Open Review: "Shakespeare and New Media"

Disciplining Digital Humanities, 2010:
Staging Shakespeare, XMAS, Shakespeare Performance in Asia, Shakespeare Quartos Archive, BardBox

Whitney Anne Trettien
Duke University

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 For over two decades, Shakespeare scholars and librarians have shown us how digital archives can preserve and disseminate rare materials to a wider audience;[1] how digital tools can facilitate cross-cultural, collaborative and interdisciplinary research on Shakespeare performance;[2] and how increasingly sophisticated text mining techniques can help us to search, analyze and visualize Shakespeare’s entire corpus.[3] These pioneers have succeeded in legitimating digital work within even the most traditional institutions, thereby expanding access and opportunities to a wider range of scholars. Yet with greater resources comes stricter standards, as funding guidelines and tenure committees rigidify the methodologies of early humanities computing into “projects,” products to be constructed and disseminated along an artificial timeline. In 2010, the question is not whether Digital Humanities is a discipline (for by now, it surely is), but what kind of discipline it wants to be.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This review takes up the issue of Digital Humanities’ disciplining by investigating a range of recent Shakespeare websites, from university-funded archives such as Staging Shakespeare to BardBox, a YouTube Shakespeare blog. While these projects all fall under the umbrella of Digital Humanities, each presents a different vision of how new media can facilitate Shakespeare research and pedagogy. Those that most succeed move beyond the rhetoric of access – a theme tied to Enlightenment notions of political empowerment and “progress,” as Martin Hand points out[4] – to exploit the literacies, practices and readily adaptive methods of social media. For if Digital Humanities is, as imagined, to change the way we think about Shakespeare, it must embrace the web not simply as a content delivery platform, but as an expressive medium in itself.

Staging Shakespeare
University of California, Berkeley

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Put together by Hugh Richmond of University of California at Berkeley, Staging Shakespeare has two explicit goals: 1) to enrich pedagogy through a vast collection of images and videos related to performances of Shakespeare’s work; and 2) to facilitate research on Shakespeare performance through an extensive bibliography divided chronologically and by play. The site also documents the history and performances of the Shakespeare program at UCB.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As an archive, Staging Shakespeare assembles a rich array of visual materials. Images are helpfully organized into albums: for instance, within the gallery “Introduction to Shakespeare Staging,” users can browse “The Historical Context of Shakespeare Staging,” which contains photos of Hampton Court Hall, contemporary illustrations of the Globe and a map of sixteenth-century London. Other galleries show the diachronic changes in stage blocking, set design and actors for specific performances dating back four centuries. Although not organized into galleries, the videos are captioned with didactic, contextualizing descriptions written for a student audience and include not only Shakespeare performance (as well as a full staging of Much Ado About Nothing) but documentaries on the political and social culture of Elizabethan times. Since permissions have been secured or the material is already owned by the Shakespeare Program, instructors and students are free to use the images and video for educational purposes.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Beyond access to the materials, though – many of which are low resolution – the website offers few functionalities. Students are unable to sort, save or search across images or their descriptions, thereby restricting their application to a fairly narrow set of predetermined lesson plans. Similarly, the Gallery display software used seems to limit the metadata categories attached to each object, so that a photo’s provenance, date and author are often unclear. Unfortunately, the video collection is even more unintuitive. Built using Seyret, a clunky (and – it must be said – downright ugly) video component for the Content Management System (CMS) Joomla, clips are stored within one unhelpful category (“Shakespeare videos”), and the search function is, at the time of this writing, broken. While no doubt many of these functionalities will be fixed, expanded and tweaked as the site progresses, early decisions to contain all media within Gallery and Joomla, as opposed to Flickr, YouTube or a feed-syndicated CMS like WordPress, have already limited the site’s potential to a few scripted actions.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 If these criticisms seem to cavil over technological details – especially when the site’s guestbook overflows with praise from visitors who would otherwise never have access to these materials – it is important to underscore that software, database structures and metadata schemas are not neutral, objective systems. Rather, as Johanna Drucker points out, they are “discursive instruments that bring the object of their inquiry into being, shaping the fields in which they operate by defining quite explicitly what can and cannot be said about the objects in a particular collection or online environment.”[5] By containing its materials within a set of prepackaged narratives, Staging Shakespeare makes claims on the historicity of its documents without allowing students to challenge its arguments or construct their own. As a result, the web’s revolutionary potential as a medium – that is, its unique ability to mobilize historical thinking through participatory learning[6] – is neutralized into a mere stage for delivering content. As in print media, Staging Shakespeare‘s archive remains closed.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Several simple design changes could radically transform how the collection functions pedagogically. For instance, although the site does not make much use of YouTube, most of its videos are already uploaded to a YouTube channel, allowing users to comment on videos or create customized playlists. Uploading all materials to Flickr would make the images similarly portable, such that students could search across the collection, add comments, curate unique galleries and even blog about the images.[7] Likewise, rather than organizing entries alphabetically (an arbitrary system left over from print indices) the performance bibliography could be linked to a database like WorldCat, making it easy for scholars to locate books and articles at their home institutions, or use the Staging Shakespeare bibliography as a seed for further research. Being plugged into and interoperable with popular web platforms not only makes the materials more flexible for research and pedagogy but also frees up website administrators to focus on advanced issues of design and functionality, rather than basic upkeep.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Admittedly, interoperability is more difficult than it seems. On the hand, producers of proprietary applications often guard their code closely, discouraging extensions; on the other, even the most open-minded academics hesitate to share their work on commercial platforms whose loyalty so often lies with overzealous corporations claiming intellectual property rights. (One need look no further than the recent suit against Zotero to see how volatile for- and non-profit relationships can be in Digital Humanities.)[8] Yet refusing to engage with the proprietary giants of the web – sites with functionalities even the most well-funded project would have difficulty replicating – dangerously (and ironically) isolates academic work, replicating the walls of the Ivory Tower in a medium ill-suited for such artificial boundaries. In fact, projects needn’t kowtow to commercial pressures; for the wealth of Shakespeare facsimiles, photos, images and films digitized and disseminated freely by university archives presents a formidable challenge to those entities seeking to control content on the web. If developed with a deep sensitivity to these issues, projects such as Staging Shakespeare could present the world with an alternative, opensource model for sharing (exploring, learning, creating, and distributing) content online.

