[open-humanities] Extended Abstract on Reading Shakespeare Online

James Harriman-Smith open-shakespeare at okfn.org
Fri Mar 16 13:58:46 UTC 2012

Dear All,

I've just finished drafting an extended abstract for an article on
Open Shakespeare (and others) in The Shakespeare Yearbook. Do let me
know what you think!


------------------------EXTENDED ABSTRACT------------------------

This paper aims to describe how Shakespeare's texts are experienced
online, and to what extent that experience is guided by the way in
which these works are read in paper editions. A cursory visit to the
four websites in this study immediately indicates the extent to which
each invites comparison between their online texts and so-called,
‘dead tree’ versions. Project Gutenberg, besides its name, offers the
user “Books, by Shakespeare, William”,1 (my emphasis) editions which
one might either contribute to a virtual “Bookshelf” or download in
various e-book formats. The homepage of The Internet Shakespeare
Editions (ISE hereafter) displays a picture of a neoclassical entrance
hall, inviting visitors to click their way through to its “Library” of
texts. Those texts themselves carry peer-reviewed annotations and
textual notes, which – along with introductions and supplementary
materials – reproduces all the paraphernalia one will find in print in
a good critical edition of Shakespeare. Open Shakespeare also imitates
critical editions by offering short introductions and annotations to
Shakespeare’s works, but none of its material is peer-reviewed and all
is contributed by volunteers. Of all the sites I will discuss here,
the Open Source Shakespeare is the only one that does not openly
invite such a comparison to paper editions, instead branding itself as
“An Experiment in Literary Technology”.

Nevertheless, it is not so hard to discern other debts that all four
websites owe to centuries of reading Shakespeare on paper. Since the
procedures of Latin and Greek commentary were applied to Shakespeare
in the eighteenth century, our reading of Shakespeare has often been
accompanied with other texts, such as Mary Cowden Clarke’s 1846
Concordance. All four websites here provide tools and materials that
would, outside the virtual space, require several volumes or, at the
very least, much page-turning. Every website apart from Gutenberg
offers a concordance, and even Gutenberg’s digitised texts can be
searched with any browser’s find function.  Apart from concordances,
the ISE also offers more supplementary materials than could fit on the
average bookshelf, while Open Shakespeare, less ambitiously, simply
gives those readers with large monitors the chance to set two texts by
Shakespeare side by side. Behind all this lies the larger assumption
that everything is or should be available online, that the user need
not quit his computer screen nor, better yet, the website he is using.
Unlike the individual characteristics of a printed book, the material
read online, particularly for an author so omnipresent as Shakespeare,
seems part of larger aggregated whole, gathered in one place, be it a
single site or a larger collection of services at only a mouse click’s

The quality of such a collection is, of course, a frequent problem,
and it is in considering how online texts are inferior to paper
editions that one can also see how printed works have served as
exemplars for their online counterparts. As is well known, the most
widely available Shakespeare text online is that of the Moby
Shakespeare, derived from the nineteenth-century ‘Globe’ edition. For
obvious reasons, not least the absence of all record of textual
variants, this text is flawed, and thus undermines the claims of those
services that use it. The Open Source Shakespeare, although it claims
to be a resource “intended for scholars”, can never be as well adapted
to this as a paper edition. Gutenberg and Open Shakespeare both also
use the Moby edition, and although they also offer a Folio text for
each work as a point of comparison, that Folio text is in fact “a
composite of more than thirty different First Folio editions”2. A
printed edition, looked over by an editor and recording textual
variants is still a superior academic text to anything on Open
Shakespeare, Gutenberg, and Open Source Shakespeare. It is this kind
of text that ISE intends to produce, the very name of their project
emphasising their work towards establishing digital editions of
Shakespeare. Yet, the ISE, along with all its textual scruples, also
shares one other trait with print editions, and that is copyright, the
understandable desire to protect the hours of editorial work that have
gone into creating its resources.

However, by placing its online texts under copyright, the ISE shuts
itself into a read-only model of the web, and, further, a read-only
model of Shakespeare. This compares unfavourably to another attribute
of the printed text, the fact that it is itself eminently malleable:
the student often folds down pages, highlights, comments, and so forth
on top of those annotations and explanations that a paper text already
comes with. Peculiarly, real-world reading is therefore itself a
read/write experience, where write is to be understood largely as any
marking of the text, from Keats inscribing his ‘Bright star, would I
were as steadfast as thou art’ into an edition of Shakespeare to an
undergraduate folding a page corner to mark a useful essay morsel. Of
all the services analysed here, only Open Shakespeare has such
read/write capacity, since it gives any visitor the opportunity to
annotate, publicly or privately, anonymously or identifiably, the
public domain texts of Shakespeare it possesses.

With annotation, however, the model of a real-world reader is both
followed and surpassed in the digital medium of a “web 2.0”. When a
user leaves a public annotation on Open Shakespeare, he not only does
with the aid of Javascript what he previously did with the aid of a
pencil, he also shares his thought with all the other users of the
service. It is this social element, founded on the fact that an online
object is simultaneously visible to many at the same time, that has no
analogue with printed editions. By recreating the read/write
experience of studying Shakespeare in a uniquely public medium, Open
Shakespeare indicates an alternate way of experiencing Shakespeare’s
texts online, one not based on reading Shakespeare alone, but on
sharing one’s reactions to and thoughts on Shakespeare.

It is my contention that this way of experiencing text is in itself as
particular to Shakespeare as the strong desire to have online the
concordances, supplementary materials, textual notes and annotations
of the paper reading experience. The works of Shakespeare have, after
all, two particularities: first, their uniquely tortured transmission;
and, second, the fact that they are amongst the most well-know works
of literature on the planet. As regards the first particularity,
websites offering editions of Shakespeare must confront the problems
of a text that demands study, and thus provide tools (concordances,
statistical analysis, textual notes) in part inspired by their ‘dead
tree’ counterparts. As for Shakespeare’s fame, the medium of the
internet, taken as not just a read/write environment but as a
read/write/share one, seems ideally suited to perpetuating the status
of Shakespeare’s writings. This is even more so when, by placing
digitised texts (albeit of dubious quality) and user-generated
annotations in the public domain, online services depart from the
limits of a paper edition: Gutenberg’s Complete Works of Shakespeare,
for all its flaws, is amongst its most downloaded “books”, the Open
Source Shakespeare had 1.4 million unique visitors from 2006-10, and
Open Shakespeare has already collected over six hundred annotations on
the plays.

James Harriman-Smith
Open Literature Working Group Coordinator
Open Knowledge Foundation
Skype: james.harriman.smith

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