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‘O brave new world…’: The Future of Open Shakespeare is Open Literature

- March 12, 2013 in Community, Musings, News, Releases, Technical

At the start of March 2013, went offline. Fear not: it will return in all its full annotating, comparing, analysing, searching, publishing glory soon, as an integral part of this website, where all its data, not least its introductions to individual plays, now lives.

This post will set out the reasons why we decided to make this move, and what our vision is for the project in the months and years ahead.

First, the previous incarnation of Open Shakespeare had several problems, largely invisible to most visitors but extremely frustrating for those of us working behind the scenes.

  • No easy way to upload content such as introductions and essays. This was because we were mixing a pylons back end with a wordpress-powered front end. One of the saddest parts of this situation was that we never managed to get certain introductions live. Now, I’m happy to report that you can read Professor emeritus Hugh Macrae Richmond’s thoughts on Henry VI part 2 for the first time on this website.
  • Open Shakespeare had the potential to be something much bigger than it ever was, as evinced by its sister-project Open Milton, which put Milton’s texts inside the same framework as we were using for Shakespeare. Rather than proliferate parallel projects, it made sense to bring them all together under an ‘Open Literature’ platform: uploading the Milton data is thus one of our next big priorities.

Now from these criticisms comes our vision for Open Literature, an adaptable platform for appreciating literature online. We are creating it with the following principles:

  • Ease of use: many of our Open Shakespeare volunteers, myself included, struggled with the intricacies of the website, the vast majority of Open Literature’s administration can be done through the wordpress interface, whether this is the uploading of texts or the publishing of comments, essays or words of the day.
  • Reuse of existing technology: both the Open Knowledge Foundation and other parter organisations have several projects which overlap with Open Literature: we intend to use Textus to power our annotations here, and we will certainly also be making use of the FinalsClub annotations incorporated into Open Shakespeare through the AnnotateIt system.

So there you have it, the groundings of a website where:

  • Anyone can get involved with little technical knowledge.
  • Literary texts from any authors can be uploaded, annotated, searched and analysed.
  • Quality content about these authors can be made open, available to use, re-use and redistribute.

If you’d like to get involved in setting up this platform, the evolution of all our work on Open Shakespeare, do drop in to the Open Humanities mailing lists, either its general or developer variants.

As Miranda says, “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!”.

Word of the Day: Machiavel

- June 1, 2012 in Word of the Day

There are, according to various counts, approximately four hundred references to Niccolò Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature. Three of them are in plays of Shakespeare; what is interesting is that two of the three are from the lips of Shakespeare’s greatest Machiavel, Richard III (when he was still Duke of Gloucester):

Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives. (Henry VI, Part I)


I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (Henry VI, Part III)

The third reference is by the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”

Shakespeare’s image of the Machiavel as (to use his adjectives) “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” was standard-issue Elizabethan. Machiavelli himself was believed to be “a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago” (Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli).

In Richard III not only other characters see Richard as a devil figure (e.g., Lady Anne calls him “minister of hell”, and cacodemon), but Richard himself identifies with the great dissembler: I will, he says, “seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

At least one great contemporary of Shakespeare – Sir Francis Bacon – did not view Machiavelli as a promoter of the Machiavel, but as a describer of evil:

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil.

But Sir Francis wasn’t a dramatist, and as the American playwright Jean Kerr observed: “The snake has all the lines.” So if Machiavelli hadn’t existed, playwrights would have invented him.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

Word of the Day: Sword

- May 27, 2012 in Word of the Day

Henry V, Act II, Scene 1:

NYM You’ll pay me the eight shillings I won of you at betting?
PISTOL Base is the slave that pays.
NYM That now I will have: that’s the humour of it.
PISTOL As manhood shall compound: push home.

They draw

BARDOLPH By this sword, he that makes the first thrust, I’ll kill him; by this sword, I will.
PISTOL Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.