XMAS, Shakespeare Performance in Asia
Massachusetts Institute of Technology et al.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Tools such as the Cross Media Annotation System, or XMAS, are attempting to fill the functionality gaps of archives like Staging Shakespeare with some success. Developed by The Shakespeare Electronic Archive research group at MIT (the same group responsible for earlier projects such as Hamlet on the Ramparts), XMAS allows students to excerpt, collect and annotate video clips or images for use in multimedia essays, discussion groups or presentations. As Peter Donaldson, director of the project, explains,

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 We wanted students to be able to juxtapose and compare Quarto and Folio readings, interpretations of the text in images and film versions quickly and easily enough so that they could in a sense read across versions, holding textual variants and alternate performances of the same scene or line in mind at the same time. In addition, we wanted to develop tools for more active uses – electronic means of defining segments in all media, adding notes to video as well as text, storing playable extracts in electronic notebooks and using them to create one’s own commentary. In this vision, the work of scholars and students would change, at least in part, from the print-only forms of student term paper and scholarly publications to multimedia essays that were, in effect, guided pathways through a digital archive.[9]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Professors currently using XMAS in their classrooms report an almost startling increase in student engagement with the material. For instance, in her study of XMAS Leah Marcus noted an 88% increase in students mentioning films in their written work when using the tool and a 69% increase in students who showed evidence of understanding the plays to be open to a range of interpretations.[10] Clearly, XMAS proves the pedagogical potential of encouraging students not only to view but also critically manipulate and produce media material.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Unfortunately, the barriers to participation are high with XMAS. Designed as a standalone system that only runs on Windows machines, the entire suite of tools requires expert knowledge to set up and run, as well as additional software downloads that may be difficult to install on public workstations. As a result, the number of instructors and students with access to XMAS – and the ability to run it with meaningful results – is small, and will likely remain so. Moreover, the media material created remains self-contained to the system, rather than feeding back into a larger collection from which other students and scholars may draw. By mobilizing its archive in service of a single multimedia essay or presentation, the technological design of XMAS tends to reinforce a model of individualistic, rather than collective, scholarship.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 XMAS is a member of an earlier generation of Digital Humanities projects that, if developed today, would be available online. With this in mind, the MIT group has embarked on a new web-based archival collaboration: Shakespeare Performance in Asia (SPIA). SPIA is an ambitious project, promising to provide an extensive metadata catalog and complete streaming video files for at least thirty Asian Shakespeare productions.[11] Permissions alone for such an archive is a daunting task; however, SPIA also plans to provide a set of online XMAS-like tools for collaboratively tagging and searching video content. If implemented as planned, the project hopes to “advance [the field] several steps further towards the ideal of a ‘living variorum’.”[12]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As SPIA is still in its infancy, it is difficult to critically evaluate its functionalities. At present, users can search 241 productions in an online catalog via a text box or faceted browsing separated by play, director, genre, city and country. Facets are inclusive and additive; thus selecting both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet under the category “Play” updates all other fields according to these criteria, thereby acting as an advanced browsing mechanism that guides the user through SPIA’s archive.[13] Consistent with SIMILE’s Exhibit application, search results can be mapped, viewed along a timeline (according to production date) or viewed as a table. Metadata is kept minimal (fields include “Production title,” “Shakespeare reference” and “Languages”), although at present the field for “Tags” seems inconsistent, including everything from “media” to “performative translation.” Folksonomic tagging, if and when developed, would greatly enhance the catalog as a research tool by constantly (re)producing an of-the-moment snapshot of scholars’ interests in particular films. Video clips, when available, open cleanly as streaming Quicktime files in a modal shadowbox.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 While SPIA’s catalog functions more intuitively than Staging Shakespeare, it remains to be seen whether it accomplishes its goals. The material is clearly rich enough to sustain interest in, for instance, community tagging, and the international nature of the scholarship almost necessitates digital collaboration. As with other archives, success will hinge on long-term interoperability – which means providing users with opportunities to export, edit and share clips via social media sites like Delicious and Twitter.

