Internet Shakespeare Editions

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The Internet Shakespeare Editions: History and Vision

Michael Best
 Coordinating Editor

This page summarizes the overall vision of the Internet Shakespeare Editions, and provides a historical summary of its development from its founding in 1996 to the present.

Towards sustainability: 2012 and the "Making Waves" campaign

Towards our ultimate goal of making the site fully sustainable, we are launching a campaign to raise funds from libraries around the world. Taking the cue from our logo, where the Swan of Avon floats serenely above its reflection, we are turning its ripples into "making waves": a campaign to ensure that we raise funds sufficient for an endowment that will provide base funding for the foreseeable future. Libraries currently subscribe to many scholarly sites created and maintained by commercial publishers, often for large sums. Libraries are becoming more aware of the importance of open access sites. Our campaign aims to raise support for the Internet Shakespeare Editions as a non-profit, largely volunteer-driven site, providing a bigger "bang for the buck" than commercial websites.

Progressive improvements on the site

In 2010, we launched an update of the site, with a modernized "look and feel" as well as significant enhancements to navigation, especially the inclusion of the capacity to search from every page. We are also pleased to announce the completion of several plays: As You Like It (David Bevington), Julius Caesar (John Cox), Henry V (James Mardock). and Henry IV, Part One (Rose Gaby).

Earlier, in September of 2008 we released a version of the site involving a number of enhancements. The most significant improvements included these features:

The major update in 2005

In November 2005 we were proud to bring online a newly-designed site with substantial improvements and additional resources. The new look was designed to be inviting, while at the same time signalling the strength and durability of the site through the building we take as our organizing metaphor -- a library. The general design, look and feel were developed by our Creative Director, Roberta Livingstone. Graphics were created by Chris Chong of Krucible Solutions. Programming and technical design were the work of development team members Wendy Huot, Michael Joyce, and Peter van Hardenberg, assisted by Beth Norris. Browser compatibility ensured by Nick Lovejoy.

The new site introduced important and exciting new resources: an extensive and growing database of Shakespeare in Performance, and the "illuminated text": a new way of viewing and exploring Shakespeare's works with full annotation and illustration.

The result of this upgrade was that traffic to the site increased by over 100%. By 2007 requests for pages reached up to a million pages per month.

A snapshot from 2003

This discussion is based on a paper given in 2003 to the Renaissance Society of America and the Consortium for Computing in the Humanities/Consortium pour ordinateurs en sciences humaines. [Note 1]


Back in 1996, I had an ambitious vision: I wanted to create a website with the aim of making scholarly, fully annotated texts of Shakespeare's plays freely available in a form native to the medium of the Internet. A further mission was to make educational materials on Shakespeare available to teachers and students: using the global reach of the Internet, I wanted to make every attempt to make my passion for Shakespeare contagious.

This seemingly simple set of objectives becomes interestingly complicated as we look at what is involved. What do we mean by a "scholarly" text? What is "full annotation"? And, most challenging of all, what kind of text is "native to the medium of the Internet"?

A "scholarly" text

The complexity of the process of integrating an advanced academic structure with the new medium was such that I chose to designate myself the "Coordinating" Editor: one whose job was to focus on providing connections between the academic and the technical. In the design of the academic structure of the Editions, I followed the lead of other early scholarly sites, like Early Modern Literary Studies: to ensure that the texts were scholarly, as measured by established standards, I created an Editorial Board,


with representation from various flavours of Shakespearean editorial traditions, as well as some members whose expertise was in the area of digital texts. Those of us working in this field know all too well the suspicion that greets publication on the Internet; [Note 2] as a result, we have developed structures of peer review that are if anything more rigorous than obtains for print publications. The basic academic design of the site is unchanged after eight years, and has stood the test of experience. In order to make clear the academic quality of the site, the central metaphor is a Library, a virtual space in which only peer-reviewed materials are published. To take advantage of the more informal traditions of the Internet, however, we also have an Annex to the Library where materials valuable to the scholarly community -- but not yet fully reviewed -- can be published. The Annex provides a space for the kind of pre-publication more frequent in the Sciences. After documents posted here are completed and reviewed, they are published in the Library.

