SAA Hyperessay on Electronic Shakespearean Criticism

SAA Hyperessay on Electronic Shakespearean Criticism

As compelling as I find the electronic potential of textual editing, performance studies and pedagogy, I am most intrigued by the new possibilities for criticism. However, the arrival of Shakespearean criticism in hypertext and web format poses its own particular problems in production and reception. In fact, there is relatively little actual Shakespearean criticism available on the Web. This essay in its hypertext form takes advantage of the links of hypertext to explore these issues on three different levels: problems posed by hypercriticism, solutions (proposed and actual), and examples. I am exploring the potential that the Internet has to offer for Shakespearean criticism generally, so that I often address literary criticism on the Web as a general category. However, my essay also includes an array of examples of how such potential might be realized using:

You can go to any of these parts of the essay directly from here, or you can wait until you get there. Please email any comments or questions to Laurie Osborne.

While technology now makes available a version of the hypertextual world first imagined by Theodor Nelson, we do not have Xanadu yet. Most noticeably, the tensions between linear and nonlinear models of presenting ideas have not been resolved, in part because the two modes engage their virtual readers in different ways. At the heart of this choice lies the problem of which structure our readers will follow more readily, the familiar linear forms we know so well or the linked form which Nelson argues are more natural to the ways we think (45-50)? The issue of the reader is crucial because in hypertext, the reader constructs the essay, creates and recreates its order. This empowers the reader to follow my argument, for example, in any number of ways--as long as I have set the links.

However, this empowerment of the reader only goes so far. If he or she has no access to the Internet or even uses a different Webrowsing program than the author, technological factors can block the reader's ability to engage the text at all! And imagine how much more important such technological considerations become when the author needs evaluations of the work. Even though an essay mounted on the Web is "published" more widely than most professional journals, how do we assess its professional value? What is its scholarly contribution? Just as important, how can the author take credit for the argument if the electronically browsing reader actually puts the essay together?

A structure as open as a website offers a whole new set of challenges to the ways we think about scholarship: its use, its circulation, and its (possible) ends. To pick up on comparison offered by one of my students, I am building a system of roads, but I do not control how you travel on them. In fact, I do not control who travels on them. Although this essay is intended for seminar participants at Shakespeare Association of America Conference in April of 1996, anyone who has access to the Internet can visit it. And it could conceivably outlast the conference should I decide to keep working on it. As Harry Rusche puts it in the introduction to his website, "'Shakespeare Illustrated' will always be a work in progress." This idea of a project perpetually in progress is cause for celebration for textual editors, as Jerome McGann argues in "Radiant Textuality." A critical project which presents scholarship in process has both advantages and disadvantages.

As I see it, challenges attached to doing criticism in hyperspace are several and related:

There are those, like Sven Birkerts, who perceive electronic texts as the decline of rational thought--which must inevitably be linear. Others, like Richard Lanham, embrace these revisions of the linear text as an intellectual challenge to the ways we think about and construct meanings. My assessment of the value and problems in this form are more moderate, and my claims more modest.

Engaging the Reader

Critical essays on the web are most commonly more linear than we might expect. For example, even while Jerome McGann argues for the value of hypertext to editing in "The Rationale of Hypertext" and "Radiant Textuality," he offers his essays in familiar linear form, complete with footnotes. I could cite a half dozen other examples easily. At the other extreme, Clay Shirky and Nancy Kaplan choose instead to explore the range of possible constructions by using the spatial and temporal potential available to hypertext. The result is that McGann's essays are easy to print out and have, in some cases, already reached the printed page. It is sometimes difficult to follow Kaplan's essay and Shirky's lives up to its title--"This essay will not fit on your screen." The essays and hyperfiction which make full or interesting use of hypertext linking are often a challenge to read and can reside fully only in hyperspace. Despite the dire predictions of Birkerts and the optimistic electronic future anticipated by Lanham, it seems to me that linearity and non-linearity are going to coexist for quite a while.