Shakespeare Quartos Archive
British Library, Folger Shakespeare Library, University of Maryland, et al.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Launched at the end of 2009, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive (SQA) expands the British Library’s digital collection, Shakespeare in Quarto, to include high-resolution facsimiles of every quarto edition of Shakespeare’s plays printed before 1642. (Currently, thirty-two copies of the five earliest editions of Hamlet are available.) Joined to this archive is a new set of tools that allow for side-by-side image comparison, text overlays, exhibits, tagging and user annotation.[14]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 As with its earlier incarnation, the site’s basic functionalities are useful, thoughtful and efficient. The quartos – which are high-quality scans of full openings, not just single pages sliced from their codex context – open into a clean workspace that acts more like an application than a website, allowing the user to open, close and manipulate multiple re-sizable panel windows in one browser tab. Each quarto includes both searchable text and facsimiles, easily toggled while browsing, and segments of any image can be cropped, dragged, dropped and saved anywhere within the workspace. Perhaps most uniquely, the opacity of each scan is adjustable so that different versions can be stacked and compared against each other – a kind of digital version of Randall McLeod’s stereoscopic Collator.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 For registered and logged-in users, the functionalities expand to include the ability to take and search notes, attach drag-and-drop sticky labels to the workspace, and annotate segments of the facsimile. Note files (indeed any text on the site, including the full text of any quarto) can be printed or exported as an XML file that can then be uploaded to other web or word processing programs. Users can also save any workspace configuration of notes and overlays as a public exhibit to be used pedagogically in presentations or shared among students. Moreover, any annotation can be made public to users (even those who aren’t logged-in) choosing to toggle the annotation overlays while browsing. In this way, SQA expertly provides for both scholars who wish to passively explore the archive and those more invested in contributing to a broader online research community.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 SQA is representative of a trend in Digital Humanities archives toward collectivity and collaboration.[15] No longer simply a paging desk for receiving digitized materials, new online archives are attempting to provide a kind of “digital reading room” – as well as a magnifying glass, a pair of gloves, and a few other scholars to help with the work. On the one hand, these new tools facilitate comparative research in a way previously impossible, since the physical quartos are spread across six different libraries in the US and UK. More to the point, they imagine new forms of scholarship that treat research as an open and ongoing process of interpretation rather than the closed product of a single mind. In this way, SQA, like SPIA, holds out the promise of early humanities computing for an infinitely expandable, participatory archive.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 On the other hand, the more functionalities the archive itself provides, the more it traps the user within its own walls. Although the rhetoric around digital tools tends to emphasize freedom as a form of participatory democracy, online applications also exert control over users by requiring them to define their actions according to the logic of the system. In fact, Digital Humanities projects have a difficult time getting scholars to join and actively participate in their projects in part because, for all scholars gain in terms of collaboration, they lose just as much in ease of use, variety of features and the portability of one’s own research materials. Here, the analogy to the reading room – a space of archival containment, where one must view materials under the watchful eyes of the archon, using only those tools pre-approved and provided by the library – is eerily apt.