The terse Nym confronts Pistol about a gambling debt, which the latter defiantly refuses to settle. But Pistol is the consummate bragging coward and finds his excuse to back down when Bardolph intervenes. But how does Pistol manage to back down while trying to save face? He exclaims, “Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.” Bardolph, having drawn his weapon, has cried, “By this sword . . . by this sword . . . .”
But how is Bardolph’s weapon an oath? Answer: it isn’t. What the coward Pistol has done is to pretend that Bardolph has sworn by “’sword”—a contraction of “His [i.e., Christ’s] word” (equivalent to the many other minced oaths, like “‘sblood,” “’swounds,” and so forth). And thus he can stand down from his confrontation with Nym.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play in which Shakespeare uses rhyme a lot, gives evidence that “sword” and “word” were rhyming words (Act II, Scene 2 and Act V, Scene 1). In the former scene Shakespeare also rhymes “word” with “lord.”
Two conclusions about pronunciation:

  1. The vowel sound in “word” has moved more from its Early Modern English pronunciation than that of “sword” and “lord.”
  2. The “w” sound in “sword” had not been completely lost at that date.

Extraneous observation:

  • Kenneth Branagh in his film version of Henry V leaves this exchange out; maybe he didn’t understand it.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

Word of the Day: Flesh

- May 18, 2012 in Word of the Day

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

says Hamlet in soliloquy at I.ii, unknowingly anticipating the sight of his dead, and now ghostly, father. As the
framework of mortality, ‘flesh‘ in Hamlet is also a primary constraint on freedom and a source of anguish.

For the term not only denotes “the mortal frame” (the means of living), but also the sharing of kinship—as is
still the case in Christian marriage customs wherein husband and wife are ‘one flesh’, family. Shakespeare
uses “flesh” in this sense almost more often than he uses it to mean the meat of the body. See, for example,
The Winter’s Tale:

CLOWN She being none of your flesh and blood, your flesh and blood has not offended the king

“That this too too solid flesh would melt” for Hamlet carries a double burden—not only wishing to die (“self-
slaughter”), he also wants to be exempt from the familial bonds with his adulterous mother and murderous
father-in-law (now also his “solid [sullied] flesh”). The ghost’s immateriality, its anti-flesh quality (it is the same
as a human except in those human qualities which are contingent on flesh-having) changes him entirely into
an information-giving device; the ghost is practically shareware. But it also makes him a sort of qualitative
opposite to Claudius; for while he has been removed from flesh, Claudius has been added to it: to Gertrude’s
and, by extension, to Hamlet’s. And the ghost’s function in the play is, indeed, to provide Hamlet the
information that will start the plot and pit him against his mother and father. Whether Hamlet imagines the
ghost to justify his already extant disgust for the marriage, is another question. As the ghost says,

But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.–List, list, O, list!–

The merits of a continuing flesh are a matter for debate. Hamlet appears to believe there is no reason of
self-interest for remaining in his mortal frame, but finds (in that famous “to be or not to be” speech) that
apprehension of “what dreams may come” afterwards “must give us pause”; as much pause, perhaps, as the
immaterial ghost?

Contributed by Luke McMullan

Introduction: The Merry Wives of Windsor

- May 11, 2012 in Introduction

This is indeed a merry play, possibly the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which all’s more or less well that ends more or less well. Getting there is, except for poor Falstaff and the jealous Master Ford, a wildly funny romp.

The Sir John Falstaff we see here is not the same one we first met in Henry IV Part One. There he was humorous, rambunctious and profoundly wise. Here he is actually unlikeable and (even though one feels a little sorry for him at times) he gets what he deserves.

The story is this: Falstaff needs money and likes the company of ladies. Foolishly, he writes the same love letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, proposing a tryst. These two resourceful ladies, upon discovering this silly double-booking, decide to teach him a lesson by pretending to agree to receive him. In a complicated farce of go-betweens, disguises, and subplots, during which Master Ford becomes insanely jealous, Falstaff is first stuffed unceremoniously into a laundry basket and carted off to be thrown into the filthy Thames, and then beaten and chased from the premises disguised as an undignified old woman. Not satisfied with this, the two ladies, together with their now informed husbands and the other townspeople, stage a midnight revel involving children, fairies, legends, dancing and, ultimately, the public embarrassment of poor Sir John.

One of the several subplots also culminates in the midnight revelries. Mistress Anne, daughter of the Pages, is being wooed by the dull young Slender (favored by her father as the best match), by the flighty French Dr. Caius (favored by her mother), and the impoverished nobleman Fenton (favored by Anne herself). Both parents connive to have their chosen son-in-law steal Mistress Anne away to clandestine weddings during the pageantry but Anne and Fenton fool them both by eloping and returning to the festivities as husband and wife. The parents bow gracefully to their daughter’s choice, Falstaff recovers quickly from his public embarrassment, and they all head to the Page residence for a celebratory and reconciliatory dinner.

