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Sylvia Morris, Finding Needles in Haystacks: Shakespeare and the Internet

James Harriman-Smith - September 12, 2011 in Essay

This post has been contributed under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence by Sylvia Morris, the former head of the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, and RSC Librarian. Her blog, filled with fascinating information and commentary on Shakespeare in the past and present, can be found at

It’s tempting to think that whatever you want to find out about nowadays, it’s only a click away. But with any Google search throwing up hundreds of thousands of hits, is it really that simple? I recently heard a radio discussion where it was suggested we are all “disempowered by the overload of information”, and in the academic world, it’s the same. Historian Daniel J. Cohen has said: “It is now quite clear that historians will have to grapple with abundance, not scarcity. Several million books have been digitized … and … we are confronted with a new digital …resource of almost unimaginable size”.

Cohen’s concern is over the digitization of books and manuscripts until recently only available by examining the original item, but this isn’t the only kind of project in the digital revolution. One great resource to be launched online later this year is the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700, which offers high quality descriptions, but no images. The book holdings of major libraries worldwide are now searchable online via COPAC, but it would be a mistake to think that job’s done. Although the scope is widening, only a fraction of the world’s libraries are on COPAC, and most libraries and archives contain uncatalogued materials, and have too few staff to catalogue.

Many resources for Shakespeare study are easy to find. Among texts, Folios and Quartos have been scanned, and the Internet Shakespeare Editions is producing fully-edited modern editions for the internet. Books of Shakespeare criticism have been digitized as part of mass digitization projects of texts, manuscripts and illustrations like the Google Books project or the Internet Archive. Among institutional websites the prize goes to the Folger Shakespeare Library which includes not only the Library’s catalogues but an image database, videos, and pages of outstanding articles. Modern stage production images for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe are posted on their sites. It’s not a dedicated Shakespeare resource, but the ubiquitous Google search can pick up content from almost anywhere so effectively that a recent survey named Google search engines as 4 of the top 20 websites worldwide. While undeniably useful, this ease can encourage a “smash and grab” mentality which effectively decontextualises the images, video or written content.

My own experience with digital projects relates largely to the development of an online database of information about RSC productions, linking the data to catalogue records in the RSC’s Archives. This launched in 2004 as the RSC Performance Database. I was simultaneously involved in two image projects, Royal Holloway College’s Designing Shakespeare and the RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions. The potential benefits of linking these projects together were obvious, but with each planned and funded in isolation there was no opportunity for cooperative working.

I’m going to focus on a single but very dynamic area of digital initiatives, Shakespeare on video. If you’re a student or teacher studying Shakespeare, YouTube is an obvious place to start. A search for “Shakespeare” here results in thousands of hits all by itself, without even considering the material on other video websites.

Faced with this kind of result, sites have sprung up to help filter these resources. MIT’s Global Shakespeares project “provides global, regional, and national portals to Shakespeare productions within a federated structure”, a real treasure trove containing great content. Bardfilm is a personal blog selecting and commenting on Shakespeare-related films, a fascinating collection put together by someone with a passion for the subject, though not always easy to search. Bardbox is Luke McKernan’s project, and as you’d expect from the British Library’s Moving Image curator, the site addresses issues of selection and cataloguing while also being a personal choice. Only original videos are chosen, from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. None of these sites aim to be comprehensive, and the BUFVC’s International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio is a fantastic resource which aims to fill that gap by being an “authoritative online database of Shakespeare-related content in film, television, radio and video recordings,… international in scope and hold[ing] over 7,000 records dating from the 1890s to the present day.”

While all the above offer access to information and videos themselves, there are still problems. Items are not scanned or made searchable in a consistent way, and the mass of resources that aren’t digitised are ignored. This presents a real issue with currency. The RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s PeoplePlay UK were both projects containing thousands of images, but operating on defunct platforms they have been taken down. The RSC website currently contains valuable video interviews and production clips, but will these go the same way?

What is the future for Shakespeare in the digial world? Content is certain to grow. The question “How do I find it?” can probably be solved, but only if further cataloguing is done. The other question “How do I sort out the good stuff from the rest?” is also complicated, and too large for any small group of people to answer.

