English Verse Drama: The Full-Text Database. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995. [Two CD-ROMs or 2400 ft. 1/2" magnetic tape (1600 bpi).]
David L. Gants
University of Virginia

Gants, David L. "Review of English Verse Drama: The Full-Text Database ." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 15.1-11 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_gan1.html>.

  1. When a humanist scholar first discovers the electronic textual database, fantasies begin to appear similar to those woven by Faustus upon calling up his first apparition: "Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, / Resolve me of all ambiguities?" The possibilities afforded by the rich store of words seem endless, and the scholar immediately tries to "Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, / And search all corners of the new found world / For pleasant fruits and princely delicates." All too frequently, though, flaws of design and content quickly sour the experience and the scholar turns away from the resource in frustration, seeking to "repent and save his soul."

  2. At first glance the Chadwyck-Healey English Verse Drama electronic database opens a "new found world" for the researcher interested in both large- and small-scale investigations of one of the most important genres in modern English. If the database is sound, if it holds up to complex scrutiny and sophisticated searches, then it will be a most welcome addition to the field of literary studies.

  3. Four essential criteria form the basis for an informed judgement of a literary database: overall scope, editorial integrity, reliability of data, and encoding scheme. One might also want to examine the search and display engine that comes with the database, particularly if the manufacturer has decided to use a proprietary mark-up system designed for a single software package. Because Chadwyck-Healey has chosen to make the database available as an SGML-encoded, platform-independent datafile, thus allowing its use by a variety of search engines, I will not discuss this aspect of the database, noting only that the CD-ROM version comes with DynaText software included.

  4. Chadwyck-Healey states as their project's bibliographic basis the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, and as their aim the publication of the complete verse dramas of all writers listed in the Bibliography who were active before 1900. In addition to full-length dramas written for the public and private stage, the collection includes masques, short dramatic pieces, selected translations, works written for children, literary adaptations, and certain closet dramas excluded from the Bibliography. The editors have used a fairly flexible definition of the genre verse drama when making their selections, including works intended for or acted on the stage, and either wholly in verse or containing significant amounts of verse material. In terms of numbers this translates into 2284 separate titles by anonymous or named authors first published from the early 16th through the early 20th centuries. Such a wide scope makes the database an extremely useful pedagogical tool for teachers of English literature at all levels, offering wide access to frequently published standard works as well as to the large number of titles published but once and now accessible only in university rare book reading rooms.

  5. The choice of editorial principles adopted by a database designer will play a significant role in the ultimate worth of the collection, especially one comprising large numbers of texts printed during the handpress period. In the first paragraph of this review I cited a few lines from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a play registered with the Stationers Company in 1601, printed in quarto in 1604, 1609 and 1611, with a revised text then printed in 1616, 1619, 1620, 1624, 1628, 1631, and 1663. Each individual printing contains internal variants introduced during the process of printing, as well as a large number of textual differences among the editions as a group. Chadwyck-Healey has eliminated the problem of dealing with the second group of inter-edition variants by choosing to reproduce an old-spelling textual facsimile of a single copy of an edition rather than edit anew each work from multiple witnesses. While practical, this approach does not reproduce the text as intended by author and printer, allowing stop-press corrections and revisions made during the original printing to go unnoticed.

  6. To demonstrate the possible dangers of facsimile editions I'd like to use as an example the text of Ben Jonson's tragedy Sejanus, a play printed in quarto in 1605 and folio in 1616, 1640 and 1692. The EVD editors wisely selected for their copy-text the version of the play as it appeared in the 1616 Workes of Ben Jonson, a volume overseen sporadically by its author. A mechanical collation of 50 copies of the folio has revealed that 13 out of 42-1/2 formes (a compositional unit containing two pages) contain variant states of the text (a total of 142 textual variants), with a number of formes existing in three states and two formes completely reset. As variant pages occur randomly throughout these copies the editors may or may not have seen the corrected state, depending upon which copy they chose to use. In the case of Sejanus they seem to have had about average luck: of the 13 formes, nine showed the final state of the text while four contained the earlier, uncorrected states. Of the four uncorrected formes only one (2L3:4 outer) showed evidence of later authorial revision. If we take the selection of uncorrected states in Sejanus as representative of the works within the EVD collection as a whole, then the database is potentially marred by significant amounts of missing or misleading data. When the original text experienced extensive revisions early in its history the editors have included multiple versions in the database, as with the 1604 and 1616 editions of Faustus (but oddly not the Quarto and Folio editions of Shakespeare's King Lear).