The only Shakespearean comedy to be set in England, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s more popular but at the same time obscure and least analyzed plays in spite of the rich potential for analysis of class, gender, language and more. A less than scientific but revealing investigation shows over 60 million Google hits in a search for Hamlet, 27 million for Romeo and Juliet and a mere 912 000 for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Interestingly, “Falstaff” gives over five million hits all by itself: admittedly, many of these are for the Verdi opera, the Henry plays and the various pubs and whatnot bearing the fat knight’s name; but Sir John nevertheless remains one of Shakespeare’s most appreciated characters, in spite of his misfortunes in this play.

Contributed by Ruby Jand

Word of the Day: Kibes

- May 4, 2012 in Word of the Day

The source of this word is – most likely – Welsh, where cibi or cibwst means exactly the same thing as Shakespeare’s four “kibes”. That meaning evidently has something to do with feet, as the Fool poses Lear the curious question, “If a man’s brains were in’s heels, were’t not in danger of kibes?” Lear’s “Ay, boy” suggests that he agrees with this. It is not until we look in The Tempest, though, that we can get a clearer picture of this phenomenon, when Antonio offers both podiatric advice and a defence of his guiltless coup against Prospero:

SEBASTIAN. I remember
You did supplant your brother Prospero.

And look how well my garments sit upon me;
Much feater than before; my brother’s servants
Were then my fellows; now they are my men.

SEBASTIAN. But, for your conscience,–

ANTONIO. Ay, sir; where lies that? If ’twere a kibe,
‘Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not
This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences
That stand ‘twixt me and Milan, candied be they
And melt ere they molest!

Kibes here, although used metaphorically to illustrate the absent pangs of Antonio’s conscience, obviously suggest something uncomfortable or painful to do with feet, making walking best performed in slippers. The OED confirms this with the meaning of “a chapped or ulcerated chilblain, especially on the heel”, and its entry suggests also that this may be something of a vulgar word, given that it can also be used for damage to the hooves of sheep and horses.

Two occurrances of the word remain in Shakespeare’s opus. Pistol shows absolutely no sympathy for Falstaff’s being “almost out at heels” but rather tells him “Why, then, let kibes ensue”. Similarly, Hamlet picks up on the vulgarity of “kibes” when he remarks to Horatio that “these three years I have taken note of it, the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe”, where to “gall a kibe” means something like to tread on someone’s toes (or rather, ‘ulcerated chilblains’), and thus the larger metaphor describes the Prince’s distaste for either social climbers or – more probably – the debased Danish nobility.

To conclude this foray into Shakespeare’s boots, I’d like to point out that there is a great and longstanding relation between tragedy and feet. It begins with Oedipus, of course, and pops up again with Philoctetes. Perhaps the Bard knew this, and so, by having characters high and low complain about their kibes, further inscribed himself in the Greek classical tradition. After all, what could be a more bathetic hamartia than a blister?

Shakespeare’s Birth and Shakespeare’s Death

- May 1, 2012 in Essay, Musings, News, Review

This post was published by the Royal Shakesepare Company as part of their ‘Happy Birthday Shakespeare’ collection.

Shakespeare's GraveThe date of an author’s death is always more important than that of his birth. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be celebrating Shakespeare’s entry into the world, but rather that we must not lose sight of the importance of his exit, itself taking place (perhaps) fifty-two years to the day after the Bard’s birth. Given that it is possible that Shakespeare, like Cassius in his Julius Caesar, died on his birthday, I will therefore take this occasion to wish him, simultaneously, Happy Birthday and, I suppose, Happy…errr…Anniversary. I have my reasons for this.

You see, I’m interested in copyright. The death of the author is more important than his birth because it is, in many jurisdictions, from this moment that we now measure the time before the author’s works enter into the public domain. Of course, Shakespeare was born, wrote and died at a time when copyright law was rather different, but this certainly doesn’t mean that he has escaped the web of regulations that have governed texts over the years.

Walker's defence of his actions (click for a larger image)

Were it not for the copyright-infringing actions of a part-time printer, part-time seller of home remedies (one Robert Walker), actions that forced a price war and put cheap editions of Shakespeare out on the streets of eighteenth-century London, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating William’s birthday (or, in my case, his death) now. These cheap editions made Shakespeare well known to all, a theatrical commodity at a time when theatres were beleagured and were in desperate need of a name that was “no doubt marketable”. From there, thanks to Garrick, Pope, Voltaire, and many others, the rest is history…and more copyright disputes.