One option might be to look at the sort of solutions offered by organisations like WordPress, where help is provided by the wiki-based WordPress Codex community forum. Only twenty administrators work for WordPress, but there are 115,000 self-selected members of the forum, many of whom provide content. Is a Shakespeare crowdsourcing project like this the way forward? If so, who’s going to get it started?

Shakespeare and the Internet

James Harriman-Smith - September 5, 2011 in Community, Essay, News, Publicity

From Monday 12th September to Monday 10th October, Open Shakespeare will host a series of articles on the topic of ‘Shakespeare and the Internet’. When we invited contributions, the theme was deliberately kept as broad as possible in order to facilitate a wide and diverse range of responses from each of those who have written a post for us. Our contributors range from teachers and students of Shakespeare to an experimental theatre company.

Having already read the majority of the contributions, I can say now that the series fulfils its goal of offering what the Bard would call a “multitudinous” range of approaches to the topic of Shakespeare and the Internet; subjects range from why Polonius would appreciate hypertext to the problems and opportunities of online abundance. Please feel free to make use of the comments section at the bottom of each article, and to carry on in this space the points for debate that each article raises. The contributions will appear in the following order:

Every article in this series is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence, meaning that it is free to redistribute and reuse, providing that you attribute it to its author (BY) and that you share-alike. As with all the other material on Open Shakespeare, we hope that publication under such a licence will encourage the diffusion and development of our contributors’ ideas.

My thanks to all those who have contributed their time and thoughts to this project, particularly Erin Weinberg, whose proof-reading skills have been extremely useful in the preparation of these pieces for publication. Depending on the success of this series, we intend to publish similar, themed posts under an open licence in the future: if you would like to participate as either a writer or an editor, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Now, to conclude, I leave you, I hope, in approximately the same state of anticipation as Leonato leaves an impatient Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing:

> till Monday [...] which is hence a just seven-night; and a time too brief too, to have all things answer my mind.

James Harriman-Smith, Shakespeare and the City: The Theatrical City

openliterature - July 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Cheapside ran with wine, Cornhill was festooned with pageantry, and the Lord Mayor dressed in the most elaborate of costumes; 17th November was an important occasion in Elizabethan London, a time when, in Agnes Strickland’s words, “The city of London might…have been termed a stage.” [Ackroyd (2000), 157] 17th November, or Saint Hugh’s Day, was the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I, the official celebration and commemoration of her ascending to the throne of England. Not only did the festivities involve a transient, theatrical transformation of London redolent with neoclassical references to Astraea redux and the Golden Age of Ovid, but they also went down in art, preserved in such paintings as Roy Strong’s Eliza Triumphis and echoed throughout the plays of William Shakespeare. The form of the Accession Day pageant and celebrations can be clearly discerned behind one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable evocations of the city:

CHORUS…But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in;
As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him! Much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him.
(King Henry V, 5 Chorus 22-35)
[Note: a variety of critical editions have been used for the plays cited in this essay. Please refer to bibliography.]

