Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice, edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan, is an ambitious and wide-ranging collection. It covers research practice, digital humanities, audience engagement, and much more, bringing a number of important scholars together to explore the various ways the digital world impinges upon Shakespeare and vice versa. In the introduction, Carson and Kirwan explain that “the sheer volume of material that is published…that refers to Shakespeare makes it a verifiable and distinct cultural entity of considerable weight” and the diversity and spread of that material “positions it as a leader for other areas of the humanities” (1). (They also account for the “and” with reference to John Jowett, though the definite article is left curiously unattended.) Their awareness of the possibilities and scope of the digital world also allows them to hone the shape of their own volume, which they describe as “browsable”, providing both “focused discussion on individual areas” and “a broad overview of the field at the present time” (2).
This introduction demonstrates Carson and Kirwan’s awareness of the massive scale of their undertaking, and the futility of tackling it as if an epic printed book could deal with it. Their choice to divide the topics into “Shakespeare research in the digital age”, “Shakespeare pedagogy and the digital age”, “Publishing and academic identity” and “Communication and performance” creates a certain agility in the reading experience, particularly when many readers will be trying to weigh up the vice versa I mentioned above: Shakespeare’s place within the digital and the digital’s effect on conceptions of Shakespeare. This means that very few readers will find only and exactly what they want in this collection, perhaps to an even greater extent than is usual in the format. However, given its concern with exploring the recent developments in an unusually ramifying field, that is probably a benefit, as readers (like me) are brought into contact with digital issues of which they were not cognisant before.
The rhetoric of crisis which surrounds the Humanities encourages the drawing of battle lines and the proposing of narrow solutions which collections like this can help diffuse by representing varying and indeed opposing positions alongside each other. This is most obvious in Sharon O’Dair’s essay “All’s Well That Ends Orwell”, which constitutes an entire subsection in itself, and calls for resistance to “the digital” in its current intertwining with neoliberalism. The effect is not unlike the atmosphere I once felt in a plenary when one guest had expounded at length on a decades-long print theatre history project, and the next guest’s remarks casually blindsided the epistemological and institutional basis of any such undertakings. It isn’t quite an academic negative capability, but the ability to hold several very different perspectives together is a testament to the collection’s honesty about the situation of the field, and its potential to provide materials for development beyond current positions.
Amongst the individual essays, some particular favourites stood out for me. Katherine Rowe’s “Living with digital incunables, or a ‘good-enough’ Shakespeare text” begins by identifying four “text-based disruptions” which affect research and teaching: “a failing purchasing ecosystem for textbooks; emergent differences between reading online, reading onscreen and reading books; the growth of online editions that test longstanding concepts of textual authority” and “opportunities and challenges posed by digital methods of corpus analysis” (144). Declaring that these “disturbances” of “academic reading” render the “networks and tools of reading” as incunables, she reframes the issue of a “good” or “good-enough” text in familiar textual criticism terms: “good enough according to what principles and for what purposes?” and follows this enquiry through grounded examples of classroom practice informed by reflections on textuality. Her conclusion seeks to move from the radical rethinking of Shakespearean textuality which occurred in the late twentieth century to engaging with questions of textual authority, sufficiency and purpose, which she insists must take place communally. “Whether Shakespeare studies at large will accept the idea that ‘good’ should now mean ‘scholarly-utilizable-flexible’ rather than ‘scholarly-accurate’ should be a question we grapple with as a field, rather than solo’ (157).
As a pair, Eleanor Collins’ “Unlocking scholarship in Shakespeare studies: Gatekeeping, guardianship and open-access journal publication” and Sylvia Morris’ “Gamekeeper or poacher: Personal blogging/ public sharing” made provocative observations on the use (and misuse) of institutional authority and cultural capital in the modern intellectual economy. They both posed serious questions about who owns the materials which are worked on during scholarly endeavour, who controls the products of that endeavour, and where our conceptions of intellectual ownership might need to adjust themselves in order to even address the questions, let alone produce fair answers. Erin Sullivan’s “Internal and external Shakespeare: Constructing the twenty-first-century classroom” and Julie Sanders’ and Sarah Grandage’s “Shakespeare at a distance” made another useful pair, presenting concise and precise reflections on the way two different universities approach their digital pedagogical practice. David McInnis’ “Webs of engagement” balanced giving an account of aims and achievements of the Lost Plays Database (a sure contender for a Donald Rumsfeld Foundation grant, in its tireless attempts to chivvy some of our unknown unknowns into the condition of known unknowns) with the rationale and practicalities for making such a project available online.
If there was a weakness in some of the material assembled, it was a tendency to lurch too far into personal storytelling beyond the “hook” anecdote or the reflection upon practice. At moments I felt this got in the way of Bruce R. Smith’s excellent “Getting back to the library, getting back to the body” and Paul Edmonson’s and A.J. Leon’s “Changing a culture within the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Championing Freedom and Democracy”. There was also an occasional passage in which the “process story”, against which C.J. Cregg used to guard so tenaciously, ensnared points being made in technical and administrative detail. Notwithstanding these, Shakespeare and the Digital World is a provocative, wide-ranging and intellectually satisfying account of the field’s direction and variety.