Even though Shakespeare died three hundred and ninety-six years ago, many of his plays are still in copyright. This is not because Shakespeare has become legally immortal, but rather because we have no unquestionably authoritative texts for any of his plays. Instead, every editor decides whether Hamlet wants his “solid”, “sullied” or “sallied” flesh to melt, copyrights his choice and its explanation, and charges all and sundry for the use of his text. A set quantity of years after that editor’s departure from this world, his text becomes free to use. As a result, full access to the latest, most academically-rigorous texts of Shakespeare is always the length of a copyright term away from the those who do not or cannot pay for the privilege.

This is important. Take the visualisations on the RSC’s My Shakespeare website, as an example. The emotional colouring of King Lear may well look a bit different if we follow either a quarto-based or a folio-based edition of the play. Similarly, the quotes used in Branagan’s ‘Shakespeare by Chance’ are obviously dependant on the latest critical readings of a textual crux. Visualisations based on up-to-date texts are thus still a long way off, since Shakespeare is always evolving, each editor and publisher giving his words new life, and thus – to look at it a different way – a new birthday, a new future death, and, following that event, a new distant entry into the public domain.

This is, however, changing. On 23rd April 2012, fittingly enough, released a modern, critically-rigorous and machine-readable, edition of Shakespeare’s works, choosing to remove all copyright restrictions from the start. Of course, their text will one day be superseded by new literary discoveries, but it certainly brings the public, analysable, free Shakespeare forward by no “small time”. More scrupulous visualisations are of course now possible, but, beyond this, one hopes for larger things.’s text has the potential to change Shakespeare’s online presence, currently dominated by the out-of-copyright 1898 Moby edition, digitised in 1993.

Even more importantly, it might make us think before we cut and paste what purports to be the Bard on the internet: whose Shakespeare is this? and, ultimately, whose Shakespeare are we wishing Happy Birthday to?

‘Touching this vision’: Comments on Producing Shakespeare Visualisations

- April 27, 2012 in Community, Essay, Musings, Technical, Texts

This post is written by Pat Lockley, who has put together a set of data visualisations for both Shakespeare‘s plays and Middleton‘s. These public-domain visualisations were discussed on Open Shakespeare recently, and Pat has kindly written the following description of his own methodology, with some thoughts on how such e-resources are perceived.

I’ve worked in either e-learning or education now for over five years – and one of the main things I have often noticed is the time and effort required to make new resources. People often dream of having a magical button that will make e-learning materials for you, but this, surprisingly perhaps, still remains very much a pipe dream. Often though, as a developer (I am more developer than scholar, or even teacher), you find something in a form which can be converted in order to create e-learning resources. If we ignore the idea that all elearning has to be drag and drop activities or quizzes, then there is a lot of material on the internet from which teaching materials can be made.

So where did the Shakespeare idea come from? Well, I found the text at, and noticed that the web pages had a
structure to them: you could see in the underlying HTML who was a speaker, the act, the scene and what the line number was. Hence I didn’t have to do anything with the HTML, bar write a little bit of code to read it and turn it into a database. Effectively, this code was looking for repeating patterns in the HTML, and then converting them into entries to store in a database.

Now that I had the text in a database, I could write queries on the database to extract and present the data in a variety of ways. All of the data and code was written by me, and some of it is now online on the OKF’s Datahub and GitHub. I’d also be interested in hearing if people would like the data served in any other way. As I said at the start of this blog, people seem to like magic buttons which do all the hard work, and so perhaps making the data available isn’t that helpful for a general audience? Further, I’d like to think that maybe there is some scope in building services around the text, but again, as someone who isn’t a Shakespeare scholar or teacher I think I’d struggle to come up with useful ones in advance.

Shakespeare Visualised

- April 7, 2012 in Community, Essay, Musings, Technical, Texts

How can computers read Shakespeare? It’s a tricky one, not least because ‘reading Shakespeare’ is a bit of a tricky term: I am certain that everyone who reads a Shakespeare play or poem (let alone seeing them performed), reads them in a different way, with different associations and preferences running through their neurons. If ‘reading Shakespeare’ is such a personal, human thing, then it may well be fair to say that computers are not very well equipped to do it. That said, some recent, public domain images by Pat Lockley, entitled ‘The Science of Shakespeare’ present an interesting way to rethink the relation between computers and the act of reading Shakespeare. A computer cannot in any way read as a human does, but that does not make its contribution worthless. Instead, it makes a computer’s reading of Shakespeare something complementary, something that might challenge or confirm our own impressions of Shakespeare.

