Word of the Day: Philomel

James Harriman-Smith - October 15, 2011 in Essay, Word of the Day

This is an article on the daughter of Pandion I and Zeuxippe, raped by her sister Procne’s husband, Tereus, in the Thracian woods and transformed, along with Procne, into a bird. It is not an article about a little-known string instrument. The former we now write ‘Philomela’, the latter ‘Philomel’, but Shakespeare, bound by poetic rhythm, frequently adopts ‘Philomel’ as a name for the woman who was not only raped, but also had her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law, and whose story has been told or referenced by Ovid, Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney and many more, as well as ten times by Shakespeare.

The name Philomela, although Ovid thought that it came from the Greek for ‘lover of song’, actually seems to mean lover of fruit, lover of apples (one thinks of Paris’s choice) and lover of sheep. These bucolic references recur in Shakespeare’s sweetest evocation of the Philomel story, the songs chanted by Titania’s fairy attendants in the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby:
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good-night, with lullaby.

Of course, no mention of Philomel could ever be completely without menace, and, despite the fairies’ wishes, Oberon soon appears to charm his lady into humiliating infatuation with an ass. Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde has a roughly similar scene, when Criseyde, not long before she and Troilus consummate their love in the night, whiles away nightfall listening to the nightingale, the bird into which tradition holds Philomela was transformed, as it sings “ayein the mone shene, / […] a lay / Of love, that made hir fresh and gay”. Of course, Criseyde’s misfortunate is both further off and much more grave than the recumbant Titania’s, yet still both scenes portray the two halves of the Philomela story: the evil dealt to a woman at the hands of a man, and the beauty of the bird’s song that charms and testifies to the tragedy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself hellenophile and here rephrasing a common Ancient Greek sentiment, wrote that “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.” The words come from his Julian and Maddalo, a poem heavy with the poet’s own introspection, yet they also play out the shape of the Philomela story: great suffering and beautiful song. Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 draws a parallel between the sonneteer and the songbird (here called ‘Philomel’), since “like her, I sometime hold my tongue: / Because I would not dull you with my song.” Being Shakespeare, this is something of a new twist: the silence of the nightingale is the interest of the amorous sonneteer; the lack of music both the promise of future, better, sounds, and the repudiation of a link between song and suffering. This contrasts with Raleigh’s poem (written in response to one by Christopher Marlowe), where the silence of the nightingale is, if anything, more terrifying than her song, being a sign of “cares to come”.

Yet Shakespeare does not shy away from this menace either: his Lucrece, herself a victim of rape, sings “her nightly sorrow” like the nightingale in The Rape of Lucrece, and then, not soon after, curses the joyful morning chorus and instead invites Philomel’s avian to warble an accompaniment to her grief. Elsewhere, Iachimo, the villain of Cymbeline, notes with glee that Imogen, the woman whose love for Posthumus he will misrepresent, read before sleeping “The tale of Tereus” and “that the leaf’s turn’d down / Where Philomel gave up”. Whether evil man or female victim, the Greek myth serves to sharpen the emotion of the scene. The danger, of course, is that things may seem too pat, the identification between Greek heroine and Shakespearean character too neat, and the art thus fatally blunting the articulation of sorrow felt or sorrows still to fall.

This point brings us to Titus Andonicus, where an early-career Shakespeare is, even more than elsewhere, interested in the limits and techniques of his writing. Specifically, the playwright seems to be measuring himself against the Latin poet Ovid, whom he would have studied at length in school and whose version of the Philomela story he would consequently know. It is to this chapter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that a tongueless Lavinia turns to tell her family about what the young Goths have done to her; yet, as her father Titus himself remarks, Lavinia is in a state “worst than Philomel”. Titus’ brother Marcus is even clearer, bursting into an uncomfortably long speech before the mangled woman to say that her agressor “hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sew’d than Philomel”, Ovid’s heroine communicating her plight in a tapestry sent to her sister Procne.