Whether we use linear or nonlinear modes on the Web, the major task is engaging the reader. Since your reader can easily link out to other sites, your essay in effect competes constantly with its own outside references. Keeping the readers' attention on the argument may require inventive use of illustrations, given the visual dimension and flexibility of the media. It might also demand a greater degree of rhetorical skill. On the Web, tight concise prose is necessary--you may only get one screen to catch someone's interest! Of course, there are technological solutions as well--you can simply refuse to let your reader out of your web. Since I am by no means assured of my rhetorical skill in this format, I have chosen a careful distancing of the exit points to other websites, connected arguments like my discussion of illuminating the text, and a few technological tricks.

Technological Challenges

The technological challenges of insuring that the various intended readers will get the same or similar pages from a critical web are enormous, especially since any individual or screen can distort a page to size. Even if you kindly give your reader an arrow indicating the optimal screen size, that reader can feel free to ignore your frame. The difficulties involved in designing the page can compound daily, as I can attest. For this essay I had to learn two wholly new programs, HTML editor High Tea and Adobe Photoshop. The former got me involved in an unfamiliar programming language, and the latter involved learning to use the scanner as well.

My adventures in scanning alone deserve several pages, but I will confine myself to noting that capturing pictures in for the illuminated texts argument was straightforward and easy compared to trying to get the file sizes down to a reasonable figure. Moreover, the load time, image resolution and even the placement of the images on the page will vary from one Webbrowser to another, so that what looks just great on the Macintosh in my office is somewhat grainer and blurry on the more powerful Macs in the MacLab. These same images crash and burn when I try to access them through Compuserve and show up always aligned to the right, text below, on Netcruiser when a friend tries to hook in through his computer at work. As a result several hours of labor in getting the pages to look perfect can go down the tubes with the flick of a computer button.

In the terms Richard Lanham explores in The Electronic Word, I keep getting stuck between looking AT the page and looking THROUGH it to the content. Lanham theorizes this dynamic as a new, compelling version of the tensions in rhetoric between persuasiveness arising from style and the value or content of the argument. The advantage of the electronic writing space, according to Lanham, is that it puts these two poles of creating meaning into dynamic play. The disadvantage from my perspective is that the technological challenges and pleasures of producing visual style can all too easily outbalance the pursuit of content.

And I understand all too well now the seduction of technological marvels. Having put so much work into preparing to write this essay, I haven't got as much energy or as much time for what I wanted to say about this form. For example, I did not get into the analysis I wanted to offer of the inherently metonymic quality of the linked document and the influence of that underlying structure on the ways fiction and prose are produced on the Web. Simply put, mastering the format took too much time--and I did not even venture into the complexities of sound and video reproduction. I assume, however, that the balance between style and substance, between the construction of the hypertext and the scholarly motive behind that construction, can evolve with the scholar using the system.

In this essay in its current form, I find that I have chosen to concentrate on the dynamic that exists between what a linked text enables and what it cannot achieve. It can enable certain kinds of textual comparisons that a printed text cannot; it can allow a freer interaction of text and image; with some improvement in processing, it can link performance into text--as the MIT multimedia project has already proved. What it cannot do is substitute image, sound, and video in the place of critical thought., yet it is really a useful structure for:

Intermingling illustration and text: hyper-illuminated criticism of Shakespeare's Works

This version of my essay uses only small ornamentation, but electronic criticism has the potential to offer illustrations as pervasively in criticism as they once appeared in nineteenth-century "Shakspeare" texts. The examples I offer here link out of the linear version of this essay and present inventive text and image design from an undated nineteenth-century text, extensively illustrated by Kenny Meadows. These texts use engravings to frame particular speeches like Rosalind's epilogue or the opening to Act IV of Timon of Athens, to intervene in the actual script in the case of Hamlet's first meeting with the ghost and to overhang the page as grossly as Falstaff's belly. These nineteenth-century strategies for illuminating the Shakespearean text obviously deserve critical attention in their own right, but I offer them here principally to illustrate relationships between text and image which can enrich electronic essays about Shakespeare's plays. That enrichment is, however, problematic despite the arguments I am offering because of potential image distortion.