One thing that many of the images do, for example, is to flatten Shakespeare: the ‘Shakespeare Connections’ sequence shows us who speaks to whom over the course of the play but not at what times; similarly, the ‘Shakespeare Fingerprints’ sequence shows us when someone speaks, but not to whom. When a human reads a play, these two dimensions, the moment and the direction of a speech, cannot easily be filtered out, and I’m yet to find the human reader capable of mapping in his notebook such images as the ‘Science of Shakespeare’ pages provide. In this respect the computer’s view is unique, because non-human.

Let us concentrate now on ‘Shakespeare Connections’. As I mentioned, many of these computer-generated windows on the play confirm things that we already know. In The Winter’s Tale picture, it is unsurprising that Leontes, the jealous and suspicious king of Sicilia who banishes his baby daughter and comes close to killing his wife, is the character who interacts with the largest number of people.

The Winter's Tale

Similarly, it is no surprise that Caius Martius, aka. Coriolanus, is at the heart of Coriolanus.


However, some plays surprise us with their diagrams. It is Falstaff, and not Prince Hal, who is at the centre of the web of King Henry IV part I, and Portia, not the merchant Antonio or Shylock the Jew, who sits at what might also be called the emotional centre of The Merchant of Venice.

Henry IV part I

The Merchant of Venice

One final point. These images show us neither the character who speaks most, nor the most important character in the story. The former is a job for a different program, and the latter one for a human. The ‘Shakespeare Connections’ simply show the character who speaks with whom, and who, out of all these characters, has the largest number of interlocutors. This focus makes the pictures well-suited to showing us the complexity of Shakespeare’s history plays, plays often criticised for their complex plots and excessive numbers of events.

I would like to conclude therefore with a triptych, composed of those images that represent the Henry VI trilogy. Here, the lines in red show us what a tangled web Shakespeare weaves, and how the trilogy descends from the high martial nobility of Talbot, to the bitter struggle led by York and his sons for control of the English throne, until we reach the last convulsions of the war, where Warwick (and the Lancastrian army) is betrayed and killed at the battle of Barnet.

Word of the Day: Ragamuffin

- March 30, 2012 in Word of the Day

We are near the end of Henry IV part I, on the battlefield not far from Shrewsbury. King Henry’s army is locked in bloody combat with the rebel forces, led by Douglas and Hotspur. Completely out of place, and having no truck with any idea of military honour, Falstaff surveys the corpses around him.

FALSTAFF Though I could ‘scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here; here’s no scoring but upon the pate.–Soft! who are you? Sir Walter Blunt: there’s honour for you! here’s no vanity! I am as hot as molten lead, and as heavy too: God keep lead out of me! I need no more weight than mine own bowels. I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered: there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life. But who comes here?

This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word “ragamuffins”, describing the rag-tag band of conscripts and volunteers that Falstaff has led to their deaths before the enemy bullets, the “lead” and “shot” mentioned here, the latter also meaning a reckoning or shopkeeper’s bill.

As for ‘ragamuffin’, the word first appears as the name of a demon in Langland’s Piers Plowman (1387), and then is attested frequently from 1586 on as a term for a “person […] of a ragged, dirty and (frequently) disreputable appearance.” (OED). The origin of the term is obscure: the ‘raga-’ prefix is clearly descended from ‘ragged’ and ‘raggy’, both of which were used for the devil as well as for disorderly appearance; the ‘muffin’, however, is a bit trickier. One authority holds that it comes from a Middle French word for devil, another from an Anglo-Norman term for a demon (the ‘mal-felon’, which gives ‘maffelon’ and then ‘muffin’…

A final possibility, especially given Falstaff’s habitual references to food and inns earlier in the passage, is that ragamuffin is itself meant with a punning etymology here: these ragged, dead soldiers have after all been thoroughly seasoned with bullets, just as one would “pepper” an Elizabethan loaf or ‘muffin’. Such an idea, the combination of death and eating, is found elsewhere in Shakespeare, Hamlet himself telling King Claudius that the murdered Polonius is “at supper”, just “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”…