Before its obvious contemporary political resonance is discussed, it is necessary to examine the language of this passage in detail. Despite the urgency and excitement of “now behold”, the Chorus delays the mention of “London” with a metaphorical description of the imaginative process. Like many of the Chorus’ speeches that beg the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 23), the language of “quick forge and working-house of thought” suggests the constructedness of theatrical endeavour and, perhaps, of kingship itself. However, the metaphor “quick forge and working-house of thought” also takes for its vehicle the workshops and industries of Elizabethan London. Incidentally, so does “piece out” by calling up the work of a tailor.[cf. OED “piece out”: ‘To enlarge or complete by the addition of a piece; to eke out or extend with extra pieces’; and “piece”: 1. trans. a. ‘To mend, make whole, or complete by adding a piece or pieces; to patch.’] As in the labour spent constructing the triumphal arches, and fake scenery of the Accession Day pageant, so is this constructedness an urban effort. From this position things grow more complex: the first simile equates Elizabethan London with Rome, Henry V with Caesar. Such an equation is not uncommon: as the title of Roy Strong’s painting made clear, the Accession Day procession used the Roman military triumph as a model; London and Rome (and Troy) were habitually linked as part of the translatio imperii;[That is to say, the belief that imperial power moved westward through the ages.] and, furthermore, Henry V was written in the same year as Julius Caesar and it is not unreasonable to expect some cross pollination. The second simile is a rarity in Shakespeare’s opus: it is not only a contemporary reference, but a reference to a contemporary hope: that the Earl of Essex would return triumphant from his attempts to quash the Irish rebellions. The passage goes out of its way to avoid any hints of treason: Essex is “the General of our gracious Empress”, no Caesar nor Henry V; and the royal welcome of “this Harry” is with “much more cause”. Nevertheless, such blunt denial, as close to the edge of dramatic illusion as only a choric figure can be, suggests that such equation contained a risky contemporary political resonance that had to be avoided. But this chorus’ purpose is not to make a political statement anyway: the last sentence is as clear as it can be when it tells the audience to “Now in London place him”, and what is truly remarkable about this passage is the way in which a city is evoked as a constant across time. Or, more precisely, the relationship of a large group of people to a single figure, to a single piece of display, is considered as something unchanging in this presentation of the city.

“Now in London place him” is not the last sentence of the Chorus’ speech, though; by the end of the description Henry V is “back return again to France”, and the plot moves on from that position. The fact that the Chorus continues smoothly from such a resonant description of contemporary London helps to counteract the way in which a metatheatrical reference to the current urban milieu normally occurs at the conclusion of a play, and thus limits the ‘episodic’ feel of a play already sharply demarcated into acts. Much can be discerned about the relationship between drama and the city, which provided space for its theatre and the money of its audience, by examining a few of those moments at the end of the play when the theatre opens up to the city around it and the city folk watching it, where the world of the play and of the theatre appear to come into alignment. Perhaps the best example is the conclusion of Jonson’s Volpone:

1st AVVOCATO […] Away with them!
Let all that see these vices thus rewarded
Take heart, and love to study ’em. Mischiefs feed
Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed.

[Exeunt all. Volpone re-enters]

VOLPONE The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the fox be punished by the laws,
He yet doth hope there is no suffering due
For any fact which he hath done ’gainst you;
If there be, censure him – here he doubtful stands.
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.
(Volpone, 5xii148-57)

The stage direction is editorial, but, regardless of who is on stage, the effect is very clear indeed. The couplet of the 1st Avvocato, with its clear masculine endings, sounds like the conclusion to the play, and the applause may even have started when Volpone comes forward to speak. If so, this would add an extra level of irony to “The seasoning of the play is the applause” since this line already plays upon the animal imagery of the 1st Avvocato: once the lawyer has (metaphorically) slaughtered the “beast”, Volpone steps forward to ask the audience to “season” it. In a play infused with the influence of animal fables (Volpone himself owes no small debt to the French Reynard the Fox), a culinary conclusion is very apt. This may amuse the audience but the real force of the epilogue is the way in which Volpone makes an alternate tribunal out of the audience. The city of the play has condemned the wily Fox, but the character’s final trick is, as the Chorus of Henry V does, to walk the line between the place represented on stage and the place of the theatre to achieve a different kind of pardon. Volpone’s words tell his audience the meaning of their applause, and, perhaps, briefly offer a window into the dynamics of the city itself that, at tribunal, or at play, seeks and is validated by an audience. Of course, Jonson’s play is far from unique in this: the declaration of Face that he “puts myself / On you” (5.v.163-4) at the conclusion of the highly metatheatrical Alchemist has much the same effect. So too is the ending of Eastward Ho! a useful example: because the play parodies ‘city comedy’, its inclusion of such an ending helps to link an urban awareness and concluding metatheatre even more strongly; furthermore, the occasion it characters make reference to is none other than the Accession Day pageantry.