In these nineteenth-century texts, illustrations of particular scenes or actors and actresses often decorated pages that had no direct relationship to the moment in the play supposedly represented. With the ability to import images and link them, Shakespearean critics can discuss Viola's encounters with Olivia or Titania's embraces of Bottom and imbed those images where needed. Even more usefully, we can explore illustration-specific arguments like the contrast in nineteenth-century singular portraits which alternately illuminate particular actors in a role like Othello or invented portraits of female characters like Cleopatra and Titania.

Pulling your reader through the Web

Webbrowser progam features like Netscape's client pull, used in Clay Shirky's essay, keep the reader locked into a sequence of screens. In effect, client pull provides an inescapable slide show; once a reader clicks on the icons to the left or below, he or she is pulled through a series of screens until the "show" is over. Fair warning: these shows take a bit of time, and they transort into the hypertext version of this essay.
Just to show how the mechanism works, I have a brief excerpt from Hamlet (about 30 seconds, three screens). The slideshow mechanism is potentially useful for arguments which include historical sequences. For example, this technique would have been useful in displaying the complex substitutions and revisions which undergird our acceptance of a significant textual revision in Viola's soliloquy

Parallel Comparisons When You Really Need Them

One of the enormous limitations of print involves the problems in displaying parallel texts, a failing which I have only just begun to appreciate with the arrival of the galleys of my book. Despite my painstaking wordprocessing manipulations to create parallel comparisons across an array of texts from the Folio through the mid-nineteenth century performance editions, the press confined my glorious examples haphazardly to four-inch square boxes--and thus created a random rather than a sequential array of speech variations. All in all, five different figures will appear in print refigured in ways that do not represent the comparisons that electronic pages achieve with ease: Such sequences show the evolution of certain key speeches through the performance editions. They can also indicate placement for additions (as in Antonio's pardon) and small but crucial variations in phrasing in context (as in Antonio's explanation for following Sebastian). I can even include the Lacy typographical error in my table--even though I eliminated it from the figure for the book because it took up too much space. Thus the spatial expansion possible on an computer screen page is useful not only for the parallel texts now advocated by noted textual bibliographers but also proves crucial for critical arguments based on other kinds of texts.

Evaluating the Hyperessay

The problem of evaluating work done in this format is of immediate interest to me since one of my honors thesis students did her project on electronic literature. Dori Deis's thesis is currently mounted on Colby's web pages. On the one hand, I could apply the usual standards of coherence, depth of analysis, accuracy in research, etc. without regard to format. On the other hand, only some of these conventional criteria for judging theses apply. For example, how can I critique the work's continuity and transitions when the principle is multi-transitional--when, as a reader, I am responsible for how the argument will flow? The method of producing this thesis creates certain distinctive writing problems. In her conclusions, Dori herself worries that the format of writing for the web might have undermined the clarity of her writing. Other factors--like clear outlines, easy manoeuverability, and useful links--are as important as clear writing here. Moreover, I have now a visceral sense of the kind of work that goes into planning and executing a webbed argument. While I do not agree with all her conclusions, she has done more work to create this web than most other thesis students do in developing their more standard research projects.

The issue of grading Dori's thesis represents in miniature the problems which vex those who write and must evaluate electronic essays. The standard remains and will likely continue to be publication on paper. The hierarchy of value attached to print publications is well established--the refereed versus the unrefereed, essay versus book, the relative prestige of various journals and presses. But there are few refereed electronic journals--we cannot ALL publish in PMC--and Web essays may be open to a much wider audience than most journals, but the quality of the audience and the essay can vary. And how do tenure committees, promotion reviews, and salary evaluations rank such publications?

One possibility for understanding the effectiveness of such a publication might involve a record of "hits." Since it is now possible to register how many visitors there are to a Web site, such a tally could indicate how "well-read" a particular web essay is. Of course, such a count actually would include random hits and the visits of friends as well as the visits of other scholars. Another possible measure might be a Web version of the Academic Citation Index--evaluators could measure the number of links to the web essay as a measure of its usefulness. Now there are even some web sites that have been ranked as useful CHECK. Some Web sites also include forms which the reader can fill out (see below). All of these measures address the problem of discovering the influence of a given essay

Of course, all these ways of measuring influence can become moot, if the very people who are assessing the scholarship cannot read/experience the piece because of technological limitations or lack of involvement in computer resources. To give an immediate example, there are members of this seminar who cannot move through my "essay" in all its dubious glory because we do not share software platforms or comparable network access. And this group is self-selected for a shared interest in electronic Shakespeare. Perhaps Network access and availability will become more normalized, but I am not sure that the job candidate seeking to publish her scholarship should seek out the Web as the most appropriate venue.

