Shakespeare & Creative AIs: ChatGPT Reinvents a Classic

Categories: AI and MLTechnology

I was talking with my daughter, a creative and a commercial writer, about ChatGPT recently. At a client’s request, my daughter has begun using ChatGPT for some of her commercial work. She’s also started to experiment with AI-based image generation tools as a means for creating cover art and illustrations. She is often amused by what ChatGPT comes up with, but it’s clear to me that the potential is there for it to become a serious creative tool in diverse fields in the near future. This got me thinking… 

Could brilliant late 16th/early 17th century poet and playwright William Shakespeare have been replaced by an AI? 

Or might Shakespeare have used an AI, if he had one, as a creative tool? To experiment with this idea, I started with a sonnet (sonnet 18) actually written by Shakespeare himself somewhere in the late 1500s and first published in the year 1609:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

On the assumption that Shakespeare was writing about a young person (which I think is a reasonable guess from the content of the poem and the fact that Shakespeare was 36 himself in the year 1600), and that he was writing about a woman (not at all certain, as some closely related sonnets were clearly written to a man — but I wanted to make my request to the AI as concrete as possible so I had to pick), I asked ChatGPT to “Write a Shakespearean sonnet comparing a young woman to a summer’s day.”

Recommended reading: Tips for Staying Relevant in the Age of Creative AIs Like ChatGPT 

ChatGPT Writes a Shakespearean Sonnet

Here’s what I got back:

Oh fairest maiden, like a summer’s day,
Thou art a sight that doth my heart beguile,
Thy gentle beauty, like the sun’s warm ray,
Doth light my soul, and make my spirit smile.

Thou art more lovely than a summer’s morn,
When golden light doth gild the earth below,
And larks do sing to greet the day reborn,
As thou dost grace the world with thy sweet glow.

The summer’s day, it doth too quickly pass,
But thou, fair maiden, shall forever shine,
For in my heart, thy beauty shall amass,
And make my world a summer ever fine.

So let me bask in thy sweet radiance bright,
And be the moon that mirrors thy delight.

Taste in poetry differs greatly but from my personal perspective, the AI-generated sonnet is actually reasonably good. Keep in mind that my skill set is in science, math and engineering — not literature. 

The rhyme scheme (day/ray, beguile/smile, etc.) seems mostly unforced (though I’d question (pass/amass), and while somewhat disjointed, the poem flows reasonably well from idea to idea. The imagery seems appropriate, comparing the loved one’s beauty to sunshine, birdsong at sunrise, and to the warmth of the day. The poem even captures something of Shakespeare’s original nuance that summer is brief, and that beauty can be, too. 

But comparing it with Shakespeare’s original, it’s clear that even though Shakespeare claims in the first line of Sonnet 18 that he’s comparing his love to a summer’s day, in the subsequent lines he actually contrasts the two (“thou art more lovely and more temperate” [emphasis added]). 

Refining Our Ask of the Creative AI

So, let’s try again by asking ChatGPT to “write an original Shakespearean sonnet contrasting a young woman and a summer’s day.” Here’s how the AI responded:

Thou art more fair than any summer’s day,
With beauty that doth put the sun to shame,
For though the day may bring its warm display,
Thy loveliness outshines its brightest flame.

The sun may rise and set without a care,
And scorch the earth with its unyielding heat,
But thou art gentle, with a heart so rare,
And bring’st a calmness that is oh so sweet.

The summer’s day may come and go with ease,
But thou art constant, with a heart so true,
Thy beauty brings a sense of perfect peace,
And fills my heart with love that’s ever new.

So though the summer’s day may fade away,
Thy beauty shall forevermore hold sway.

This, I think, is somewhat closer to Shakespeare’s original intent. In the closing stanza, the AI-generated poem touches on the idea that while summers are brief (especially in Shakespeare’s native England), his love will stay beautiful forever. However, it does not state the reason for this, as Shakespeare does in his original: namely that his love’s beauty is captured forever in the poem itself (“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”) 

Okay, Perhaps Our Creative AI Needs More Guidance

Let’s try one final time by asking ChatGPT to “write an original Shakespearean sonnet contrasting a young woman and a summer’s day, emphasizing that his love’s beauty is captured forever in the poem itself.” Here’s what the AI came up with this time:

Fair maiden, thou art like a summer’s day,
With beauty that doth strike the heart so true,
But though the day may soon slip away,
Thy loveliness shall live in this poem anew.

For as the sun may set and leave us cold,
And summer’s warmth may soon be but a dream,
Thy beauty, in this verse, shall still unfold,
And like a flower, forever in bloom, gleam.

The summer’s day may be but fleeting bliss,
A momentary warmth, soon to be gone,
But in this sonnet, thy beauty shall persist,
And shine eternal like the brightening dawn.

So though the summer’s day may fade from view,
Thy beauty, in this poem, shall be ever true.

In my definitively-not-an-English-major mind, I think this AI-generated poem is fairly close in its intent to my admittedly distinctly amateur understanding of Shakespeare’s original. 

Technically, the poem is not as good as Shakespeare’s, in my opinion; for one thing, some of the language construction is a bit forced. For example, the word “gleam” chosen to rhyme with “dream” only makes sense if it refers to “Thy beauty” in the previous line, since flowers do not “gleam.” It’s not incorrect to construct a sentence this way, especially a stanza in poetry, but it’s awkward and somewhat confusing, again in my layman’s opinion. Also, some of the line endings seem chosen simply because they rhyme (true/anew, cold/unfold) and don’t add nuance to the poem itself. 

