His virtual reality in the Digital Age

Over the last several years, digital humanists have increasingly found avenues for analysis in the work of William Shakespeare. While computational analysis of classic literary works has been the subject of protracted controversy, many suggest new technologies have enabled researchers to draw otherwise elusive conclusions regarding these texts’ significance and utility in discussions of literary theory.

Given his ubiquity, Shakespeare’s work seems an obvious target for computational analyses. As the scholar John Lavagnino has pointed out, computer-assisted studies of Shakespearean texts date back to the 1970s, though increases in the efficiency and affordability of computer systems during the 1990s and early 2000s provoked a significant increase in their proliferation. The SHAKSPER project, for example – self-defined as “an edited and moderated, international, e-mail distribution list for discussion among Shakespearean scholars” – was launched in 1990 and continues to be a prevalent source of information and discussion to this day.

The Early English Books Online (EEBO) initiative has endeavoured to digitize and organize Shakespeare’s works, among others. While the EEBO database originated as a host for digitized microfilm slides, it is now populated by fully-searchable texts. As a result, EEBO has proved useful for those who want to query across or within its surrogates of Shakespearean texts. Likewise, the University of Victoria’s Internet Shakespeare Editions project has endeavoured to collect digitized versions of the author’s works, often in multiple transcriptions. The project also offers additional biographical resources and historical materials associated with productions of his plays, including digitized director’s notes, images of stage and costume design, and notable cast and crew members.

Some institutions have moved to develop more advanced, functional tools for researchers. The University of Münster’s Shakespeare Database Project, for example, has developed an integrated textual information system through which various queries of the author’s work can be performed. One can use queries to search for words first attested in Shakespearean literature, or for wordforms unique to particular plays. A similar project has been undertaken by Northwestern, whose WordHoard application allows for morphological analysis of Shakespearean surrogates.

The University of Illinois’ MONK Project – an acronym for Metadata Offer New Knowledge – also provided important resources for Shakespeareans, though it is now defunct. Nonetheless, the project has preserved all of its code and documentation, which is available for download through its website. MONK’s unique environment included a three-tiered data structure whereby bibliographical, organizational, and textual data were differentiated and organized for analysis. Incidentally, some of the digitized and structured texts associated with the project are now available through the HathiTrust Research Center Portal.

In addition to the resources available to researchers, digital humanists have moved to develop pedagogical tools that extend their benefits into the classroom. Recent attempts to integrate technology into the teaching of Shakespeare have led to applications like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, available for iPad. As the Shakespeare scholar Farah Karim Cooper has pointed out, applications like these are no longer being conceived with a non-academic audience in mind, and can prove useful for scholars and students alike through their ability to query, annotate and explore Shakespearean works on a digital interface. Simple web pages have also proved useful for annotating and exhibiting historical materials associated with The Bard, with institutions including Haverford College hosting online exhibitions of Shakespearean texts and artifacts.

Recent studies of Shakespeare published in Literary and Linguistic Computing have dealt with authorship attribution, and have used computational techniques to examine unique patterns in the author’s wordforms and word usage. Additionally, the 2014 edited volume, Shakespeare and the digital world: redefining scholarship and practice, offers a comprehensive summary of current and past initiatives in digital Shakespeare studies. Notable Shakespearean scholars, including Martin Mueller, have also recommended increased engagement with undergraduate and graduate students in computational studies of the author’s work.

To conclude, it is important to mention a couple of initiatives aimed at expanding the channels of distribution and offering a more contemporary experience of Shakespeare’ works that go beyond text.

First, we have the partnership between the Stratford Festival and CinePlex Entertainment to film three plays every year starting in 2014 until they complete the whole repertoire. CinePlex will broadcast the plays across its theatres and later CBC will follow up with TV broadcasts. The third stage of the project includes making the films available for anyone to download, and then only researchers’ imagination will limit what can be done with computer vision techniques and complex semantic annotations. Also in Stratford, the Festival and the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute are working together to ‘gamify’ Shakespeare – this is, to create a series of Shakespeare-themed video games and apps.

What is next for Shakespeare? Like in most things digital, next will be virtual reality and the ‘Internet of Things.’