If we add all this emphasis on Lavinia suffering more than Philomela to poets’ connections between suffering and song embodied in the nightingale trope, a few observations can be made. What pushes Shakespeare’s Lavinia beyond the Ovidian pale is a particularly obvious wound: Philomela’s rape and the cutting of her tongue are not immediately visible injuries, whereas the loss of Lavinia’s hands is. In this respect Shakespeare surpasses Ovid in a dimension offered to him as a playwright and not to Ovid or other writers of poems: the actor’s physical body on the stage. Even the rudimentary stagecraft of an Elizabethan stage could bind and bloody hands, and Lavinia’s appearance on a stage without these appendages makes for a theatrical spectacle as much as a poetical one. In a very specific, dark sense of the term, Lavinia is Shakespeare’s transformation of Philomela, her metamorphosis marked right before the spectator’s eyes.

David Pearce, Freedom of Narrative

James Harriman-Smith - October 10, 2011 in Essay

David Pearce is an actor and producer in The Propaganda Company theatre group, an ensemble of artists working and experimenting with performance and modern technology to express current issues and contemporary society. His article draws on this experience to discuss a connection between the freedom of discourse on the internet and the freedoms of contemporary theatre’s relation to tradition; it is published here under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence.

The internet and its multitudinous voices regularly remind me of that legendary property, that ethereal, mythic status held by Shakespeare and his works. In the online community, stories are borrowed from every orifice, from every nook and cranny on the information superhighway. Borrowed, acquired, improved, weakened and every other operation under the sun. There is now, at our fingertips, a vast, unprecedented repository of information, of both fact and fiction, that we draw upon for inspiration, and, more specifically, make metatheatrical comment on in contemporary performance (see the work of Rimini Protokoll for an example). The universal archive of the internet is enriched with such mammoth investment from all the peoples of the world that what I call freedom of narrative could not help but be born out of it. This freedom is rooted in the online ability to interpret, to adapt, and to debate every story, every picture and every single syllable of a sound bite; it is the internet’s most wondrous feature. No longer are we so tightly bound to a corporate or state perspective on events, should they have chosen to report them at all. Naturally bias and prejudice are is still rife, but there are, however, simply so many reputable bloggers, so many mobile phone recordings of live events and so many grassroots reporters that stories can no longer be easily quashed.

This free narrative that we discover on the internet pervades the best of contemporary performance on offer today, as evidenced by the latest rise of verbatim theatre, its renaissance due to the ease with which broad sample data can now be obtained. My troupe,The Propaganda Company decided that we should examine this multiple perspective phenomenon for our next show, by utilising one of the most popular texts in the theatrical canon. Enter Lear.

A scholarly chap once said of our King Lear script that we had “barbarized” the text. I can understand his view: our text comprises only a third of the original’s lines, is encompassed in a one act structure of thirteen scenes and has no Edgar, no Cordelia and even fewer attendants. Our play is, of course, far from being the unique recipient of such accusations, and many other contemporary reworkings of the Bard’s portfolio suffer opprobrium for choosing to highlight a small moment or issue and then magnify it through the phenomenon of multiple perspectives. To be honest, I would have to say that I’ve witnessed some dreadful productions that aim to do just that, providing ample evidence for those thinking it better to leave well enough alone when dealing with a Shakespeare work.

Nevertheless, a blanket disapproval of modernisation, contemporising or whatever you’d like to call it simply misses both the importance of contemporary, internet-inspired, polyphonous retellings and, I’d argue also, the joyful breadth of the Bard’s original works. The latter, after all, themselves commented with varied levels of success and audacity on the issues that permeated Shakespeare’s own society and continued, with the aid of adaptation, to comment on other cultures from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. This was one of the reasons for us selecting King Lear: the play was infamously altered in 1681 by Nahum Tate to create a happier, pacified ending; Tate’s version then ran for over 200 years and appeared in Johnson’s Shakespeare folio. This Restoration adaptation’s durability suggests that successful and bold adaptations of narrative can and have been found; in the technology-heavy culture of the twentieth-first century, it seems to me that there is now more adaptation activity than ever before, under the influence of what I previously identified as the freedom of narrative.

