Project Reflection: The M.I.T. Shakespeare Electronic Archive and Global Shakespeares Project

[Note: this post is tentative.  I have submitted a set of questions regarding more specific aspects of the M.I.T. Shakespeare archives to the Global Shakespeares co-founders, and I look forward to incorporating their answers into this post at a later time.  In the meanwhile, here are some of my reflections on their pathbreaking work and its possible relevance to my own endeavour]

The first thing that attracted me to the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, if I’m being honest, was the M.I.T. name, a brand that hardly connotes the so-called fine arts. I recognized it from my undergraduate theatre days, when I was cast in a student-directed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, the following year, a production of The Winter’s Tale. In both cases I remember the look of our scripts: spare, no-nonsense Times New Roman printouts from the internet, with an U.R.L. address at the bottom.[1] As I learned in the course of writing this post, M.I.T.’s digital version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare has been online since 1993, and it was the first time all of his plays and sonnets had been gathered together in one place on the internet. The text, which was fixed by Grady Ward as part of the Moby Project (a multivalent effort whose accomplishments included, among other things, “the largest word list in the world”) is presented with modernized spellings, free of any annotations or contextual notes.[2] Despite its shortcomings, it remains one of the dominant free versions of Shakespeare’s works on the internet.[3]

Peter Donaldson, who currently serves as M.I.T.’s Ford International Professor in the Humanities, first became involved with digital Shakespeare by acting as director for the Shakespeare Electronic Archive, a project that started in 1997. Taking advantage of resources available at the time, the Shakespeare Electronic Archive sought “to create an easily used system in which electronic texts are closely linked to digital copies of primary materials,” using Shakespeare’s works to model how the internet might make it easier to present searchable texts that may exist in multiple versions.[4]  Clicking on the “Collections” button takes you to a screen where the H.T.M.L. text of a play like King Lear is displayed alongside digital scans of a corresponding primary source with its metadata. For some plays, multiple scans and H.T.M.L. versions exist, such as folio and quarto, but this is somewhat uneven. The crown jewel of the collection is clearly its Hamlet section, where the folio and two quarto versions are available as well as video clips from three film versions of the play and almost 1,500 images of Shakespeare-inspired artwork collected by the Canada-based Shakespeare scholar Alan Young.

The educational applications of the Shakespeare Electronic Archive are clear—site users can clearly see how different versions of Shakespeare’s text differ from one another, and how, in the case of Hamlet, others have interpreted the Bard’s words visually and theatrically. With the Global Shakespeares Project, however, Donaldson and his co-founder Alexa Huang, a professor of English at George Washington University, sought to call even further into question our idea of Shakespeare plays as definitive texts. Compiling videos and scripts from Shakespeare productions around the world, Huang and Donaldson assembled an archive where one can explore Shakespeare’s plays as cross-cultural and transnational bodies of work—translated and retranslated, interpreted and performed in a myriad of ways that nevertheless somehow all claim kinship with their Elizabethan original.

This, to me, is a deeply important intervention. Arguing in his famous article on the Balinese cockfight for the value of interpreting “culture as an assemblage of texts,” Clifford Geertz asserted that “to treat the cockfight as a text is to bring out a feature of it (in my opinion, the central feature of it) that treating it as a rite or a pastime, the two most obvious alternatives, would tend to obscure: its use of emotion for cognitive ends.”[5] The use of emotion for cognitive ends: is this not exactly what Shakespeare’s Hamlet refers to when he declares that “the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”?[6] Obviously Shakespeare’s scripts by themselves are texts in the conventional way, but in a Geertzian sense the performance of Shakespeare becomes a much richer, more complex assemblage; an event—indeed, a ritual, driven by its own unique circumstances. Sound, lighting, scenery, music, dance and audience are decisive elements in the production of the whole, not derivatives or afterthoughts.

If, therefore, we are serious about taking a broad, postmodern view of performance as text and text as malleable and fluid, it follows that our view of drama must not rely solely upon the printed word. It is exceedingly difficult, however, to understand a dramatic performance without being able to experience it directly, yet even when performances are filmed they are not often made accessible online. In the case of internationally renowned playwrights such as Shakespeare, language presents an additional barrier. To study Shakespeare as a child was to study his language and learn to understand it; the idea that Shakespeare’s plays can be understood as authentic without his unparalleled English language diction is still slightly unfamiliar to me. The Global Shakespeares Archive directly challenges this view, and furthermore presents an incredible bounty of material, including video, related to Shakespeare performances all around the world, helping correct what Huang has described as “archival silence” regarding global Shakespeare performances.[7]

In her 1999 book, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910, Loren Kruger stresses the importance of “theatrical nationhood” in South Africa’s twentieth century. From conventional plays to Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration, theatricality has consistently highlighted “not merely the restoration or even the revision of the past, but the transformation of received material in the inauguration of a new model that might prove the basis for future restoration.”[8] In other words, the nation called South Africa has had multiple incomplete births, and each birth has been marked, re-enacted, and subsumed through performance. I am increasingly interested in comparing the mythology surrounding South Africa’s 1910 “birth” with its rebirth in 1994, and that interest has led me not only to the plays of Stephen Black, but through the music of people like The Lucky Stars and the Zulu composer Reuben Caluza, towards a largely neglected period of South African artistic history.

Taken together, the M.I.T. Shakespeare Electronic and Global Shakespeares archives are valuable to me because, as I hope to do in my dissertation, they shed light simultaneously on the past and the future, and provide a model for presenting a wide variety of media relating to the theatre. There is much that I would still like to learn about the Global Shakespeares project itself, such as how Donaldson and Huang navigated the perils of copyright law to obtain so many videos of different performances, and how they coordinated a project that must have required negotiating with theatre companies in everything from Spanish to Arabic to Chinese. The scale of their archive is far larger than anything I see myself as able to do while I’m a graduate student, but if I can digitize and make available the manuscripts of Steven Black’s plays, along with resources relating to early twentieth century South African theatre and performing arts, I think it would be an important contribution to the self-understanding of a country whose burgeoning artistic scene merits a great deal more study.

  1. [1]“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  2. [2]“Grady Ward’s Moby,” The Institute for Speech, Language and Hearing, The University of Sheffield, last modified October 24th, 2000, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  3. [3]“How Moby Shakespeare Took Over the Internet,” Open Source Shakespeare, George Mason University, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  4. [4]“Welcome to the Archive,” Shakespeare Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  5. [5]Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Dædalus 101.1 (1972):27
  6. [6]William Shakespeare,”The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” act 2, scene 2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 30th, 2016, <>.
  7. [7]Alexa Huang, “Global Shakespeares as Methodology,” Shakespeare 9.3 (2013), 273-290.
  8. [8]Loren Kruger, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910 (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1999): 5.

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