Since the founding of the site there have been some significant developments. The ISE now has a General Textual Editor, a distinguished scholar, Eric Rasmussen, under whose leadership we have added some of the most distinguished editors currently working in the field to our Editorial Board. We are also in the process of updating the general look of the site to take advantage of some of the advances in browser technology, without losing the simplicity and backward compatibility of the pages so that users with more basic machines and earlier versions of major browsers will still be able to access the site. We are introducing enhanced navigational aids to aid the non-scholarly visitor.

On the site itself, Shakespeare's plays are now transcribed in spelling and format as initially printed:


Most are in the Annex, as the process of editing the texts is necessarily a slow one, but some are now beginning to appear in the Library. Several plays are represented by more than one text, since they were initially published in one or more Quartos before the appearance of the First Folio in 1623. The range of texts has also been expanded to include seven plays rightly or wrongly attributed to Shakespeare in the Third Folio.

Since at this stage browsers are still unable to display the full range of Early Modern type-forms, scholars are interested in seeing graphic facsimiles of the early editions, as well as the searchable transcriptions. Thanks to the generosity of the State Library of New South Wales and the British Library, we are at present beta-testing a database where all early Folios and Quartos can be searched and viewed.

"Full annotation"

As with any major editorial project, each work will be edited by an individual scholar, or by a team of scholars in collaboration. Aspiring editors are asked to submit a detailed proposal, outlining their editorial principles, the way they see the digital medium changing the way they edit, and a summary of the kinds of supporting materials that the edition will access -- contemporary historical or literary documents, performance materials, and so on. The proposals are rigorously vetted by the Editorial Board.

Editors will contribute the traditional essays on the transmission of the text, on the critical reception of the play, and on stage history. The texts themselves will provide both painstakingly accurate transcriptions of the originals, and a modern-spelling version -- and here I am beginning to discuss the concept of "full annotation," since modern spelling is a kind of annotation of the most basic kind, as editors make decisions about which modern words and word-forms should replace the originals. Another kind of annotation is the collation: the ISE texts collate the major extant editions, at the same level as the well-known Arden series, but use a more expansive and comprehensible format, as the digital space allows for a more self-explanatory information than the compact runes forced by the printed page.

The digital medium gives new meaning to the concept of annotation, as it provides ready access to graphic, sound and video, and a far greater space for discursive comment. The problem here is the need for edges: copia may be a respectable renaissance rhetorical strategy, but even in e-space more is not always better. To make the most of the opportunities the medium provides, while controlling the urge of editors to pass on everything they know, the ISE Guidelines,


provide for three levels of annotation, designed to allow for users either to select the degree of commentary they want, or to see at glance which kind of note they are invoking as they read:

  1. Level one annotations involve a brief gloss or explanation, suitable for a reader unused to Shakespeare's vocabulary or syntax;
  2. Level two notes provide full scholarly annotation, often bringing in reference to other works by Shakespeare or other contemporary writers as illustration, or dealing with critical or textual cruces. At this level there may also be references to the stage practices of the time, or to more recent productions, linking where possible to images and other multimedia representations of performance. Level two annotations may also link to off-site resources of relevance.
  3. Level three annotations are in a traditional print text might be an appendix or an independent article. Here the editor can at some leisure discuss major issues.

Texts "native to the medium of the Internet"

This discussion of multimedia annotation is a reminder of the aim of the site to make the editions "native to the medium of the Internet." The overall design of the site itself is structured to make the most of the expectations of the Internet for informal discourse, while at the same time sending a clear signal concerning the academic credibility of the materials we publish. Extending the metaphor of the library, I have divided the site into two further sections, a "Foyer" for introductory and explanatory materials, and a "Theater" from which performance materials will be accessed

At a more granular and technical level, the ISE encounters the familiar problem facing those of us who work with Early Modern texts: the challenge marking up texts where the physical display of the text is not consistent in terms of conceptual markup, and where there will be overlapping hierarchies between tags that describe physical attributes of the text, and tags that define the literary organization of the work. The physicality of the text is often more important to scholars of this period than the kind of conceptual markup emphasized by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). In drama, the conceptual structure we are used to -- division of the play into act, scene, and line units -- is in most instances a creation of later editors. The early quartos of plays by Shakespeare and most other writers of the period were published with no act or scene divisions of any kind, suggesting that they conceived of their works as consisting of a single conceptual element: the uninterrupted <play></play>. Modern readers, however, expect to find their way around through the conceptual structure, so the text must in some way signal modern divisions.