It is my profound belief that modern audiences crave shorter, more focused and hard-hitting performances that smack of originality. One has only to tour the works of Bond, Pinter and Kane for many a vivid example. Originality, though, and especially with regard to Shakespeare, has to mean an original use of free narrative, an original commentary or retelling of something. Much to my surprise, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent and glorious Merchant of Venice (or should I say Merchant of Vegas?) was my most recent experience of the spirit of free narrative.

Turning further back in time, I watched, last October, the Polish company Song of the Goat do a version of Macbeth. Condensed into 75 minutes of explosive physical action and ritualistic stick-bashing, the show was a master class in polyphonic performance with an astounding intensity. Such bold reinterpretation, characteristic of free narrative, goes back, of course, to the 1960s, when the internet was but a glint in a military milkman’s eye. Today, however, in adaptations such as this polish Macbeth, we witness the huge emphasis placed on transformative perspectives, what contemporary theory calls the “neo-new take”. This approach applies (with varying degrees of credibility and success) new, personal and often subversive approaches that, rather than drag a play into our century, coax it forward, organically drawing out what matters to us: it is partly the product of ensemble creation processes, but I also attribute it strongly to what we see our far-flung fellows doing in online communities, commenting, arguing, tweeting.

Take our Lear as an example, presenting power as a muddy business where the daughters are reasonable and brutal, where Lear is a sage but callous hedonist and the Fool is his compassionate spin doctor. The greatest homage we pay to the online spirit of powerful independent thought is in Poor Tom who features frequently as a physically disturbed servant, subjected to wrath and love, but ultimately dictating the fate of his oppressors. Timely stuff we hope. It discourages some audience members from ever straying from traditional Shakespeare again but I don’t doubt that others warm to it, thus ensuring a future audience for the Bard’s works on the contemporary edge of things.

One final comment: Shylock would no doubt have vomited at the thought of thousands of global performances – traditional or much less so – of Shakespeare annually, all free from copyright and royalties. In a way, it’s the ultimate practice and example of shedding the shackles of fiscal oppression … at least creatively. At a time when many are drawing lines in the silicon of the internet in an attempt to protect and commercialise every byte of data, note of music, second of film and pixel of image available, the Bard, by virtue of his age, represents a delightful pocket of resistance, an alternative to this all-enclosing juggernaut of a system. Shakespeare is freely accessible online, not least on Open Shakespeare, and this hopefully leads to a proliferation of work amongst the modern groundlings that the internet makes of all of us, ensuring that the bard remains universally affective, and the source of further free narrative.

Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim, Good Night, Tweet Prince

James Harriman-Smith - October 3, 2011 in Essay

The authors of this article run the website Everyday Shakespeare (@EverydayShakes on twitter), which has been brightening many a Shakespearean’s life since October 2009. They have both kindly agreed to publish their work here under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence. As they introduce themselves and their work in the body of the article, I’ll hand over to them without further ado.

The life of a Shakespeare professor can be a lonely one: hours spent holed up in a library researching obscure theories about Hamlet’s sweat, or in a sunless office writing up lecture notes. That’s why we decided to start writing our blog, Everyday Shakespeare. We wanted to get some fresh air and have a little more fun with our favorite Renaissance man.

Before we got started, we had some decisions to make: Would we ‘out’ ourselves by using our own names (something most academic bloggers avoid for fear of looking un-professorial)? Would we talk about our kids? How often would we post? We’re both working moms, so we knew we were taking on a big challenge. We decided to give each day of the week its own gimmick so that we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. We were hoping that what was stifling in our everyday lives (Monday=soccer practice; Tuesday=PTA), might be freeing when it came to our everyday blogging lives (Tuesday=Magic Shake-Ball; Friday=Homebaked Shakespeare). With our schedule in place, and a blog workshop under our belts, we were ready to go.

