From working on this "essay" for the last several months, I can make a few tentative conclusions about how--and when--Shakespearean criticism might work well in hypertext. Where the project calls for the flexibility of space, illustration, and linkage, hypertext represents a substantial advance over print scholarship.
Obviously, editions of Shakespeare's plays and arguments which rely on editorial materials will gain range from this form. My work on performance editions would clearly have benefited from the flexible page space offered in hypertext; that advantage would translate even more valuably to other editing projects. I would love to have either Michael Warren's King Lear or Bernice Kliman's Three-Text Hamlet on screen. Even the slideshow function proves useful in giving the history of certain editorial changes.
Equally, for critical arguments which rely on or grow from visual representations of Shakespeare's works, the Web is an enormously valuable mechanism. As many of us are well aware, when you need to use illustrations as part of an argument or they are its source, financial concerns for publication can be prohibitive. I cannot imagine a journal that would publish at a reasonable price the archive of Shakespearean images and commentary that Harry Rusche is developing at Emory. I have even greater trouble imagining a press willing to take my evolving arguments about the textual decorations in Kenny Meadows's Illustrated Shakespeare text. That is the kind of project which has always attracted me but which I had no resources to pursue until now.
What is not so clear is whether the interlinked network of connections can--or should--revolutionize our familiar forms of critical writing about Shakespeare. The learning curve is steep, and we are currently neither trained to write networked arguments nor ready to have them evaluated. The prize of the essay or book published in print will likely remain the measure of our scholarly work and (consequently) our employability for some years to come. This may mean that Net research becomes the playground of the tenured who can afford to take the risks of "publishing" in such a form poses. Alternatively, it may mean that hypertext criticism may be limited to those arenas where it has obvious benefits and to those universities where it can be argued to be an institutional benefit. Certainly the University of Virginia, which houses the Rossetti Project and IATH, offers a groundbreaking collection of projects in hypertext, but as I have noted, many of these make print form electronic rather than exploiting fully the potential of the new writing form.
Such localized publishing sites probably will become more and more important for those of us who are using the medium for scholarly arguments as well as our pedagogy. After all, an essay on the Web may be universally available, but it is also all but invisible to other critics unless it is linked to such a research conglomerate or registered in one of the popular databases like the Voice of the Shuttle. As a result, a genuinely "webbed" essay--one which could not be converted readily to print form because its form is part of its constructed argument--potentially has a limited audience despite its availability.
If, as I have suggested, the number of hits or links which reference the essay become the measure of its scholarly usefulness, we will need to add a new version of self-promotion to the new skills in design, programming and balancing argument with visual impact. This is doubtless one of the reasons that you are now far more likely to turn up undergraduate essays about Shakespeare on the Web than essays from scholars doing the work that we might find useful to network with our own.
The range of the hypertext essay's usefulness will doubtless expand once more critics realize the kinds of research and arguments it enables. At the moment, however, uneven access and technical challenges outweigh the value of such linkage. I do, however, strongly believe that critical approaches to Shakespeare's works--especially as ongoing cultural products--will benefit greatly from hypertext. This form will allow us to explore more fully than ever before the multiple media which Shakespeare's works have influenced over the years.
For references, please visit Websites and Works Cited.
If you have any comments, please send them to Laurie Osborne and join the ongoing discussion.
breaking out of the text