The Common Reader's Shakespeare
Ian Lancashire
University of Toronto

Lancashire, Ian. "The Common Reader's Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 / Special Issue 2 (January, 1998): 4.1-12 <URL:

  1. Today's editors of scholarly printed editions of Shakespeare co-exist with remarkable harmony. They do so partly by choosing differently among old- or normalized-spelling texts, collected or individual play-editions, research- or performance-centered approaches, and commentaries exhaustive, essential, or unassuming. The beginnings of a like spectrum for electronic Shakespeares can be seen emerging on and off the Internet. They extend from teaching editions (like Taylor's), high-quality image-and-text archives (Peter Donaldson's, an in-progress MIT project associated with the Folger Shakespeare Library), and transcriptions of the quarto and folio texts (Chadwyck-Healey) to the historical-critical researcher's edition, the Arden 2, the first CD-ROM-based, enhanced print edition. Considering the ease with which electronic texts can be uploaded onto the Internet, it is little wonder that common readers on-line can be puzzled as to what they are reading. The need for a "good text" may be forgotten under the assumption that any text will do as well as any other. Some vanilla Internet texts are difficult to cite from for this reason, a point I raised in 1994 in a Modern Language Association seminar paper.

  2. What frequency in the electronic Shakespeare spectrum should the Internet Shakespeare Editions choose? There is no need to duplicate Donaldson's rich image and film collection, Chadwyck-Healey's collection of texts and adaptations, or the MLA New Variorum, each volume of which results from decades of editorial synthesis. In different ways, these involve copyright issues and have substantial up-front costs, but they will also eventually be linkable to ISE editions in subscribing institutions. ISE resources also appear to be a magnitude below what commercial publishers can venture. Yet ISE has unique access to what most Shakespeare editors do not: new computer-based research, the advice of several modern editors of Shakespeare on its Editorial Advisory Board, and Michael Best's own Shakespeare's Life and Times.

  3. Experience with editing Representative Poetry On-line, a Web site frequented by America Online subscribers as well as Research Library Group users, has helped me to understand what the common reader wants: good reading, classroom texts, commentary to help with essays, and answers to questions. Readers come from everywhere: a musician looking for God, a teacher of English in a South American public school without books, a student whose assignment is to judge whether Polonius was a wise man, lovers of poetry, a physician longing to understand people, genealogists, family remembering family, and players of roles large and small, and of crossword puzzles. Serving these varied needs advances public education and the humanities; and these in turn make the world a better place to live in. Yet the ISE cannot give the populist World Wide Web audience a Shakespeare without pioneering new research. It is no longer enough, scarcely halfway through the first decade of the World Wide Web, to distribute free texts. Annotation and interpretative discussion must accompany any e-text edition today, preferably with links to other electronic sources.

  4. Education cannot be advanced without new editorial research for this new electronic medium. For example, poetry texts must be re-established in Representative Poetry On-line by appealing to manuscripts or books close to the poet's final intentions. Encoding must seek to document, if not reproduce, the character sets of these originals. Each generation of readers also deserves a fresh annotation. Such an on-line library asks for more than an out-of-copyright edition in a new storefront window. The Internet needs to have its own editors volunteer from the ranks of English Departments. Yet academe does not hire or promote supporters of, and research granting agencies do not give grants to, enterprises in public education unless something new is in the offing.

  5. Centering the ISE on Shakespeare the person -- as the title of Michael Best's Shakespeare's Life and Times does -- can perhaps achieve this goal, jointly meeting populist and scholarly needs. A life-and-times ISE would present Shakespeare as an author and a person. The common reader is already curious about him: the books he read, the events in his life, the words he found in the speech and writing of his contemporaries and in the book shops of St. Paul's, the people that he knew and half knew, the streets he passed through, the playing places he stood in, and the mind that was his. As it happens, a Web-based Shakespeare offers an excellent vehicle for discovering the person bearing that name, to answer the question, "who wrote Shakespeare's works, after all?" Journalists raise that nontrivial question repeatedly because almost everyone has an opinion. For most teachers and researchers, the biographies by Samuel Schoenbaum and Stanley Wells settle an already-closed issue. The man named Shakespeare wrote the works surviving under his name. However, many well-educated common readers and potential students remain unsure because public media selectively present historical evidence, omit things that are important, and fail to discriminate reliable methodologies from the rest. The ISE could allow the documents to speak for themselves; they would be freed from printed reference works to rest on the Web. Fortunately, most come from public archives and libraries, not private collections.