We let down our hair, took a deep breath, and climbed out of the Ivory Tower. What we found was an undiscovered country populated with actors, teachers, obsessed Bardolators, and people on the fringe of the Shakespearean fringe. We found out that people wanted to talk about performances they’d seen, quotes they loved, characters they related to, what Shakespeare had to say about chickens — you name it. They joined the debate when we had Margaret of Anjou weigh in on the Tiger Mom controversy and Richard III review “Game of Thrones”. It was exhilarating and unpredictable. We couldn’t believe we’d been missing out on all this fun. We were hooked.

For us, blogging also confirmed what we’d both felt over the years as we poured over his characters and stories: Shakespeare was a guy who gets us, who understands our sleep-deprived, stressed out, carpooling existences even though we’re living in suburban Boston and he’s, well, dead. Shakespeare’s humor and wisdom about some of the most painful issues in our lives had always been a reassurance and a comfort — and a lot cheaper than therapy. Now we had an international support group! We got fabulous feedback when we talked about how Shakespeare nailed depictions of teenage bullies, marital sex, and parental guilt. People cyber-laughed at our McSweeney’s pieces, “Letters to Santa from Shakespeare’s Characters” and “willslist”, our craigslist parody where we imagined Lady Macbeth trying to hawk a bloody mattress and Hamlet looking to sell his shower caddy and Ikea dresser before jumping off the Wittenberg University bell-tower.

We like to think that Shakespeare would have approved of what we’re doing. After all, for someone like him who was determined to win over wealthy folks and groundlings alike, the far-reaching democracy of the blogosphere would have been a dream come true. Not to mention the international possibilities. Shakespeare fantasized about foreign lands, and the people he might have met there; with the internet, he could have Friended all of them.

We don’t know what Shakespeare would have tweeted, but we do know he’d have had millions of followers.

He had us at “Good morrow”.

Word of the Day: Pelican

James Harriman-Smith - September 30, 2011 in Word of the Day

Many of the colleges that make up Cambridge University, founded in more pious times, have religious names: Trinity, St John’s, Peterhouse (as in ‘The House of Saint Peter’, and thus never to be called ‘Peterhouse College’), and others are all more or less recognisable as institutions that once taught theology above all else. The most obvious examples of the phenomenon are, of course, Christ’s College and Jesus College, but coming in a not so distant third place is the only college founded by the citizens of Cambridge (in 1352 following a plague outbreak), Corpus Christi. The College name translates as ‘the body of Christ’, and the college symbol is a pelican. Believe it or not, there is a method in this unusual symblic alignement of our Saviour and the seaside-dwelling avian, as revealed by Laertes’ words in Hamlet:

LAERTES To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.

With these words, the hot-blooded lord promises cooperation with the friends of his murdered father (such as Claudius), even as he plots brutal revenge on his father’s murderer, Hamlet. The idea of the pelican wounding itself to feed and sustain its young, perhaps the result of the peculiar way in which the bird will hold its beak-pouch when regurgitating food for its infants, makes for an image of self-sacrifice that dates back to medieval texts. The self-sacrificing pelican, supposedly giving up its blood, imitates Jesus giving up his life, having offered his blood and body in the form of bread and wine to his believers at the Last Supper.

We find the Christian-avian overlap elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works: King Lear reverses the trope when he points to a noticeable lack of Christian charity in his “pelican daughters”, trying to drain him dry; elsewhere, John of Gaunt (near to death at the start of Richard II) accuses the King with another bitter reference to the “life-rendering pelican”:

GAUNT O! spare me not, my brother Edward’s son,
For that I was his father Edward’s son.
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp’d out, and drunkenly carous’d

Here one may draw out similarities between Richard’s improper treatment of Gaunt and the improper use made of the blood (or wine) of the pelican (or Christ). Given the strength of the association between pelicans and divinity in the medieval period, as evinced by Corpus Christi College’s heraldry, and given the fact that the historical John of Gaunt (brother to the Earl of Cambridge) died in February 1399, one may even say that this pelican, so odd to modern, secular ears, even adds a bit of period colour to this Elizabethan play

Erin Weinberg, Why do I blog about Shakespeare? It’s a Choice

James Harriman-Smith - September 26, 2011 in Essay

This contribution from Erin Weinberg is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence and is another example of the same lively writing on Shakespeare and literature that can be found on her sites Why I love Shakespeare and A Bibliophile’s H(e)aven; Erin has also kindly proofread several of the other articles in this series.