QUICKSILVER …See if the streets and the fronts of the houses be not stuck with people, and the windows filled with ladies, as on the solemn day of the pageant.
(Eastward Ho! Epilogue 5-6)

Shakespeare too, at the end of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also takes the opportunity an epilogue offers to collapse illusion to have characters beg “indulgence” or to “be friends”. But the best example of them all has to be the conclusion of King Henry VIII. Now known as a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and Fletcher, its last few scenes represent a sustained evocation of the city and its people that concludes with Cranmer’s famous ‘prophecy’ of both Elizabeth I, and he “Who from the sacred ashes of her honour/Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, /And so stand fixed” (5.iv.45-7), James I. The sequence of scenes is important: the action before Cranmer’s prophecy is focused on the Porter and his Man, and is filled with a sense of the city’s closeness. The Porter’s first line, “You’ll leave your noise anon, ye rascals. Do you take the court for Parish Garden? Ye rude slaves, leave your gaping” (5.iii.1-3) not only acts as an implicit stage direction for some off-stage noise to represent crowds outside the court, but actually makes reference to some other, more literally ‘off stage’ noises. A glance at a map of seventeenth century London shows the proximity of the Globe and Paris(h) Garden, both situated on the Bankside, and the latter’s bull- and bear-baiting drew crowds and noise easily audible at the Globe. Later references to “Paul’s” (14), “Moorfields” (31), “youths that thunder at a playhouse” (57), and the Porter’s order for “You i’th’chamblet, get up o’th’rail,” (86-7)["Chamblet" or 'camlet': expensive material made from silk and hair, worn by wealthier playgoers; “rail”: probably a low railing that went round the stage. – McMullan, 426] perpetuate the city’s presence and bring it even closer. Every time the city is articulated it is shaped: rhetorical magic creates the fiction on stage, but also reminds the audience of where they are. When Cranmer delivers the prophecy, he does so from this position so that he speaks both fictional, climactic revelation, and contemporary commentary and praise. This play, even more than the other conclusions open to the audience, offers a direct comment on contemporary theatre and society. The play’s own epilogue, probably Fletcher’s, that follows seems weak in comparison to this larger concluding movement.

So far, we have seen a few of those moments where the interface between Shakespeare and others’ plays and the city is at its clearest. At such points, the drama attempts to gloss the society, the city, or at least the audience of city folk, around it. This is only a small sample of Shakespeare’s approaches to the city; Anne Barton has written that the plays “are filled with evasions of the urban”, but, as should already be apparent, this is not quite right. The epilogues of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others would all be directly addressed to an audience of city-dwellers, be they groundlings or gallants (as well as to a court audience, and, if touring, a provincial one); the noise of the “Parish Garden” could be heard in a theatre built into the city; and even Henry V, which admittedly has a very limited portrayal of actual urban events, still approaches the city in its choruses and the reminiscing of the troops before Agincourt. What would be more accurate is to say that Shakespeare approaches the urban by a roundabout route, and thus does not ‘evade’ it. To return to my earlier references to the triumphal tradition behind the Accession Day parades or the penultimate chorus of Henry V, this roundabout route to the urban is present in several other similar descriptions, all to be found in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays.

Julius Caesar is known for its anachronistic mentioning of clocks and tunics, and there is the same mix of Elizabethan “chimney-tops” and Roman generals in Murellus’ chastising description of the citizens’ previous festivities:

MURELLUS …Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
(Julius Caesar 1.i.36-41)

Although this is quite a clear description, it should be noted that Murellus is describing something that happened in the past. Here the Rome of Pompey’s triumph is used to gloss the Rome of Caesar’s return; but, at the same time, the Rome of Caesar is seen through an Elizabethan overlay of “chimney tops”. This may result, as references to “cobblers”, and “base mechanicals” in this scene certainly do, from North’s Elizabethan translation of Plutarch. What is important, though, is the way in which Murellus’ strange, composite Rome is inextricably part of his argument, and of the play’s development. A similar use of the city occurs in Anthony and Cleopatra:

CLEOPATRA Now, Iras, what think’st thou?
Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded
And forced to drink their vapour.
(Antony and Cleopatra 5.ii.206-12)

