best one, coveting someone else's wife.
Monkey number 3793, known as 'Ben Jonson', had astonished his minder after he had somehow managed to reproduce, word-for-word, the Bard's 'Twelfth Night', 'Romeo and Juliet', and 'The Tempest', and was well into the second half of 'The Merchant of Venice'.
In Shakespeare's version, Bassanio offers Shylock 6,000 ducats as repayment of Antonio's original 3,000 ducat loan, but the moneylender refuses, and demands his 'pound of flesh' from Antonio. The Duke of Venice wants to help, and asks for advice from a 'visitor' and 'his' assistant (these two are Portia and Nerissa disguised as men who claim to be 'doctors of the law'). In a famous speech, Portia tells Shylock that:
"mercy...is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes."
Shylock refuses, and again wants his pound of Antonio's flesh, but through clever legal argument, Portia shows that, if he should take anything other than his 'debt' - for example, so much as a drop of Antonio's blood - the agreement on the loan would be forfeit, and all Shylock's worldly possessions as well as his land and fortune, would be confiscated, and his life would be at the mercy of the Duke. Beaten, Shylock accepts his lot.
All of the above had been perfectly reproduced by 3793. However, in the final scene, where Bassanio and Gratiano made presents of their rings to the disguised Portia and Nerissa, who then reveal their true identities, and everyone lives happily ever after, the monkey veered off course somewhat.
In the 'Ben Jonson' version, as Portia explains the playful deception, Bassanio becomes annoyed. He strikes Portia with his fist, and he and Gratiano then tie her to a tree. Nerissa is tied to their horses, which are then ridden in different directions, with the obvious result. Portia, seeing this, threatens Bassanio that, if he tries that on with her, she'll never move in with him. Calming down a little, he asks for Portia's forgiveness, and hand in marriage, and she grants it, on condition that he provide her with a cart load of bananas (the monkey was probably hungry at this stage) at which point Bassanio attaches a tyre to a branch of the tree and swings to and fro in it, scratching his armpits.
It's the latest in a recent long line of such 'close calls', after another monkey got to within a hair's breadth of reproducing 'Coriolanus'. In that instance, the ape writing the play had Coriolanus return to the Volscian capital to meet with Aufidius, but the former, rather than being murdered for his 'betrayal', is welcomed, and asked to "sit down and enjoy a banana", a theme that is oddly-recurrent in these 'Monkey Plays'.
The experiment continues.