If I could choose any keyboard key to represent myself, it would be the exclamation mark. If I could choose anything to blog about, it’s Shakespeare.

Last year, I found myself at an impasse: MA finished, PhD applications in process, an office job unrelated to my field but a pressing need to stay abreast of all matters Shakespeare for the sake of my personal and professional peace of mind. So I found myself making a choice: do I wile away the year playing time-wasting computer games, or do I push forward? Realizing for certain that Shakespeare was a topic that I was going to spend the rest of my life pursuing, I decided to jump into the fast-moving stream that is the Shakespearean discourse taking place over the internet.

I find it mind-boggling that after two short years, I have become an ‘established blogger.’ The process began when I started Why I love Shakespeare, and then decided that I did not want to restrict my musings on bibliophilia (the love of books) to Shakespeare, and started A Bibliophile’s H(e)aven. Seeking Shakespeare-loving collaborators, I have now joined the ranks of The Shakespeare Standard and Open Shakespeare, for whom I write and assist editorially.

So why the blogging addiction? Because I am a big fan of choice.

My online lifestyle began with the choice: what, in particular, will I write about? When I started with Why I Love Shakespeare, I wanted to reach out to any errant Google-er who, in the years or decades after studying Shakespeare in high school, could not understand what the ‘big deal’ was. To me, the wisdom I found between the pages of Shakespeare’s plays was a huge deal, and I wanted to share this enthusiasm with my readers by giving them pint-sized doses of what I think makes his writing so thought-provoking and relevant today.

The choice to blog about Shakespeare was a great way to work on my writing skills and keep up with the newest trends in Shakespeare criticism, but it also allowed me certain luxuries. For once, the only deadlines and business hours I operated under were my own. When I blog, I am my own boss, accountable to my readers and myself. That’s not to say I do not feel guilty when a month goes by (as it inevitably does) without a post, but it is equally important to realize that it is far too easy to type letters onto a keyboard and press ‘Post’. Within an instant, my writing is readily available for billions of people over the Internet to see – so I better only publish material that I am proud of.

While enjoying the choice to blog when I want, the blogosphere also allows me the choice to blog any way I want. For me, this means that I do not have to construct a linear narrative: if I want to talk about sonnets today and a Shakespeare film tomorrow, I can do so. With the option of labeling my posts, I have the freedom of writing about whatever inspires me at that moment. This way, my readers get a taste of the variety of ways that Shakespeare touches our lives, and if they really want, they can focus on one aspect of my blog: Reviews, Rants, Current Events, or my favorite, Arresting Images, in which I close-read small portions of Shakespeare’s texts.

What expands my readers’ choices exponentially is technology’s gift to humankind: hypertext. Hypertext allows me to accommodate a variety of different readers. Some of my readers are fellow Shakespeare scholars, and do not need further explanation when I name-drop or casually use theatre jargon. Nonetheless, many others welcome a degree of clarification, and hypertext allows these readers the choice of clicking on these concepts. With each hyperlinked word, my readers have the option of broadening their understanding of the field without being burdened by lengthy digressions or the shame of feeling patronized by a lowest-common-denominator explanation. Hypertext offers my readers a world of information at their fingertips, yet allows me to speak with the brevity that, Polonius reminds us, is the soul of wit. Even before the age of Apps and Twitter, the beauty of the Internet has always been the democracy it engenders in allowing anyone connected to hop on their own private soapbox and speak their mind. Ultimately, your decision to read my blog, or how to read my blog, is your choice, but the beauty of writing a blog is that it is always my choice to continue doing so. No grades, no deadlines, no acceptance or rejection letters, although possibly the occasional heckler. I choose to continue producing the best writing I possibly can, and the Internet itself has no choice but to listen to me. For that, I am most grateful.