Once more, the city is presented hypothetically, and as part of an argument. It is also distinctly Elizabethan in flavour: Cleopatra goes on to say how “scald rhymers [will]/Ballad us out o’tune” and “quick comedians”, including “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy” (214-9), will portray her and Antony. Of course, this is exactly what the Elizabethan theatre has been doing for the last two hours. Rather like the peculiarly self-aware characters of Troilus and Cressida, Cleopatra sees her future and it is in a city: she can escape Rome, but London and the pervasive Elizabethan milieu can never be completely evaded. The (literal) distaste and contempt that inflects Cleopatra’s imagery of “gross diet” and being “forced to drink their vapour”, resembles Brutus’ withering description of Coriolanus’ triumphal return from Corioles:

BRUTUS […] Your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him. The kitchen malkin pins
Her richest lockram ’bout her reechy neck,
Clambering the walls to eye him. Stalls, bulks, windows
Are smothered up, leads filled, and ridges horsed
With variable complexions, all agreeing
In earnestness to see him.
(Coriolanus 2.i.179-87)

The triplet of “chats him”, “eye him”, “see him”, contributes as much as “reechy” and “smothered” to a sense of commonness that Brutus (rather ironically, given his being one of the people’s tribunes) seeks to attribute to Coriolanus. As in the other two examples, the “leads”, “lockram”, and “malkin” (a shortened version of Matilda, printed as a proper name, ‘Malkin’ in the First Folio) all create the same bifocal effect of Rome in Elizabethan terms. Or, rather, Jacobean, since passages of Brutus’ description echo two accounts of James I’s accession day parade: Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment and Jonson’s Ben Jonson His Part of King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement through his Honorable Cittie of London.[David George, Notes &Queries, 241 (June 1966): 164] The Tribune’s words also manage to find a middle ground between Cleopatra’s hypothetical experience and Murellus’ evocation of past triumph: for although Brutus is ostensibly describing something that just happened, the triumph that the audience has seen on stage consists only of Cominius, Lartius, Coriolanus, Captains, Soldiers, and a Herald (2.i.134SD). This is not to say Brutus is lying: he is simply telling Sicinius and the audience what has been going on offstage, elsewhere in Rome; alternatively, as with the Porter of Henry VIII, he could also be describing a rather different offstage. The “reechy” crowds so eager to see Coriolanus could have been present earlier in the play: they could have been the groundlings themselves.

It is hard to conceive the difference between the early modern theatres, especially amphitheatres like the Globe, and the modern stage. Andrew Gurr has pointed out several differences. The first of them is his distinction between “early audiences” and “modern spectators” [Gurr (2004), 1]; that is to say a collective mass of listeners, and a group of individual spectators. One reason for this difference is that, what with many gallants wearing elaborate headgear or smoking vast quantities of tobacco, the early modern theatregoer would not have been able to see very well at all. This was not for lack of trying: ‘auditors’ all but surrounded the stage so that, if you did manage to see past the plumes and puffs, the view would be both of actor and of the audience members behind him, along with itinerant tradesmen, prostitutes and thieves. An obvious result of this is that what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” was exceptionally difficult in such a theatre. Not just sight, but touch, smell, hearing, and (should you have bought an apple as refreshment) taste constantly and intrusively reminded the auditor of where they were. There were also no on-site toilets. In such an environment, then, there was only one illusion that could be produced with ease, and that was the illusion of the city itself. Shakespeare’s plays do not evade the urban, instead their illusions must respond to and profit from the presence of city. The city is intrusive, and not just in the Roman plays, which, as has been noted, partake of a clear intellectual and traditional link between Rome and London, England and the world of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. Anne Barton notes that even As You Like It has Duke Senior call deer the “native burghers of this desert city” (2.i.23), and Jaques (according to the First Lord) call cows “you fat and greasy citizens” (2.i.55) [Barton (1994), 331]. These intrusions are part of the chaos of the city, its novelty and uncertainty; and it can be said that the Accession Day pageant did not complicate the city by making it into a stage, but simplified it instead. The Chorus’, Brutus’, Cleopatra’s, and Marcellus’ conceptions of the city are all so clear as to be part of a wider expression, whether of the fear of shame, the sense of greatness, or otherwise. The city of the pageant and other special occasions was uncomplicated, but this is not to say that Shakespeare was unaware of the complexity and strangeness of the normal, everyday city in which he lived. It is to that city and Shakespeare’s relation to it that I will now turn.