However, to privilege an anachronistic conceptual structure imposed on the plays is clearly to distort them, and to make them less accurate as representations of the originals, where the only divisions were those arbitrarily created by the processes of printing. The same kind of problem is even more acutely illustrated in the tagging of conceptual elements like speech prefixes, for example. In the originals, a speech prefix is normally italicised, and normally indented by two em spaces; but there are exceptions, and these exceptions are of especial interest to Early Modern scholars, since they may reveal information about the compositors or the copy from which they were working. Even in the Folio texts, which are remarkably regular in the format of speech prefixes, there are some interesting anomalies.

quotation from All's Well

In this example from All's Well That Ends Well, the curiously titled Lords "1. Lo. G" and "2. Lo. E" are usually normalized to First and Second Lords, although in the last of the speech prefixes in this quotation the initial number is omitted. This inconsistency reinforces our suspicion that the manuscript was in some way itself anomalous -- clearly a piece of information that will assist the editor in creating the modern version. One theory is that the added letters may possibly be vestigial indications, added by another hand, of the names of the actors who played these "bit" parts.

Because of these kinds of problems, rather than engaging in complex "workarounds" with the TEI-SGML that was the standard when I founded the site, I took the risk of creating a special, simplified tagset for the editions, designed to make the process of tagging sufficiently uncomplicated that it could be used by a scholar more versed in the intricacies of Shakespeare's texts than in TEI-SGML. The tagset simply ignores problems of overlapping hierarchies, allowing them to exist side-by-side, and it provides a full spectrum of tags to deal with the physical appearance of the text as well as its conceptual substance -- and here I was guided in part by the work done by Ian Lancashire on his Renaissance English Texts. As you can see in this example, a speech prefix is tagged as a conceptual entity, but the text also includes tags to indicate whether it is italic, so that the exceptions where it is not italicised will be clear. Further tags indicate justified lines, speeches, and Early Modern typeforms.

<TLN n="638"><S><SP>1. <I>Lo. G</I></SP> Farewell Captaine.</S>
 <TLN n="639"><S><SP>2. <I>Lo. E</I></SP> Sweet Moun{{s}i}er <I>Parolles</I></S>
 <TLN n="640"><S><J><SP><I>Parr</I></SP> Noble <I>Heroes</I> my {s}word and yours are kinne,</J>
 <TLN n="641"><J>good {s}parkes and lu{{s}t}rous, a word good mettals. You</J>
 <TLN n="642"><J>{{s}h}all {fi}nde in the Regiment of the Spinij, one Captaine</J>
 <TLN n="643"><J><I>Spurio</I>his {{s}i}catrice, with an Embleme of warre heere on</J>
 <TLN n="644"><J>his {{s}i}ni{{s}t}er cheeke; it was this very {s}word entrench'd it:</J>
 <TLN n="645">{s}ay to him I liue, and ob{s}erue his reports for me.</S>
 <TLN n="646"><S><SP><I>Lo. G</I></SP> We {{s}h}all noble Captaine.</S> [Note 3]

At the same time, the site adheres to the general principles concerning digital texts as established by early work in the field by pioneering scholars like Faulhaber and Schillingsberg. Thus ISE-tagged texts can be converted to well-formed XML by a Perl script -- selecting either the hierarchy of physical structure or the hierarchy of act, scene, and line. On the ISE site, visitors may choose to see the transcripts displayed in either of these hierarchies, or as a single, complete file. It is also possible to convert the ISE files to TEI-conformant XML, though the result is far more verbose. There are signs that XML will become more comfortable with multiple hierarchies in the future, and when that happens, the ISE texts will again be capable of transformation to the new syntax. At the time of writing this discussion of the site, we are working on a version of XML that includes not only the well-established concept of namespaces, but also, extending the concept of namespaces, "treespaces" that will allow multiple hierarchies or trees to be recorded and validated elegantly within the same document.