Ongoing Scholarship

Perhaps the greatest benefit--and the greatest drawback--of scholarship on the web is its mutability. On the one hand the openended form allows a project to grow, change, and be amended with new information. On the other hand, the paper record of the evolution of ideas which a series of publications can represent becomes invisible. As each successive revision and reworking changes both structure and content, the earlier versions of a given essay disappear into the fragmented memory of an overwritten hard drive.

As a result, if you visited Nancy Kaplan's "E-Literacies" earlier this fall, you would have read/constructed a different essay than you will find in the link offered in my Webs Cited today. the benefit lies not only the a growing body of work--like Harry Rusche's Shakespeare Illustrated--but also in the kind of co-operative scholarship that Kaplan's essay registers when it includes commentary and argument with her ideas. We have the opportunity here to envision our scholarly work in a more long term way, but we also have the even greater opportunity to work co-operatively much more directly than ever before. The potentially rich interchanges of ideas--no longer limited to the acknowledgments at the front of a book--can become an active part of the scholarship.

I already welcome the availability of revision for this hyperessay. It has wandered from my central interest in Shakespearean criticism on the Net (in part because, as Terry Gray notes, there is not that much); it threatens to become one of series of metahyperessays which does not move into sufficiently new ground. I can readily envision dismantling the SAA part of this project and pursuing more fully my examination of Shakespeare's illustrated texts or perhaps using this format to explore the performance editing of nineteenth-century crossdressed Shakespearean heroines in parallel texts.


The shift in the balance of power between writer and reader in the hypertext essay demands several things which many literary critics are unaccustomed to considering. First, the hypercritic must cultivate an awareness of technological availability and utility and willingly ride the wave of an unending learning curve. Since coping with technological glitches and learning new software takes time and energy, the virtual scholar must balance the demands of research and argument against the requirements of actually reproducing those arguments on the Web.

More disturbingly, perhaps, we webbed critics must consider both the visual impact and spatial dimensions of our published work as we write it. Even with the helpful tool of an HTML editor, there are two layers to every webpage in progress--what you see and what you write. And readers' responses--and willingness to follow from page to page--can depend as much on visual appeal as on developing content.

The different process of writing, with its components of programming, spatial relationships and artistic deign, yields a product which may defy easy evaluation. The intellectual usefulness of a web essay depends on how well the form fits the content; the evaluations of the work may rely on a combination of utility and currency or on an elaborate balance of hits and web citations.

But the more important question is what such a structure offers scholarship. Although web work may sacrifice the comforting historical record of a career's progress, piled up in a heap of offprints and books, it promises to offer an openendedness to ongoing scholarship which should be as satisfying to the literary critic as it is to the textual editors of Shakespeare.

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.

The Two-Tier Bibliography

Webs Cited

Blaser, John. No Place for a Woman: Family in Film Noir.

Gray, Terry A. "Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet."

Kaplan, Nancy. "E-Literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

McGann, Jerome. "Radiant Textuality." http://jefferson.village.

----------. "The Rationale of Hypertext."

Rees, Gareth. "Gareth's Style Guide."

Rusche, Harry. Shakespeare Illustrated

Shirky, Clay. "This essay will not fit on your screen."

Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. "Opening Hypertext: A Memoir" in Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Lear--1608-23. Prepared by Michael Warren. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakspeare, Containing the Celebrated Illustrations of Kenny Meadows, Firth, Nicholson, Corbould, Hayter. London: The London Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd., n.d. [1854].

Shakespeare, William. The Three-Text Hamlet. Eds. Paul Bertram and Bernice Kliman. New York: AMS Press, 1991.