  6. Not entirely by accident, new research is emerging about Shakespeare the person; ISE offers a potent way to publish it in the context of what has so far been discovered. Donald W. Foster's analysis of the parts that Shakespeare played and of the books he read is based on a computer textbase, Shaxicon, and on Foster's own Vassar English Renaissance e-text library. Shaxicon is already partly available on the Web, which appeared at just about the time a means was needed to give researchers access to vast fields of electronic data. Argued carefully, evidence from these resources can illuminate Shakespeare's life-experiences in greater detail than was previously thought possible. Based on a much-praised print edition (the Riverside Shakespeare), Foster's work needs, but does not yet have, a public electronic Shakespeare. Integrating the potentially rich annotation from Shaxicon into a scholarly edition would be genuinely new and fundable research, exciting to both a young generation of editors and a 21st-century readership. Foster's discoveries have not yet had the impact on Shakespeare editing to date that they will have, because scholars cannot negotiate their computational space as readily as their bookshelves.

  7. The electronic tools that produced Shaxicon also enable other types of new research. Marvin Spevack brought the printed keyword-in-context Shakespeare concordance to a remarkable degree of accuracy and innovation. (It is debatable, in fact, whether an interactive concordance of Spevack's text, the Riverside, surpasses the printed concordance volumes for most purposes.) Collocation programs such as Collgen (from the TACT) system), however, can make evident otherwise hidden repeated combinations of words and phrases and retrieve passages by special criteria, expressed in tags within the text. What Larry Benson single-handedly accomplished for the Riverside Chaucer--a lemmatized text, with tags distinguishing the MED headword and part of speech for each word -- can certainly be hoped for in Shakespeare in the near future as a result of the work done by Joachim Neuhaus at Münster. Combinatorial patterns -- whether words and tags, or words and words -- that are detected in lemmatized e-texts may turn out to be precise, fully verifiable markers that can modify the chronology of Shakespeare's works. Even a consistently tagged but unlemmatized e-text has sometimes unexpected advantages. I recently used Usebase -- the interactive concordancer of the TACT system -- to retrieve all instances of different spellings of the same words in the 1609 quarto of the sonnets. Once the reference citation in the left margin was set to indicate the page or signature on which a spelling occurred, it was a simple matter to discover which alternate spellings never appeared together. Such mutually repelling pairs can result from the varying orthographies of the two compositors who set the book in Thomas Thorpe's printing shop.

  8. A related biographical topic likely to benefit from computer tools is Shakespeare's idiolect. To find personal markers of his style, we have to know two things: first, what he and his contemporaries believed their shared language to be; and second, how his mind uniquely shaped English as a reflection of his and only his mind.

  9. The Arden CD-ROM has many merits, among them its nineteenth-century Shakespearean grammar by Abbott and a more recent glossary, but these are written by scholars whose understanding of English follows Samuel Johnson and the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had views about language different from ones we have today. We tend to think English as a complex language system needing years of study, but it was not until 1596 that the first English vocabulary (in Edmund Coote's The English School-maister) was printed, and until well after Shakespeare's death that the first substantial English grammar came to print. These facts suggest that Shakespeare and his contemporaries regarded English words and sentence structures as needing little or no gloss. Coote's work was so groundbreaking that it merited being republished for several centuries: he thought that English was an important pre-condition for understanding Latin and Greek, and a valuable skill in itself. It was the University of Michigan's Early Modern English Dictionary project that first alerted us to the implications of what contemporaries in the English Renaissance said about their language. The Michigan Early Modern English Materials (abbreviated MEMEM), compiled by Richard W. Bailey and others, made many additions to the Oxford English Dictionary on the basis of lexicographical research at Ann Arbor.