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s rhyming word choices sometimes reinforce and contrast with each other (shines/declines, fade/shade), adding a further dimension to the poem. Also, I find Shakepeare’s phrases (“rough winds,” “darling buds of May”) more vivid in the imagery they invoke, personally. But I think the major ideas that at least I myself take away from Shakespeare’s original are reflected in the AI-generated sonnet in some way, and the piece itself is basically serviceable as a poem.

Even if you agree with me that it does, basically, embody the same concepts as Shakespeare’s sonnet, would this AI-generated poem live on and inspire people for over 400 years, as Shakespeare’s has done? 

Part of the reason for the original Shakespeare sonnet’s fame are certainly cultural and historical. We were taught it in school and told it was good, so we believe it is good. We are also very familiar with the Shakespeare original, so it has the allure of an old friend, and resonance from the various times in our lives we encountered it before. It has the “first mover” advantage where you probably had already read it, in most cases, before you saw the AI-generated version. The works of Shakespeare also shaped the English language, to some degree, so our standard of measure is to some extent biased to make us appreciate the original.

Even doing my best to account for these factors, though, I have to say that the AI-generated poem does not compare favorably to Shakespeare’s original, and will not stand the test of time in the same way. 

If I had encountered the AI-generated version before I read the original Shakespearean Sonnet, I might have been excited by it. However, that excitement would not be because of the way it is expressed but rather because of the novelty (to me) of the thoughts behind the poem: namely, the idea to contrast “my love” and a “summer’s day,” and that unlike a summer’s day, that his loved one’s beauty will not fade because it is immortalized by the poem itself. 

However, we fed those thoughts to the AI in our original request; these ideas were not generated by the AI itself. What the AI did was to express those ideas, adding concrete illustrations, and phasing the result in a poetic form.

Original Thinkers Have Nothing to Fear of the Age of AI

This in no way lessens the achievement here by ChatGPT— what it can do is truly remarkable. That it can generate poems this good in seconds, on demand, and actually expressing the thoughts we gave it, is absolutely mind-boggling. Imagine giving the same instruction as an assignment to a human being. What would we get back, and when (if ever)? 

Of course, Shakespeare’s original sonnet (and all his works) were certainly ingested and processed by the AI, so it’s no coincidence that the original would inform the AI’s output in some way. We can’t hold that against the AI, however; nearly every human 21st century poet in the west — and many from other parts of the world — would have the same advantage of having read Shakespeare. Even given that, would most humans do as well?

Our conclusions from this exercise:

I don’t think Shakespeare or any original thinker has anything to fear from AIs. 

An AI is a potentially powerful tool that can help thinkers express original ideas in useful ways, and to help them generate new ideas as well.

A major driver behind many written, artistic and other works is not originality for its own sake, but rather to express what the author wants to say to a particular audience. 

Other people — or AIs — may give expression to those thoughts and feelings without taking away from the author’s intent. However, wherever they originated, when the written (or artistic expression) of ideas or feelings reflect one’s own, conveying that congruence can itself have value, depending on the audience. 

For example, providing an expression of my thoughts and my feelings to my loved ones can be significant to them even if I worked with an AI (or bought a greeting card, or bought a work of art or a gift) that expressed precisely what I wanted to say.

While ChatGPT and other AI systems in the pipeline are starting to usurp some of the functions that we thought of as human — creating art, poetry and computer programs, for example — the concept behind “delegating” creativity is nothing new. Executives often tell their assistants or their marketing departments the broad outlines of a communication that will later go out over their name. The actual content will then be written by an assistant, or by marketing, HR or another group. The fact that celebrities use ghost writers to produce works published under their own name is well known. 

In our everyday lives, we often search for a greeting card written and drawn by someone else that nonetheless conveys what we wish we could say (as poetically or beautifully) to a loved one. We buy art and other gifts created by other human beings that convey some feeling or idea we would like to express or remember.

Are truly creative people threatened by the fact that there are other creative people in the world? Maybe the insecure ones are, until they gain more confidence. 

But in general, I think creative people are more likely to be spurred on by the other creative people around them. Shakespeare, for example, is thought to have become a better writer because of his contemporary writers — and sometimes rivals and critiques — Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe. Having another creative person to bounce ideas off of, or to challenge your own ideas, is often the path to excellence. 

I think creative AIs like ChatGPT will assume that role: they will make us more creative, and better at what we do. I think Shakespeare might have used something like ChatGPT to help him get started generating new concepts, to do research (he wrote a lot of history), and to look for typos and grammar issues in his own work, for example.

And for those areas where creative AIs can do better work than a given individual can (I’m a terrible graphic artist, for example), they can help us to express our ideas and feelings in ways we can imagine, but otherwise could not bring to life unaided. 

Fearing a new source of creative expression is about as futile as living in fear that the person in the next desk is smarter than you, or a better coder, or a better writer, etc. Where that is true, your best strategy is to have the confidence to enlist their help — or to emulate their example and learn to do better. Where it is not true, your best strategy is to find what you do uniquely well, and partner with your office mate to produce something really great. 

AI or person, learning from it and partnering with it is what I think Shakespeare would have ended up doing with a technology like ChatGPT. Or, as Shakespeare himself might say: “To use AI, or not to use AI: That is the question.”

More helpful resources:



Dr. Jim Walsh


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