Internet Shakespeare Editions

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Paper prepared for the Shakespeare Association of America, 1999.
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1: A Mazèd World

Connecting, selecting and Internetting Shakespeare performances

...the mazèd world,
 By their increase, now knows not which is which.
 (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.114)


One of the things computers do best is to collect; another is to connect. The latest generation of databases allow us to collect vast quantities of materials of varying types, from text to video; the Internet allows us to make connections and to bring these materials to an audience that varies from the student to the scholar.

The magnitude of the power to collect, however, has the inevitable consequence that we are only too likely to drown in our own too much, to create a mazèd world that daunts rather than enlightens. In my most recent incarnation of the Shakespeare courses I offer partly online, I have devoted a significant part of one assignment to teaching students how to search the enormous and uneven resources of the Internet intelligently; the designer of a site that attempts to bring the varied resources of text and performance into an edition of one of the plays must find techniques for making the potentially overwhelming amount of data manageable.

What kinds of materials should be collected?

Our students will be most familiar with filmed Shakespeare, but film presents particular problems with copyright (discussed below). The difficulty of making film clips available on the Internet is regrettable --as Milla Riggio demonstrated at the last SAA in the session "The Electronic Text as Tool in Research and Teaching," our students today typically think in the idiom of film, so the process of lifting the play from page to stage is correspondingly more difficult than moving from screenplay to image.

Stage productions, on the other hand, do have a more intimate relationship with the text as we have inherited it, and can provide an opportunity for the collection of a wide range of materials, both from current performances and from archival materials. Here is a short list of possibilities, illustrated from a recent production of Romeo and Juliet at the University of Victoria, and posted in the "Theater" of the Internet Shakespeare site.

One thing I have already learned from collecting this material is that items most likely to be made available are those that are generated in the normal development of a performance. Directors and designers are busy people, and are unlikely to be willing to spend additional time writing or typing. A good way around this is to use the taped interview: actors will always give a good interview.


What kinds of materials can be collected, given the constraints of copyright?

Intellectual property is something of a mess [note 1] when it is applied to the Internet. Films and commercial releases of music tracks are formidably difficult to obtain copyright information about, let alone getting permission to use them. Pioneering work in this area is being done at MIT by Peter Donaldson; he is digitizing a significant number of films that are now out of copyright, and sidesteps the problems of copyright on more recent films by working with laserdisk and DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) formats, so that the cost of the disk includes the right for an individual to use it. This solution will clearly not work for an Internet site. The best that can be hoped in the immediate future is that short segments of recent films can be made available on the principle of "fair use."

Stage productions offer more promise, though the difficulties here are still significant. As a starting point, a number of festival sites already provide materials, and there are opportunities for the addition of historical collections from a number of institutions that have agreed to make their images available -- the only constraint here being cost. There are also the many new productions from schools and departments of theater in universities around the world; materials from these sources would need to go through a process equivalent to that of the kind of peer review that is undertaken before conventional textual publications are included in the site, in order to ensure that the user finds something worthwhile at the end of a search.

Next: selecting the materials for posting



  1. Up-to-date information about copyright and the Internet can be found at the site of the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage, See also the article "The Cost of Digital Image Distribution: The Social and Economic Implications of the Production, Distribution, and Usage of Image Data" at, and the recent collection in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, "Who Owns What? Intellectual Property, Copyright, and the Next Millennium" at [Back]