The modern-spelling texts will be simpler to integrate with TEI XML, since they will employ purely conceptual tags. The most interesting feature of the modern text is the opportunity the medium provides for experimentation. Especially in the plays with a complex textual history, it will be possible to produce texts that highlight the multiplicities of the originals, by providing means of displaying variant readings. Mouseover actions might pop up variant words in plays like Othello where differences measure in the thousands; in even more complex cases like Lear or Hamlet, viewers might be able to view parallel texts interlineated, or in parallel windows. An idea I discussed at a meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America three years ago, that ambiguous readings and imprecise entrances or exits could be indicated by animation, has been received with a possibly surprising enthusiasm by the editing community in Shakespeare studies:


Context: Shakespeare's Life and Times

The most frequently visited area of the site is a fully developed, multimedia introduction to the context in which Shakespeare's plays were written. In over 1,000 virtual pages, most with graphics taken from contemporary sources, visitors to the site can explore Shakespeare's life, the stage he wrote for, and the social, political, intellectual, and literary traditions of which he was a part. Each page is linked to a contextual bibliography that encourages traditional research in greater depth.


This section of the site attracts a high proportion of the visits to the site; an analysis of the data provided by the visitors' browsers indicates that readers come from all over the world, many from non-English-speaking countries.

A performance text

A significant further development of the site will be in the area of performance. Shakespeare is a perfect vehicle for experimentation in the development of multimedia annotation, since his plays are filmed and performed with such frequency that a whole discipline of criticism depends on discussing the insight into the plays that performance provides. The database will focus on the artefacts that record activities both backstage and onstage: costume and set designs, prompt books, stills of performance, Directors' notes, reviews, and (where available) sound or video segments.

One of the great challenges in developing a performance database of this kind is copyright. For this reason, it is unlikely that much material from popular films will be accessible; the "workaround" is to turn to the remarkably rich source of staging documents of various kinds created by the inventive work of the many professional companies that perform Shakespeare around the world, especially in open-air forums. The ISE has reached an agreement with the Canadian Actors' Equity Association that permits us to publish images on the web under the same conditions as print publishers; in addition, many kinds of materials are owned by the individual theatres, so we are in the process of negotiating with companies in Canada for permission to digitise and display records from current and past performances. Our next step will be to reach a similar agreement with the American Actors' Equity, and to work with companies from the US as well. We have developed Guidelines for the kinds of materials we seek:


A further challenge is to create a data model that will reveal patterns within the materials as they are added, and allow for both simple and advanced searches by students, scholars, and actors. The initial site displays data about Shakespearean films derived (with permission) from the authoritative book on the subject by Kenneth Rothwell.

A dynamic text

Until the Web arrived, with its demonstration of the power and flexibility of hypertext, Humanities Computing had focused on ways the computer can create "vertical" readings through concordances and tools of textual analysis: what was appropriately called the ?dynamic? text (see Lancashire 1989, and Siemens 2002). Using the facilities and expertise of the consortium that is constructing the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR), the texts for the Internet Shakespeare Editions will in due course integrate tools for textual analysis into the Web interface. Thus visitors to the site will be able to invoke tools that will provide concordancing functions of specific relevance to the passage they are reading, or other more sophisticated means of analysing the text: frequency distribution, collocations associated with specific words, proximity searches, and so on. Does Romeo use the word "love" more often than Juliet? How often in the play does the word "death" occur within three lines of the word "love"?

Since few visitors to the site will understand the kinds of options that are available through the use of these tools, we are exploring the possibility of creating and displaying a random sequence of examples relating specifically to the passage the reader is consulting. A button will invite the reader to look at further examples.

The best of the digital and print media

Although the mission of the ISE is to create digital texts, we remain aware of the power of print as a mature technology. In collaboration with Canadian-based Broadview Press, the ISE will create texts that use the best of both print and digital media. The texts will take advantage of the revolution that is taking place in students' study habits, where they will consult the Web before going to their local library. Broadview texts will consist of the modern-spelling ISE text with level 1 annotations, an introduction condensed from the online essays on the text, and a selection of the supporting texts created by the editor. The print edition will signal places where especially significant or interesting further information is contained in the online version, and will be designed to be reminiscent of the Web page. Thus the book will provide the convenient portability and capacity for marginal annotation that print does so well; the online versions will provide the capacity for the kind of in-depth research that an digital archive makes possible.