  10. The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (abbreviated EMEDD) -- an on-line collection of bilingual dictionaries printed in England from 1530 to 1611, and of hard-word glossaries and lexica from 1596 to 1659 -- includes Coote's lexicon. (A full edition also appears in the on-line Renaissance Electronic Texts series.) The EMEDD might also suggest that the English Renaissance believed that the English language needed dictionaries. Until 1616, however, this 225,000-word database holds mainly English equivalents for foreign-language words and imported words, not definitions or explanations of the English words, however informative we may find the word-entries. Coote's glossary reveals the simple, tabular format for the average word-entry in the early hard-word lists. The post-lemmatic segments (the explanations) are as laconic as his headwords because he was providing something like translations rather than definitions. The EMEDD also reveals that early lexicographers did not have the concept of "lexical definition": words pointed to things in the world, and only these things could be defined--in what the Renaissance knew as "logical definitions." Words were signs and did not themselves bear meaning. One implication of this simple belief, this rudimentary semiotics, is that if we are to understand Shakespeare's English we might well assume a linguistic creed common to his period. An image of the thing a word points to is the readiest explanation of that word. It follows then that a proper glossary of Shakespeare should match words with images or representations of the things they signify, where possible. A Web edition can certainly do this job cost-effectively. If these images no longer exist, a glossary should resort to the other type of verbal explanation common to the English Renaissance: translation into verbal equivalents. The Internet Shakespeare Editions would be at some advantage in basing its line-by-line commentary on a theory of language held by his contemporaries, if editors worked from contemporary lexicographical sources like MEMEM and EMEDD.

  11. The other, non-shared side of Shakespeare's idiolect -- his cognitive style -- is difficult to establish because it changes through time and because no one has arrived at an understanding of either what anyone's idiolect is, in this respect, or of how to arrive at a scientific profile of it. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience, however, are shedding more and more light on how we process language. Now we know enough to recognize one thing: the regularities elicited by computer-based studies of word- and phrase-repetition reveal fundamental constraints on the mind of the writer. Here are two examples of what I mean. Donald W. Foster's observation that Shakespeare loses a significant percentage of his new vocabulary within two years of acquiring it -- something my own work so far confirms -- is part of the evidence which cognitive psychology treats, but it uses a different example: people today lose material learned in second-language instruction at about the same rate over a two-year period. Second, when Shakespeare repeats phrases, my findings show that they seldom exceed the limits of short-term or working memory, 5-to-7 words; and their overall frequency-to-length ratio looks unremarkable in the general population. Shakespeare's idiolect obeys built-in functional constraints. His uniqueness arises in the associational networks established within those constraints. Those clusters, first perceived by the brilliant scholarship of Caroline Spurgeon in 1935, can now be identified, documented, and understood within a scientific but still very human context. Once identified, the associational clusters in Shakespeare's long-term memory may turn out to be time-sensitive markers of idiolect and may provide additional evidence of how Shakespeare the person resides in his works. A time-stamped map of these clusters will help us to fit his plays and poems into his time-line. Knowledge of these clusters will also add to the scholarly commentary on what he writes.

  12. Lives follow time lines. A Shakespeare-centered ISE could be structured both as conventionally well-edited e-texts as well as a time-line. Because lives involve many activities -- such as play- and poem-making -- and include (in this instance) the books he read (when he read them), the people in whose lawsuits he was involved, and the theatres in which he acted, an ISE could become, with multiple perspectives, a new editorial synthesis of texts and historical records. The Web makes an ideal vehicle for a populist Shakespeare that appeals to everyone's curiosity about this man and what he wrote. By reinvigorating the editorial tradition in Shakespeare studies with research that is native to the computational medium, the "home page" for William Shakespeare would become the default choice for both populist and scholarly readers.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(IL, KY, RGS, 13 February 1998)