I spent much of this afternoon perusing the materials available at Shakespeare’s Staging, after its director got in touch with Open Shakespeare. Amongst all the images of past productions, my favourite was one of the earliest: a drawing of Edward Kean as Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well. I find you get a real sense of Bertram at a perhaps more unguarded moment, mouth closed, eyes set, yet also a little forlorn against the grey backdrop.
These pictures and videos got me thinking about something I said about Open Shakespeare’s annotation tool at OKCON, that by allowing people to digitally annotate we would collect and preserve a continuously evolving catalogue of responses to Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare’s Staging has done something similar, but, whereas Open Shakespeare is concerned with the text, this site records the response of actors and directors to what Shakespeare wrote. Each performance is, after all, its own unique (re)presentation and interpretation of the text.
The overlap between our work is obvious, and the next step of the process seems clear. If we accept that Open Shakespeare should allow anyone to contribute and share their responses to Shakespeare, and if we decide that performance of a play is itself a response to Shakespeare, then our website should expand to allow records of performances to be included. Such records can exist in written form (I think of that Swiss doctor’s description of a performance of Julius Caesar in 1599), but also as images or videos. Each media in turn brings its own problems. A video recaptures the experience of one spectator, but is one spectator’s view representative of the whole audience’s experience? An image captures a moment, a mood, but gains its force through exclusion. Text can only appeal to the eyes and the ears via the brain.
Given the weaknesses of each medium as a record of responses to Shakespeare, the only reasonable conclusion is to adopt a composite approach. Discussion has begun on how best to do this given the current framework of Open Shakespeare, and if anyone reading this has anything to contribute, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
And because I cannot write a blog post without quoting Shakespeare, please allow me to point out one exquisite exchange between the Clown and the Countess worried about her son Bertram, lines which serve as hints for an actor’s behaviour, as much as recognition of the limitations of the written text.
> CLOWN Why, he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his teeth and sing. I know a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a goodly manor for a song. > > COUNTESS Let me see what he writes, and when he means to come.
Shakespeare’s Staging, and Open Shakespeare too, should let us see what Shakespeare writes in more ways than one.