Internet Shakespeare Editions

Become a FriendSign in


Standing in Rich Place (2)

Some examples of published electronic texts

The first real attempt to create an electronic text of a Shakespeare play was A. R. Braunmuller's Macbeth, published in 1994 on CD-ROM by Voyager, a company that aimed to sell its product to a mass market, popular audience rather than to academics. Macbeth is not normally seen as a multiple-text play (though I shall return to this assumption later in this paper), but it is worth mentioning this early electronic edition for its pioneering use of the electronic space. Seen in retrospect, it was a remarkable achievement. The hypertext engine was Macintosh's HyperCard, the only software at the time that could handle multimedia with grace; HyperCard was distributed freely with all Macintosh computers, and in 1994 the Mac held a rather larger segment of the computer market than it does now. The CD was aimed at students rather than scholars, but Braunmuller's Cambridge text comes complete with full collation (and a simple explanation of what the collations mean), scholarly annotation, and Introduction. As well, the CD offers a complete audio version of the play, a number of video clips of performance with insightful commentary, and a picture gallery of scenes from additional performances. The interface is elegant and easy to navigate: after a few moments it is clear what will happen with each click, and there is a careful distinction between basic explanatory notes and fuller commentary. [Note 1]

The first major publisher to venture into the field of electronic texts was Arden, with its CD-ROM of the complete Works (1997), and the subsequent experiment with the web site ArdenOnline. The Arden CD-ROM was clearly aimed at a scholarly audience rather than the students. It fulfils some of the expectations of the new medium: fully edited modern texts, with annotations, collation, and all the apparatus of a scholarly print edition; facsimile reproductions of texts as originally published; additional resources, including source texts and reference works; and the ability to perform searches on all the textual materials. As this list makes clear, multiple-text plays on the Arden CD-ROM have facsimiles of the various early texts available, but since the Arden editions are conflations, and since no additional editorial apparatus was developed for the CD, the plays are only marginally more multiple than their print counterparts. [Note 2] Indeed, the major limitation of the Arden CD is that it does not venture far beyond the established traditions of the print edition. There is no attempt to use the potential of the electronic edition for extended graphics or multimedia. It is no wonder, of course, that the collection remained conservative in its contents, since the sheer volume of text and scholarly input makes the prospect of starting from scratch well beyond even the resources of a major publishing house. ArdenOnline suffered an early death, for a number of reasons outlined at last year's meeting of the SAA by seminar member Jessica Hodge: the main problem seems simply to have been that the culture of the Internet, even as seen by scholars, does not yet accept the principle of subscription for the kinds of materials that ArdenOnline made available. And academics are notoriously stingy tippers, too.

The more recent Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM is a further, courageous, experiment in the medium. The editors of this CD made the early decision to focus on one of the things that the electronic medium does exceptionally well -- illustrate performance. Though the CD does not include video or sound clips, it does present a substantial archive of still images from performances over several centuries. Here Hill's simple category of "hypertext" edition begins to show its inadequacy: the Cambridge CD includes several separate varieties of editions under one digital umbrella.

Add to this list the fact that the massive collaboration required arguably makes a kind of "socialized" edition somewhat like the model suggested by McGann in his exploration of "The Rationale of Hypertext." [Note 3]

The major challenge for a work like this is in its attempt to make accessible an enormous amount of data. This is not the forum to engage in a detailed review of the edition, but I think it fair to comment that the limitations of the software that the CD uses are such that only scholars or very advanced students who know very clearly what they want from the CD are likely to find what they are looking for.

Of great interest in the Cambridge CD-ROM is the intersection between the editors of the CD and the editors of the plays that are included as a part of the archive. The editors of the CD as a whole have made a strenuous effort to distance themselves as agents in the process of interpreting the data they provide:

We have created a storehouse of materials that seeks to map the many lives of King Lear, without telling the user what to think about that territory. At the centre of this enterprise is the suggestion that the user explore one fundamental issue: the fluidity of the text over time. The archive challenges the assumption that there is a preferred reading or interpretation of this, or any, dramatic text. (Introduction and User's Guide)

Thus the compilers of the CD conscientiously try to get out of the way as much as possible, leaving it up to the readers/users of the edition to find their own way through the networks and layers of readings, commentaries, and proliferating text windows. However, because the CD is a compilation of the work of various earlier editors, there is an interesting effect of layered levels of confident assertion overlapping each other, with the most recent editors leaving it to the industrious reader to uncover and balance the variant opinions. There is much in this approach to admire, but one wonders at the level of energy the editors seem to assume of readers if they are to do this kind of unravelling largely unaided.

The Internet Shakespeare Editions are at present too much a work in progress to bring into this review in any very satisfactory way. Our aim is to develop a rather different kind of text -- or rather different kinds of texts -- beginning with the understanding that they are being created wholly for the electronic medium rather than for print. It will in large measure be up to the editors of the individual plays to find ways of using the more luxurious electronic space and more versatile display technologies that the medium provides.


  1. More recent CD-ROMs following the general style of this Macbeth have been of limited success in creating a market for student multimedia editions. Reasons? Perhaps the unfriendly screen as opposed to the page, the unwillingness of teachers to engage the medium fully themselves, and the inconvenience of a CD-ROM as distinct from the Internet, where access can be gained at any time from any computer. [Back]
  2. It is a slightly curious feature of the CD is that since it includes Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy as one of its additional resources, it provides buttons and menu choices on every screen that privilege "Bawdy" as a choice for exploration. [Back]
  3. McGann, Jerome J. "The Rationale of Hypertext." Institute for Advanced Technology: University of Virginia, 1995. <>. Visited 28 September 2001. [Back]

Table of contents