21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 If university-funded and -affiliated digital archives tend to mimic their physical counterparts in form and functionality, BardBox represents the new kind of online archive: a loosely-cataloged, feed-syndicated collection that continues to grow.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Produced by Luke McKernan, a film historian, BardBox rejects all material made for other media, instead collecting only those works made explicitly for web-based video sharing communities such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Daily Motion. As McKernan explains,

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 YouTube Shakespeare has been generally dismissed as home only to facetious and repetitive parodies. BardBox contends that this is an exciting new departure for Shakespeare production, the best examples of which need to be identified, championed and studied.[16]

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Toward this end, BardBox – which is built on (indeed, is) a WordPress blog – periodically posts the best animations, mash-ups, student projects, soliloquies and even campaigning films relating to Shakespeare performance, all curated by McKernan. Each video post is accompanied by a set of basic metadata, including title, date, cast and credits, as well as a brief description of the film and its main points of interest. McKernan also uses the “Categories” feature of WordPress templates to organize the various types of videos but warns that “there is not a set of controlled terms used”: currently, the sidebar features categories ranging from “experimental” and “eggs” (which contains not one but two adaptations performed by eggs) alongside “Star Wars” and “street Shakespeare.” A tag cloud of Shakespeare’s works also orients the user.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 3 BardBox is largely the product of a single expert curator, rendering it cohesive as a collection but closed to the kind of user input that would make it a rich pedagogical tool. Nonetheless, the structure of the collection engages with common web literacies by distributing its content via an RSS feed, both through the WordPress blog and by “favoriting” the chosen clips on YouTube. These functionalities are not trivial: syndicating content makes it active and portable. Instead of having to visit the website to check for new videos (although one may still do this), the user can subscribe to BardBox to be notified of new content via a feedreader, some of which send updates to “live bookmarks” or email. Suddenly, an otherwise static archive becomes mobile across different platforms and devices.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 For instance, I use Google Reader to follow various blogs organized into folders. BardBox lives in both my “Digital Humanities” and my “early modern” folders. Thus when I open Google Reader to browse for updates each evening, I might see a new BardBox video alongside (perhaps) updates from Bardfilm, a commentary blog on Shakespeare and film, or new scans from the Beinecke Rare Books Library. If I find the BardBox video particularly interesting, I might “share” it, sending it out to anyone who “follows” me (i.e. subscribes to my personal feed on Google Reader); or I might “like” it or leave a comment, which anyone else subscribed to the BardBox feed and using Google Reader can see. I could also, of course, re-post the content on my personal blog or leave a comment on BardBox for other visitors to see. Roughly the same functionalities are available using the feed from BardBox‘s YouTube channel with more social networking features, such as “friending” and sending messages to other users. Thus unlike self-contained media of a site like Staging Shakespeare, BardBox‘s content is distributed in a way that exploits the literacies, practices and communities I already engage in as part of my daily routine.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Many have lamented that search-driven online library catalogs and digital archives do not allow users to stumble upon unexpected new content in the same way as the physical archive, since the search box demands a keyword for it to function. Yet syndicated collections like BardBox – distributed via personally customizable feedreaders often supplemented with “smart” prediction algorithms and social networking features – are increasingly facilitating the kinds of surprise juxtapositions that make the physical archive (and humanistic research in general) so exciting. Indeed, the mingling of expert commentary and fan cultures in BardBox continues the long tradition of interdisciplinarity in Shakespeare studies, which has always been a space where scholars, performer, artists and fans meet and mingle.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 2 Unlike SQA, BardBox runs against the current of Digital Humanities. It isn’t collaborative; it does not allow social tagging, or contribute to a cyberinfrastructure of digital Shakespeare(s); and its metadata is almost defiantly minimalist. Yet as a methodology, an approach, BardBox signals an important shift away from product-based database development and toward a more flexible form of content curation. Rather than cordoning Shakespeare behind costly (and unsustainable) university-run sites, the new digital humanist uses his or her expertise – in combination with social media, library partnerships and other scholars – to curate roving collections of mobile Shakespeare(s), thereby shaping meaning from the mess of the web.


29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 For this final section, I invite readers during the review phase to contribute and comment on any other online Shakespeare resources that they have found valuable in their research or teaching.