  7. Databases built upon old-spelling facsimiles also pose problems for many search engines, as the variation in spelling and typography of even simple words complicates search techniques. Prior to the 1630s printers used the common letter pairs i/j and u/v in a much different fashion from today. In addition, 16th- and 17th-century spelling conventions had not solidified, and printing-house compositors felt free to spell words according to their individual preferences. Hence a search for the phrase "my love" (love with "v") will return a different set of passages from that generated by a search for the phrase "my loue" (loue with a "u"). Likewise a word such as "loudly" might also appear as "lovdly," "loudlie," or "loudlye." A scholar seeking to carry out extensive searches of the EVD must select a search engine that allows for wild-card input to compensate for the database's variant spellings. Happily DynaText software supports such searches.

  8. Similar to editorial integrity is the question of data reliability. During the conversion of print matter to digital form a certain amount of entry error will inevitably creep in, a problem exacerbated by the damaged or unfamiliar letterforms and faces used by early printers. A dense blackletter face with extensively ligatured characters and unfamiliar, arcane spellings will challenge both data entry and proof reading personnel. Chadwyck-Healey claims an overall accuracy rate of at least 99.99% or one error per 10,000 characters. Again using Sejanus as an example, a concordance created from the electronic text reveals remarkably few errors. In the almost 4000 lines of verse and stage directions I could find only five cases where the EVD text deviated from the 1616 Folio copy text: a transposition error, "Casear" for "Caesar;" a dropped quad, "Westand" for "We stand;" and three instances of character misrecognition, "chamels" for "channels," "Ivfiter" for "Ivpiter," and "Romanc" for "Romane."

  9. While a database's scope, editorial integrity and data reliability all contribute to its value, perhaps the most important but frequently overlooked element is its encoding scheme. The care and foresight taken by the editors in fashioning the structural, interpretive, analytical and presentational information determines absolutely how it will finally be used. In this crucial aspect of database design the Chadwyck-Healey editors have done an excellent job. The collection as a whole is encoded in Standard Generalized Mark-up Language (SGML), a system widely used in humanities computing that provides great mark-up flexibility as well as platform independence.

  10. The EVD structure first breaks the database into subsets by author, then into single works. This provides the user three basic levels of search: by entire collection, by author corpus, and by individual work. Each work has further structural marking to distinguish act, scene, stanza, metrical and prose line, stage direction, argument, preface, prologue, epilogue and like elements. Information such as language use, publication details, author attribution, original author (in the case of adaptation), rhyme scheme, and location of caesura is also included. Recognizing that many users will want to build searches not only upon the familiar structures listed above but also by historical period and genre, the editors have additionally incorporated in each work values for one of nine time spans and one of 20 genres. This last feature sometimes causes mis-identification problems, such as marking Anthony Munday's 1611 civic pageant Chryso-Thriambos as Elizabethan, or William Congreve's 1710 play Semele as pre-1700 Restoration. Slightly more troubling is the lack of multiple genre values for these works. While Chadwyck-Healey need not go as far as Polonius' "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" distinctions, recognizing major combinations such as comedy and pastoral or history and tragedy would lend greater subtlety to the database. However, such a minor oversight should not obscure the immense value afforded by the thoughtful mark-up apparatus.

  11. Overall, the Chadwyck-Healey English Verse Drama database stands as a significant contribution to the field of literary study. Despite the drawbacks inherent in the practical editorial choice of pursuing a textual facsimile rather than re-editing the entire corpus anew, EVD should present scholars and critics with a fresh angle of inquiry into the genre, particularly with the variety of subtle search options built into the database. One hopes that this resource quickly becomes available to academic users world-wide.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)