Word of the Day: Hawthorn

James Harriman-Smith - September 23, 2011 in Word of the Day

Crataegus monogyna, or, to give its more usual name, the common hawthorn is fairly common in Shakespeare’s plays. For Henry VI, it even represents the ideal insouciance of the common people that he, as a persecuted king, longs for:

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

Indeed, shepherds are not the only commoners to make use of the common hawthorn: the mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turn a hawthorn bush into their “tiring house”, that part of their makeshift rehearsal space where they will go and change their clothes (‘attire’). There is something of a joke here, since the hawthorn plant forms very dense bushes indeed, and so makes for a tiring house that would be rather difficult to enter into. Orlando, in As You Like It, would certainly be aware of this density, having – according to Rosalind at least – hung “odes upon hawthorns” in her honour, despite the obvious difficulty of attaching anything to plants so tangled and boxy that Edgar, in King Lear describes the power of a winter wind as something capable of blowing through “sharp hawthorn”.

As well as all this movement through, under, onto and into hawthorn bushes, there are one or two references to their buds. The branches of this plant, when in flower, used to be carried during May Day celebrations each year, until the shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 meant that the hawthorn started flowering in the middle and not the start of the month. However, the link between hawthorns, May, and all that May stands for in terms of young love, was alive and well in Shakespeare’s time, when Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bemoan such beauty in Hermia that it is more charming than all that goes on when “hawthorn buds appear”.

Last, but not least, we have the berries, and Falstaff’s contribution to this article. Declaring his love for Mrs Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he points out that she is not one of those “lisping hawthorn-buds that come like women in men’s apparel”, although quite what this might mean is beyond me. I shall content myself by guessing that such “hawthorn buds” stand for pathetic, weak lovers (Mercutio denounces the “lisp” of Tybalt and other “fantasticoes” in Romeo and Juliet), something that Falstaff and Mrs Ford are most certainly not.

Heather Nolen, “The wise man reads both books and life itself”

James Harriman-Smith - September 19, 2011 in Essay

This post has been written by Heather Nolen, a high school English teacher with a special interest in British history and literature under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence. Her blog, covering Austen, Shakespeare and other authors, may be found at http://wanderingbarkhumanities.wordpress.com/ and takes as its point of departure the idea that humanities is in danger of losing its way as a field.

From an early age, I’ve always loved books. In my pre-adolescent years, I loved devouring series novels and waiting for the next one to come out so I could get the next piece of the story. Now, as an adult, I love the sight of them on my shelf, I love the smell of the old book glue in the antique books I collect; I love reading them and not only learning things about myself, but so many things about the world around me.

Lately, though, as anyone would notice, the world around me is changing; no longer are books things one must lug about, or wet one’s fingers to turn the pages. Books are available everywhere in our new virtual world, via the world wide web or various e-readers. With the increased availability of books, that means there is an increased availability of knowledge; never before has a society been able to be so autodidactic. Not only can one read all forms of literature online, but also summaries, analyses, and criticism of that literature. This increased access to knowledge has created a proverbial vortex in which our lives have become mixed with the literature we love to read.

One of my literary loves is Jane Austen. I love her wit, use of irony, intrusion into her characters’ thoughts, and just the absolute faithfulness with which she presented the society in which she lived. Now, I don’t have just her novels lining my shelves; I have a hyper-concordance wherein, should I be absent from my shelf or just simply not want to flip through the book, I can search for one name or word in any one of her novels. Not only that, but there is also the Republic of Pemberley, a site that provides exhaustive information about Jane, her life and times, and her works – all at the stroke of a key. What ever did we do before the advent of this cornucopia of potential knowledge?

