Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Digital Shakespeares: Introduction

Having finished editing a book for CSP on Tudor authors belonging to the period C.S. Lewis labelled as the “Drab Age,” I am going to focus on a somewhat different area for the next period. This shift of focus lies in turning to new aspects of reception studies and histories, something I worked on in my Tudor research as well. What is new, however, is that instead of dealing with how certain ideas and trends of thoughts or authors were received in England and in English in the long Tudor era, now I shall ponder about how Shakespeare’s reception has witnessed a change with the digital area.

The 21st century has brought some change in the reception (history) of Shakespeare, as digital projects by individuals and teams, the use of digital tools in social media contribute to a turn in how Shakespeare both as an icon and as a literary figure acquires a mode of signification in present day digital cultures. This new mode of signification consists first, in the accessibility of the digital texts of his works in a great variety of formats, reliability and purposes. Adjacent to the availability of texts, social media also affect how Shakespeare figures in the contemporary world. Social media—relevant to a variety of degrees in this research—include micro-, meso- and traditional blogging services, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ insofar as they open the gates between academic and popular cultures, blur the technical distinction between academia and widening circles of enthusiasts and the interested, change the concept of peer-review. The accessibility of texts and the relaxation of the demarcation lines among so far segregated circles of readers present a new phase in the way Shakespeare is perceived.

Naturally the claim is not that there is a revolutionary and dramatic change going on nowadays. Many aspects of reception are not necessarily affected by the digital shift that I deal with, as theatre, filmic adaptations, printed editions etc remain, or may remain unaffected, and circles of the academia remain as closed as before. What, however, the claim asserts is that for a growing number of Shakespeare scholars and for a growing number of other people (the numbers can hardly be estimated but because of openness of the internet I dare to believe that this is not an insignificant set) the world of Shakespeare is in change. This change—both present and future—cannot, should not go unreflected, and it is the task of humanities, maybe digital humanities, to ponder about and account for this phenomenon that pertains to the first decades of the 21st century. This is true even though Michael Best is right when explaining the academic resistance to web 2.0, especially to open Shakespeare databases in his “Shakespeare and the Electronic Text” (151).

I am aware of the problems, mainly theoretical ones that lie at the heart of this type of research. At the moment the theoretical framework hovers around cultural semiotics, or more precisely the phenomenology of signification in culture. This phenomenology focuses on how meaning is constructed in the digital context relying on material—whatever this means in cyberspace, linguistic and computational aspects. But this theoretical background is still in its sedimentation phase, so I have not assumed or forged an ultimate stance. What, however, is rather clear is the steps that I am going to take here. I am going to devote posts first to reflections on digital databases of Shakespearean texts, and then I am going to meditate about how Shakespeare is present in digital social media.

The forthcoming first set of posts, thus are going to deal with databases devoted exclusively or not exclusively to presenting digital Shakespearean texts in a variety of formats and with a variety of purposes. Now, of course, it is far from clear what expectations one may have towards a Shakespearean database, and as far as I can see in the literature, especially in two seminal issues of journals, i.e. Shakespeare 4.3 (2008) and Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (2010) there is no absolutely theorized and standardized protocol to follow in the assessment of what is going on in the world of Shakespearean digital texts. Although a widely accepted protocol is missing I am still inclined to meditate about the individual databases with addressing the same questions to each one of them so as to be able to help a compare-and-contrast analysis. The objective of this analysis is not to place databases into a hierarchical order, naively claiming that one is better than the other, but rather to explore their virtues, and to establish trends.

The questions I shall ask reflect my preferences towards a Shakespearean digital textual project, but hopefully these questions will not be classified as merely subjective preferences and naïve essentialist assumptions, but assumptions that explore the possible heart of a textual database. The template of the questions covers three areas that I find essential for a database: first, transparency, i.e. whether there is an individual or a team who shoulders responsibility for the database with clear and detailed documentation about ontologies and purposes; second, flexibility, i.e. if the database allows the user to temper with anything in the project or if it is open to collaboration; third, interdisciplinary openness, i.e. what kind of approaches to the texts these databases enable. The next post is going to cover the questions themselves with explanation.


  1. Hi there, have only just discovered this blog. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Shakespeare and digital social media. I'm all for a bit of blurring of the distinctions between academics and Shakespeare enthusiasts, especially when it comes to Shakespeare in performance which people should experience because they enjoy it.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I agree that this is something that should happen. It seems to me that this is something similar to what happened in the Renaissance when authors started thinking consciously about printing technology and the use of the vernacular. So I am looking forward to what happens when these distinctions get somewhat blurred. And what is rather fascinating in this process is that this is in the hands of academics, it is their, our responsibility.