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Shakespeare and the Digital Moment

One intern’s experience with creating engaging digital summaries of Shakespeare’s plays

Isaac Robertson

As an intern with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust digital team, I have learned so much about connecting with digital audiences. As the world becomes increasingly imbued with technology, organizations like the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust need to find (and definitely have found) new and innovative ways to utilize digital tools to connect people with cultural heritage, the arts, and the humanities.

There’s something satisfying about that, isn’t there—the idea of blending such old and traditional content with new platforms and novel ways of engaging? It’s really what we’ve done all along, I suppose, but the newness of now always has a kind of special feeling. “Now” is full of possibilities. “Now” is the time for creativity. “Now” has never been thought of before. 

Shakespeare Street Art
Shakespeare Street Art

I might be waxing a bit too poetic here, but I think that these things are important to consider. I used to have an idea in my mind that texts like Shakespeare should be held sacred, that they shouldn’t be touched, that the printed-ink-words on the organically-grown-mashed-up-bleached-and-dried-pulp-paper should be revered, untouched, unmarked. It took me until university to start making notes inside of books and textbooks because previous to that, I didn’t want to mar the pristine-ness of the book. I’ve come to realise, however, that the actual text is less important than the reader’s ability to connect with it. And if marking it up or having conversations about it or looking at memes related to it helps that connection and engagement, then it should be used as much as possible alongside the actual text (please make sure you own the physical copy before you start marking things up). 

To summarize in the most contrived language I can muster, the writing on the heart and mind is more important than the writing on the page. That is why, when we decided to initiate our Plays Project, I personally decided that I wanted to try to make them as engaging as possible, as heart-and-mind-engraving as possible. 

We started this project about two months ago, with the main goal of uploading digital summaries of Shakespeare’s plays onto our website. This is part of a much larger project called “Shakespedia,” which includes informational content relating to Shakespeare, his life, and his works. We found a trove of synopses written by Marian J. Pringle, who worked for the Trust several years ago (and was beloved for many more). These summaries were professional and academic, and it was my pleasure to edit them to be more engaging to our wider digital audience. 

Shakespeare's Plays Tempest Page

I had a few ideas for what I personally wanted this project to be. For instance, there are dozens of summaries already online, encompassing dozens of different lengths and styles. My first priority in making ours unique was to engage with people (obviously). I tried to blend in a unique way a professional and academic voice while also being light-hearted and not taking myself too seriously. I added reductive summaries to the top of each page. I made some personal remarks inside of parentheses. I tried to inhabit each play as I encountered it and to see it with new eyes. 

In addition to the actual text, I also wanted to include images from a wide variety of sources. We have plenty of posters and adaptations and translations in our collections, and I wanted to show these to our audience, as well as the regular illustration and performance images that you would expect to see. I wanted to convey the wide-reaching effects of Shakespeare’s words—interculturally, inter-temporally, and pertinent to our world today. Finally, we wanted to include quotes that would be recognizable and relatable, to help people see that they actually know, use, and connect with Shakespeare already. The plays are being published on a consistent basis, and more will follow soon.

Programme for King Lear, 1892
Programme for King Lear, 1892

My favourite part of this project was learning about the different plays. Being involved in both literature and theatre studies for the past ten years of my life, I have had a fair amount of interaction with Shakespeare’s work. However, I somehow missed out on some of his best plays. Although I didn’t read every play word-for-word during the project, I did need to consistently refer to the text to verify details and clear up confusions that I had with the synopses. 

Discovering As You Like It in this rapid and haphazard manner was particularly incredible. It seemed to me to be ridiculous and fanciful and complex and important. I felt wrapped up in the play as if I was watching it in real-time. I wanted to run into the forest with Rosalind and Celia and Duke Senior and his band of banished nobles. I ended up having similar experiences with Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and King John. Every summary experience was like entering a new world and finding treasures inside. I truly hope that others have the same experience as they find these summaries on our website and engage with Shakespeare’s genius. 

Ada Rehan as Rosalind, Lyceum Theatre, 1890
Ada Rehan as Rosalind, Lyceum Theatre, 1890

It seems like they are. Our analytics suggest that people spend a good amount of time on the pages--people from all over the world. It’s incredible to think that people from around the globe are able to engage with our content, and that we are able to engage with theirs as well. The world is becoming smaller through these tools. It is becoming cosy and far-reaching and age-old and brand-new all at the same time. 

So, it turns out that the texts are actually sacred in a way. But they are only sacred in as much as they are internalized by those who read them and interact with them. We have such incredible new opportunities in the “now” to help others interact with the text and make it sacred. It was a pleasure to participate in one of these projects, and I look forward to working on many more in the future. Most of all, I hope that readers are able to interact and engage with Shakespeare in a unique way because of it.