Internet Shakespeare Editions

Standing in Rich Place (5)

Vertical and networked readings

Multiplicities of readings in a text that changes actively as the reader reads might thus be seen as a dramatization of the rather elaborate image proposed by Polixenes. Each variant, like a cipher, multiplies the text, visibly creating many more than does the naked, absolute print text.

It is perhaps an unexpected result of the simple-minded binary logic of the computer that the text can be performed in its richness of variety. I want to conclude by suggesting a further way that the computational power of the computer can create a different kind of text, where each word or phrase, standing in rich place, becomes available for inspection, and where the linearity of the text as conceived for the theatre becomes hypertextually fragmented into its basic units. It is now a wholly trivial activity to create concordances of any machine-readable work: in analogue terms, the text becomes a sophisticated card index that the reader can shuffle and deal in almost infinite ways.

This way of reading the text is far from new, however, though the facility and sophistication the computer allows has made it more powerful, and simpler to achieve. Caroline Spurgeon's statistical analyses of Shakespeare's imagery seventy years ago prefigured the kind of exploration that today's computer concordances allow, [Note 1] and the many close readings of the New Criticism often relied on interrelating images and passages far removed from one another in the linear text. In his entertaining disembowelment of Cleanth Brooks' essay "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," Gary Taylor remarks of Brooks' critical technique:

But Brooks' images do not create atmosphere, do no work cumulatively; in order to understand their significance, we must remember, analyze, and interrelate a mass of dispersed verbal detail -- something an audience cannot do within the performance conditions of Shakespeare's time (or anyone else's). [Note 2]

For Taylor, the comprehension of an audience within a performance is the limiting factor which decides the reasonableness of criticism. But Shakespeare is not only performed, he is read (and again and again, precisely as Heminge and Condell exhorted us). Most of us have long since lost the facility in memorizing that must have categorized Shakespeare's first actors (and probably many of his audience, pace Taylor), but computers remember supremely well. One of the ways that the concept of reading is being redefined by the computer is the facility with which software can index and reorganize a text: by frequency of word count, by alphabetic order, by larger linguistic unit than the word, and so on. The concordancing program I use creates a concordance of any given play in a matter of seconds; once created, the concordance allows me to search for all kinds of sophisticated patterns of words and phrases, limiting the search to individual speakers, or to stage directions, or whatever I choose. [Note 3] The result is that critics, surely bound by no other restriction than their own imaginations and the tools available to them, can find a mosaic of patterns in imagery, in word use, in collocations, and even in what Ian Lancashire calls Shakespeare's idiolect. [Note 4] In an extended use of a similar kind of vertical reading, Donald Foster has notably discovered patterns in word-usage within the plays that point to parts that Shakespeare probably acted. [Note 5] There is not space enough in this paper to explore the range of possibilities that this approach opens, though again it should be clear that a computer-assisted "vertical" reading of a text once again makes any given play a multiple text.

Thus, to add yet another cipher to multiply those that have gone before, plays rendered fully at home in the new medium will not only be of interest to the editors that create them but to the critics that explore them. However subtly we engage multiple possibilities as critics, the expectation of the discipline is that critical works will present a linear argument leading to an overall thesis, and that all the traditional rhetorical devices to persuade will be used to claim that the argument is indeed conclusive. Perhaps it is possible to look forward to a time when a new generation of scholars, for whom the conventions of hypertextuality are instinctive, creates a kind of criticism that uses the electronic medium to present alternatives rather than single lines of argument. When criticism of this kind, no longer bound by the chains of a single thesis, is both generated and accepted by the academy, we will have reached a stage when indeed all texts, and at least some criticism, will be accurately represented as multiple.


  1. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. [Back]
  2. Taylor, Gary, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History, from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989) 291. [Back]
  3. The text must initially be "marked up" to indicate speakers and to distinguish stage directions for this kind of search. It is possible on any text to search for patterns, using proximity searches, and to see the words or phrases that come immediately before and after the chosen search item. The program, Concordance, runs on Windows machines; information about it may be viewed at <>. A sample concordance generated by the program is available at [yet to be posted]. [Back]
  4. Lancashire, Ian. "The Common Reader's Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 / Special Issue 2 (January, 1998): 4.1-12 <>. See also his "Probing Shakespeare's Idiolect in Troilus and Cressida I.3.1-29." UTQ 68.3 (1999): 728-67. [Back]
  5. Donald Foster, "SHAXICON '95." <>. Meredith Skura has more recently reminded us that non-computer-aided readings can discover similar kinds of verbal and semantic patterns within the texts. See her article "Is There a Shakespeare after the New New Bibliography?" In Elizabethan Theater, ed. R. B. Parker and S. P. Zitner (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996). There is an interesting skirmish concerning the presence or absence of the author or author-function on the fringes of this kind of critical activity, since both Lancashire and Skura explicitly seek an originary mind in the texts they explore, much as Foster's work uncovers a very specific actor-author. [Back]

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