  • 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0
  • Beyond both access and the hype of Digital Humanities, what do you as a teacher, you as a scholar, find useful?
  • What functionalities have changed the way you think about your work?
  • How do you (or, perhaps more interesting, don’t you) incorporate these features (RSS feeds, Shakespeare on Twitter, facsimiles) into your daily routine?

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 At the end of the review phase, these comments will form the basis for collaboratively generated concluding remarks. Such forms of community documentation, though only a small step, are integral to imagining the future of both Shakespeare studies and Digital Humanities alike.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 1 General comments on this critical review may be linked to this page.

  • [1] Alan Galey, “Signal to Noise: Designing a Digital Edition of The Taming of a Shrew (1594),” College Literature 36.1 (Winter 2009): 40-66; Peter Holland and Mary Onorato, “Scholars and the Marketplace: Creating Online Shakespeare Collections,” Shakespeare 4.2 (September 2008): 261-269.
  • [2] Christie Carson, “eShakespeare and Performance,” Shakespeare 4.2 (September 2008): 270-286; Peter S. Donaldson, “The Shakespeare Electronic Archive: Collections and multimedia tools for teaching and research, 1992-2008,” Shakespeare 4.2 (September 2008): 250-260.
  • [3] Martin Mueller, “Digital Shakespeare, or toward a literary informatics,” Shakespeare 4.2 (September 2008): 300-317.
  • [4] Martin Hand, Making Digital Cultures: Access, Interactivity and Authenticity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008).
  • [5] Johanna Drucker, Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 11.
  • [6] Although directed K-12 (rather than post-secondary) education, a growing body of literature is proving how digital media can foster historical thinking in students. See, for example, Lauren B. Goldenberg and Bill Tally, “Fostering Historical Thinking with Digitized Primary Sources,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 38.1 (Fall 2005): 1-21.
  • [7] The Library of Congress began posting images on Flickr in 2007 and found the “response from Flickr members and observers” to be “overwhelmingly positive and beneficial.” See Michelle Springer et al., For the Common Good: The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project, Library of Congress, 30 October 2008. http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/flickr_report_final.pdf. The Beinecke Rare Books Library also uses Flickr, in combination with blogging, to disseminate its collections online; see http://www.flickr.com/photos/brbl/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library.
  • [8] Zotero, produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is a Firefox plugin for managing citations. In 2009, the Thomson Scientific division of Reuters, which maintains the bibliographic software EndNote, sued George Mason, claiming that “GMU reverse engineered or de-compiled the EndNote Software and the proprietary .ens files contained within the EndNote Software in order to determine how to convert the EndNote Software .ens style files into the open source Zotero .csl style file.” See Thomson Reuters (Scientific), Inc. v. Moll, No. CL08-4225-8 (Richmond City Va Cir. Ct. Sept. 5, 2008), available at http://www.courthousenews.com/2008/09/17/ReutersvVirginia.pdf.
  • [9] Donaldson, “The Shakespeare Electronic Archive,” 250-1.
  • [10] Ibid., 255.
  • [11] Ibid., 257.
  • [12] Ibid., 259.
  • [13] “Faceted browsing” may be an unfamiliar term, but most readers will have used similar search mechanisms at eBay or Amazon.com. Different “facets” (boxes or categories) show a range of possible subcategories, usually alongside the number of listings matching this category. Thus under “Play,” the user might see Romeo and Juliet (26), indicating 26 entries for this play. If clicked, the subcategories under other fields like “Director” update to show only those directors who have produced a Romeo and Juliet clip. Thus guided decisions help the user to hone in on particular items of interest, without losing a sense of the field of possibilities.
  • [14] Five other libraries partnered with the British Library to complete the digital collection for the Shakespeare Quartos Archive: Folger Shakespeare Library; Huntington Library; Bodleian Library at Oxford; National Library of Scotland; and Edinburgh University Library. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities developed the prototype toolset. The National Endowment for the Humanities (USA) and JISC (UK) funded the project.
  • [15] As Daniel Pitti writes, “in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the most significant impact of information technology may be increased collaboration.” See Daniel Pitti, “Designing Sustainable Projects and Publications,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemans and John Unsworth (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004): 485. The 2006 ACLS report on cyberinfrastructure has also pushed Digital Humanities to emphasize collaborative work; see John Unsworth et al, Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences (New York, NY: ACLS, 2006), available at http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/cyber.htm.
  • [16] Luke McKernan, “About,” BardBox, http://BardBox.wordpress.com/about/.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/shakespeare-remediated/trettien-disciplining-digital-humanities/