Friday, February 4, 2011

The World Wide Web of Will Shakespeare

You could make the argument that the internet is geared toward people who want to save time, or for people with short attention spans. You could also say that this newfangled creation is no place for someone like Shakespeare. And, indeed, while searching for Shakespeare online, you might come across a version of his work that goes something like this, from Book-A-Minute Classics:

Othello, by William Shakespeare

Your wife's cheating on you.

She is? (kills wife) Damn, she wasn't really.


Presumably, this account is for those for whom Cliff Notes is too detailed. However, having recently become more aware of the role of digital education in bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century, I decided to follow up this discovery by looking into other ways Shakespeare is infiltrating the internet. Beyond the webinars and podcasts, the online courses and organizational education websites, beyond the multitude of searchable Shakespeare databases, and the hundreds of blogs dedicated to Shakespeare, there’s a lot (and I mean a lot) to uncover. There are online Shakespeare comics; there’s even a Shakespeare a.i. chat-bot (seriously). A person could spend hours chatting with this thing; it’s like a Shakespearean Magic 8 Ball. Needless to say, what I found was surprising, strange, sometimes befuddling, and sometimes exceptionally impressive.

For a fun introduction to this whole idea, check out the feature on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum called “Inside the Renaissance Home.” This interactive set of pages allows you to investigate “Themes” and “Places,” as well as allowing you to “Explore” different items by moving them around and taking them apart. Many of the home fixtures are strikingly relatable, like a hanging mirror with a removable panel (to make sure your hair looks alright from the back, naturally), a cleverly designed folding chair, and an intricately decorated game-box with the pieces stored inside.

Follow this up with an engaging article on the subject from Edutopia, the educational foundation of that master of digital worlds, George Lucas. I also recommend checking out some of the YouTube videos discussed in the article, as YouTube is a whole other venue for modern Shakespeare lovers of all sorts to bring the Bard into new dimensions. A search for Shakespeare on YouTube yields 6420 results, and the array of music videos, original productions, homages, and parodies available, ranging from professional to questionable quality, is seemingly limitless.

This article, in turn, led me to Second Life, an online virtual world built around the interaction of avatars in simulated environments. Although I’m still undecided on how I actually feel about this whole concept, because, let’s face it, nothing beats seeing Shakespeare live and, well, not while staring at your computer screen, there is in fact an entire Shakespeare company based in Second Life. Known as the Second Life Shakespeare Company, this group uses animation technology to create realistic avatar movement in an entirely virtual theatre. So far, SL Shakespeare has staged full-ensemble, unabridged scenes from Hamlet and Twelfth Night using voiceover acting. Ina Centaur, the Visual Director of the SL Shakespeare Company, on some of the unique benefits, differences, and even similarities of virtual theatre to the real thing:

“SL Stagecraft is reminiscent of traditional stage tech, but rather than being a mere virtual representation of its original counterpart, it also contains components that may not be possible in real life. […] For example, gravity isn’t mandatory on SL; thus, other than for aesthetic reasons, there’s no need for complex systems of pulleys and such for Elizabethan special effects like flying across the stage. Weather and ambient lighting, especially relevant for an outdoor theatre, can also be perfected to a weathermonger’s dream. […] But, limitations with SL’s current avatar system prevent actors from conveying precise facial expressions or even syncing avatar lips to words live. […] And, let’s not forget the serendipity of crashing or power/connectivity loss on the user side—the virtual analog of falling asleep or suffering a heart attack in medias rea.”

Promotional poster for SL Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

I have to say, though, that the mix of Shakespeare and the digital reaches whole new heights with Atomic Shakespeare. Good luck trying to figure this one out. Atomic Shakespeare claims to be an interaction of original text and audience behavior in order to produce new systems of Shakespeare’s words. I think (I think) it’s an attempt to take the free-thought associations the reader makes while perusing Shakespeare and then map them out in wacky charts. It’s sort of like Shakespeare for the mad scientist. If, for instance, you’ve ever wanted to examine a “molecular view” of the plays, then this is the place for you (this truly resembles a Shakespearean periodic table). The interactive element of this site involves being presented with a randomly generated passage containing certain underlined words, of which you select one. The site then searches for all other passages in Shakespeare’s canon containing that word, and from all of these you then pick another underlined word, and so on and so forth, until you have a collection of eclectic passages connected by these words which jumped out at you. Here’s my own contribution to this mind-bending project - make of it what you will. I can’t say this gave me a new, profound insight into Shakespeare…but it was interesting.

All of the above is but a Shakespearean drop in the ocean of the internet. Anyone with an interest in Shakespeare can share their enthusiasm with the world through this venue; it’s the ultimate equalizer. And these expressions of creativity can take the form of a virtual world or a video or a crazy science experiment. The internet’s a big place. Who knew?

Natalie A.

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