And then there’s Shakespeare. Oh, Will. I’ve loved him ever since I discovered in high school that I could just understand his writing without help. Unlike so many of my classmates, I got it. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’ve ever settled for my own perspective on his works. After my high school introduction, I took one class at university that lumped him in with Milton and Chaucer, another specifically focused on his tragedies. Then, after earning my degree, I went on to take a continuing education course at a different university that focused on other plays. My point is that varied perspectives enhance our understanding of all literary works. Again, we cue the world wide web with all its latent intellectual bounty. Sites like Open Shakespeare not only present his works in their entirety, but also offer critical introductions, and a Will-ophile like myself can find virtually anything necessary to learn more about Shakespeare – or to use when presenting his works to my ever virtually-evolving students.

So, what’s the point? Well, first, there is no reason not to take advantage of the virtual yet very real wealth of information at our fingertips. Second, if one is, as Lin Yutang said, to be wise and “read both books and life itself,” then we – bibliophiles and literary types, as a microcosm of a greater society – must be prepared for a paradigm shift. No longer are we wetting fingers or staining fingers with ink in order to push through to that paper or submission deadline; we are callousing fingertips and crouching over a screen that leads us all, students and teachers, to a “brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”

Word of the Day: Apoplexy

James Harriman-Smith - September 16, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is not a pleasant word, used from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century to describe any sudden death that began with a loss of consciousness. Its roots, like much medical terminology, lie in ancient Greek; in this case, an anglicisation of apoplexia (striking or hitting – ‘plexia’ – away – ‘apo’). The word only occurs four times in Shakespeare’s works, five if we count a variant that we find in Hamlet, when the prince attacks his mother for having married her husband’s brother:

> HAMLET […] Sense sure you have,
> Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense
> Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
> Nor sense to ecstacy was ne’er so thrall’d
> But it reserv’d some quantity of choice
> To serve in such a difference.

Note here that apoplexy occurs only as part of a metaphor: for Hamlet, Gertrude’s senses must have all but shut down, since such a wedding could not have occurred otherwise, in spite of all (and here comes another Greek word) the “ecstasy” she may have felt. The language of the Prince of Denmark on this topic of remarriage is full of words with classical roots and references to classical myths: one thinks of his paralleling Old Hamlet and Claudius, the former being to the latter as “Hyperion to a satyr”.

Hamlet’s description of “apoplex’d” senses may well be a sign of his hiding behind the words he learnt at university in Wittenberg; another example of the word, this time in *Coriolanus*, is far more blunt , with the word employed to describe what the play’s eponymous hero considers the dullness of peacetime.

> CORIOLANUS […] Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

Coriolanus’ assessment of peace could not be further from that of Henry IV, the only character in Shakespeare’s works to die of apoplexy, and a man obsessed with maintaining the fragile equilibrium of peace installed after his rebellion and dethroning of Richard II. As Falstaff puts it, “This apoplexy […] is a kind of lethargy, […] a kind of sleeping in the blood, a tingling. […] It hath it original from much grief, from study, and perturbation of the brain”. All his information, we soon learn, comes from “Galen”, quite possibly one of those books in Greek on the shelf of the young Prince of Denmark back in Wittenberg, and almost certainly present in the library of that other famous Wittenberg graduate: Dr Faustus.

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 http://theshakespeareblog.com.

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?

Meeting: 2011-09-05

James Harriman-Smith - September 10, 2011 in Minutes




Planning for the autumn: principles? Promoting article series


Email on okf discuss / humanities about BarCamp How do Panton principles apply to literature? – forward draft to email lists once you have something, cf jwyg

  • Check out opendatacookbook.net
  • Check out Panton Principles
  • Good use of wiki.openliterature.net

Open Literature mailing lists – browse and encourage more direct participation from lurkers
Visualisations: of annotations on a specific text?
Future Hackday: for publishing open literature principles


Sunday 18th September 3pm / 4pm: Agenda: future text camp, progress with principles