A team of editors

All Shakespeare?s plays are being re-edited for the ISE, both for copyright reasons, and to ensure that the texts are created specifically for the new medium. The creation of a scholarly edition of a Shakespeare play is a labour of several years (it took Harold Jenkins ten years to complete his Arden edition of Hamlet ? and now Arden is having the play re-edited once again). We are steadily appointing scholars to edit each play, and have a team of 21 active at the moment, with several additional proposals in preparation. The scholars range from new PhDs to highly experienced editors; the Editorial Board has taken very seriously the need to mentor a younger generation of editors who are familiar both with the traditions of editorial practice and the capacities of the new medium. The full roster can be viewed at this address:


The administration of the ISE


The ISE's academic standards are overseen by the Editorial Board:


In addition, there are Advisory Boards on Performance, Theater History, and Technical Design:


The Coordinating Editor is assisted by the General Textual Editor and an Assistant Textual Editor. Each play is edited by a scholar, or a team of scholars, approved by the Editorial Board.


The ISE is a non-profit corporation, affiliated with the University of Victoria. We were incorporated initially to permit the production and sale of our CD ROM, which is based on an enhanced version of sections of the site, together with Scenario, a program that allows students to "block" a scene from selected plays:


The corporate structure will, however, permit future fundraising directly on behalf of the ISE, and will provide a framework for the continuing presence of both the site and its academic structure. The ISE Incorporated has been created with the assistance of the University of Victoria's Innovation Development Corporation (IDC), and is governed by a Board of Directors, at least one of whom represents the University of Victoria.



The University of Victoria supports the ISE by providing much of the computing infrastructure that the project requires: servers, backup, and some technical support through the Humanities Computing and Media Centre:


UVic has also assisted through "seed" money in the early days of the site's development, and is committed to the continuing support of the site. Major funding has been provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) with a grant of $83,000 in 2000 and a further grant of $189,000 in 2004.

A vision for the future

My title for this discussion celebrates the vision that initiated the project of putting scholarly, multimedia editions of Shakespeare online. At this stage, it is clear that this vision is becoming increasingly a reality: on an average day, over 20,000 pages will be downloaded from the ISE site; we have just published a CD-ROM as part of our educational mission; the site has been given a number of awards both for scholarship and educational content, recent paper sessions at the Shakespeare Association of America and the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society focussed on the work of the ISE -- a selection of papers subsequently appearing in a special issue of EMLS :


It is appropriate, then, that I end this discussion with my sense of our current vision for the future direction of the ISE.


  1. I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the support of the University of Victoria and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. [Back]
  2. See The Credibility of digital Publishing, Raymond Siemens, Michael Best and others. Text Technology 11.1: 1-128. Originally published digitally at[Back]
  3. A discussion of the principles of tagging will be found at Within the next few months we will be publishing a full description of the XML tagging in the Foyer of the site. In collaboration with a research assistant, Peter van Hardenberg, I will be presenting a paper on the topic at the forthcoming meeting of the Association for Computing in the Humanities (ACH) in Victoria, June 2005.[Back]

Works cited

  1. Faulhaber, Charles. "Guidelines for Electronic Scholarly Editions." Modern Language Association of America, Committee on Scholarly Editing, 1997. <>.
  2. Lancashire, Ian. "The Dynamic Text: ALLC/ICCH Conference," Literary and Linguistic Computing 4.1: 43-50.
  3. -----, General Editor. Renaissance Electronic Texts. Web Development Group: University of Toronto Library, 1997. <>.
  4. Rothwell, Kenneth and Annabelle Melzer. Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography. New York, NY: Neal Schuman, 1990.
  5. Patterweb: Early Modern English Dictionaries Database Search Utility by Mark Cat and Ian Lancashire. <>. 1999.
  6. Shillingsburg, Peter. Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  7. Siemens, Raymond. "Shakespearean Apparatus? Explicit Textual Structures and the Implicit Navigation of Accumulated Knowledge." Text: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies 14. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2002. 209-240. Electronic pre-print published in Surfaces 8: 106.1-34 (1999).
  8. TACT. Using TACT with Electronic Texts. New York: MLA, 1996. Includes CD ROM. Developed by Ian Lancashire, John Bradley, Lidio Presutti, and Michael Stairs.
  9. Text Encoding Initiative. Website. <>. Copyright 2003.