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News & Commentary

04:56 PM
Ivan Schneider
Ivan Schneider

Prior Art

BERNARDO: Who's there?

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

BERNARDO: Long live the king!

FRANCISCO: Bernardo?


-William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1

Inventors sometimes claim to have discovered processes that have ample precedent in the centuries before e-commerce. Consider two-way authentication, for example.

On a dark night in Elsinore, two armored guards would have had to establish protocols for identifying one another. Thus, Bernardo "unfolds" himself with an appropriate pass-phrase known to the other guard.

But, since Bernardo cannot be sure whether he's speaking to Francisco or a deadly imposter, he does not blithely blurt out his pass-phrase at the first opportunity. Instead, he issues a preemptory challenge: "Who's there?" An imposter might respond with "'Tis Francisco." But anything save the correct counter-phrase would have alerted Bernardo to a ruse. Once Francisco authenticates himself as an honest soldier, Bernardo responds with his unique pass-phrase: "Long live the king!"

Francisco recognizes and responds to Bernardo's unique pass-phrase, and the two-way identity challenge is complete. Each is satisfied at the identity of his counterpart.

Granted, most productions of Hamlet don't focus on the secure-authentication implications of the opening scene. So you wouldn't necessarily catch these nuances by watching, say, Mel Gibson's filmed version. But that's the beauty of Shakespeare's corpus, through which you can discover reflections of your own self.

Since I spend my days thinking and writing about innovations in banking, that's part of what I find in Hamlet.

But even while spinning my most outlandish interpretations, I always take pains to stay faithful to the text. Unfortunately, it's all too common to see a staging of Shakespeare in which the director subverts the beauty of the original by injecting politicized claptrap for misguided ends.

I wonder what Mel Gibson's doing these days.

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