Shakespeare’s Textual Legacy in a Digital World
Written by: Christie Carson
Shakespeare’s plays were some of the first texts made available to a worldwide audience through digital technology. Christie Carson discusses what has changed since the dawn of the Internet for the Bard.
Shakespeare’s plays were some of the first texts made available to a worldwide audience through digital technology. In the year 2000, which seems like a century ago in digital terms, The Cambridge King Lear CD:ROM: Text and Performance Archive, which I co-edited with Jacky Bratton, was published. It was the first fully digital edition of a play by Shakespeare to be produced by an academic press. It was also the first edition which aimed to draw together the separate, but related, fields of textual and performance history. In 2016 Cambridge will publish The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, a two volume print collection which ‘aims to replicate the expansive reach of Shakespeare’s global reputation’. The Norton Shakespeare third edition of the plays has already launched its digital edition but, so far, it is incomplete. King Lear is not included in the plays currently available online for purchasers of the print edition. However, what the digital environment allows for is online content which far exceeds the content of the print volume, including source texts and early Quarto texts, as well as contextual and performance materials. Thus, for the Norton Hamlet there will be 4 texts of the play available (2 in print and all 4 in digital format). For King Lear there will be just 3 texts, all in print and digital form. The full collection of Shakespeare’s plays has also been available for some time through the Arden digital editions but these digital texts do not attempt to bring together either textual or performance history, rather they simply recreate, in digital form, the existing print editions.
All of these developments over the past decade and a half have changed the landscape for an individual scholar approaching the plays as an editor or critic. Increasingly, decisions are being made by large multinational publishers which can alter significantly the purpose, structure and audience of one’s work through different distribution models. In an attempt to make sense of my place in this bewildering world, I found myself turning to others working in the field to try to understand the place of the academic, but also the performer, in this new environment. This process has resulted in three collections of essays which examine and respond to the work of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, seeing this theatre as a key player in developing new models of academic research. Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment (Cambridge, 2008), which I co-edited with Farah Karim-Cooper, examines the first ten years of the experimental approach developed to test the theories of theatre historians. The second volume of essays, Shakespeare in Stages: New Theatre Histories (Cambridge, 2010), co-edited with Christine Dymkowski, tries to put the Globe Theatre project into an historical context; and the third volume, Shakespeare Beyond English: A Global Experiment (2013) co-edited with Susan Bennett, records responses to the extraordinary Globe to Globe Festival, which brought productions of the plays from all over the world for the Cultural Olympics celebration of 2012. Together these three volumes provide a 360-degree analysis of the Globe Theatre as both a preserver of the ways of the past and as an instigator of the practical academic approaches of the future.
Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice (2014)
To move one step further and look at the shifting sands in Higher Education in the 21st Century more generally, in order to understand the place of the academic in the commercially driven world of digital recording, archiving and dissemination of Shakespeare’s plays, both in text and performance, I set out to create a fourth collection of essays which drew together the expertise of colleagues working in academic institutions, libraries, publishing houses and cultural heritage organisations. Shakespeare and the Digital world: Redefining Scholarship and Practice (2014), co-edited with Peter Kirwan, was designed to provide a framework for debating the extent, as well as the impact, of moving to a digital world. Defining in 2014 what was meant by ‘good enough’ as it relates to texts and ‘liveness’ in relationship to performance and communication, Kirwan and I were aware of trying to pin down moving targets. However, in order to stay in step, if not one step ahead, of the large commercial interests at work in this field, I felt that it was essential to engage academics, rather than only audiences and publishers, in discussing the underlying principles on which this work is created, disseminated and reworked over time. Blogging and participation in theatre festivals and academic conferences are all ways to keep the debate alive and facing forward. In Shakespeare and the Digital world many of the essays tackle the thorny issues of authority and power. In addition, Kirwan and I stress the importance of continually redefining what is meant by ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘the digital’. In my own chapter, entitled ‘Creating a critical model for the twenty-first century’, I address the big question – what is Humanities research for and does the new world of global communication necessitate new habits of mind as well as new processes of interaction to achieve the same goals?
Shakespeare’s legacy in the digital world seems to be both to lead the way in terms of new digital initiatives, and to look back at established ways of studying the products of human creativity and thought. In order to address this backward/forward role for Shakespeare’s work the book draws together the disparate but interdependent worlds of teaching, editing, criticism and performance. Illustrating the importance of animated forms of communication to encourage understanding across international and cultural barriers, the volume’s four sections, on Teaching, Research, Publishing and Communication, each contains an introduction by one of the co-editors drawing the ideas of the contributors together. The big project of the book, which is somewhat ridiculous in its scale, is to ask – can Shakespeare studies lead the way and make the case for the importance of Humanities scholarship in the 21st century (much as I have found the Globe Theatre has been working)?
The Globe to Globe Festival of 2012, which featured all 37 plays, performed in over 40 languages, was staged live at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, but each production was also broadcast online. The dissemination ‘live’ of Shakespeare performances to cinemas worldwide has increased exponentially interest in Shakespeare performance scholarship. While, at the moment, Anglo/American institutions dominate the distribution of theatre performances in the cinema, the work of the Bolshoi Ballet and the Berlin Philharmonic are examples of other forms of cultural expansion in the digital world. The language of Shakespeare may prove a barrier to building international audiences, but it may not. What I believe will change attitudes and appetites in the Shakespeare studies world is the development of a truly international audience, open and hungry to learn about other places and other people through these performances. My hope in creating this volume was to think about new ways, not just of disseminating work in this field, but of setting up dialogues within and outside the academy. By creating different working and discussion spaces online it will be possible to create new communities who want to debate the issues raised by these plays in the future. If this can be achieved, then a new truly global legacy for Shakespeare’s work will be created and this, in turn, may well help to preserve the study of the Humanities more generally.