Shakespeare goes viral on his 450th

Actors perform a scene from "Hamlet" for reporters and a small audience at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, on the site where the plays were originally staged.
Actors perform a scene from "Hamlet" for reporters and a small audience at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, on the site where the plays were originally staged. (LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / Associated Press)
Posted: April 27, 2014

William Shakespeare was baptized 450 years ago today. We don't know his exact day of birth, but close enough for a birthday, right?

Much has happened to Will in those 450 years - but he's Digital Will now, a new Will in the world, permanently viral. Shakespeare is more than a writer now - he's a network. A community.

To be sure, the main thing is his work: the poems and plays, the larger-than-life, all-soul women, men, kings, queens, star-crossed lovers, shepherds, merchants, and buffoons he put onstage, the poetry they speak, the ecstasies and extinctions they face, the human achievement at the heart of the miracle.

But a change it is.

There's Surfing With the Bard ( www.shakespearehigh.com/library/surfbard), a fine high school resource site. There's Bard Web ( www.bardweb.net) or Shakespeare Online ( www.shakespeare-online.com), both rich resources. There are sites on separate topics, as in Shakespeare's Monologues ( www.shakespeare-monologues.org) or sites on women, gender, history, sex, and - sex. And (to give equal time) there's the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (mischievous address: doubtaboutwill.org), which, well, doubts.

Visit almost any Shakespeare theater's site, and you'll see a digital-age imperative in action: Don't just offer materials, help people use them.

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre ( www.phillyshakespeare.org) links us to the Free Library of Philadelphia's Shakespeare at 450 celebrations and calendar of events. It also announces special offers (for a Shakespeare birthday observance on Wednesday, the PST did Romeo and Juliet on a pay-as-you-like-it basis); an October visit from Akala, a London-based hip-hop Shakespearean; video performances of the winners in the Show Us Your Love Sonnet Competition, which has a showcase Sunday; and Shakespeare in the World, a free monthly lecture series.

Carmen Khan, executive artistic director of PST, says, "It's all about the experience of the audience, and having a conversation with them now. People want to come to the theater and have it be more personal. We're building a loyal following."

Eric Minton of Centreville, Va., started a Shakespeare website - and found his way to Digital Will. Shakespearances ( www.shakespeareances.com) "started in 2008, as a labor of love," he says by phone. "Some guys have midlife crises, some guys have affairs, some guys get Corvettes, some start Shakespeare websites."

It was just reviews at first. "Then I started putting up links to other sites, listing shows, links to theaters and performances." Soon, by popular demand, he was generating a database of "What's Playing Where," what plays were on from Ontario to Utah to Atlanta to Ashland, Ore. I can find a Hamlet anywhere, but where's my Cardenio, my Pericles, my Henry VI, Part 2?

"People starting writing in, saying, 'We're using your site to fill our bucket lists,' finding out where the plays they hadn't seen yet are playing," Minton says. His audience - about 8,500 unique hits a month - had started using this medium in a way he'd never thought of.

He added interviews with actors and directors. E-mail updates. On Twitter and Facebook, he started posting photos and tweets about performances. People begged for more. "Now I do it on a semiregular basis," he says. "I discovered this community that was using my website as a common meeting place, and I started thinking in terms of their needs."

Digital Will: You can see, hear, or read anything with which he is - or has been - associated, instantly, any time. He is accessible, searchable by keyword. You can compare him with other writers; hypertext to his sources, from Cervantes to Chaucer; find out what everyone has said, from Ben Jonson to Helen Mirren; find photos, expert opinions, video . . . many videos (there are plenty of film Hamlets and Romeo and Juliets).

The Folger Library in Washington has created Folger Digital Texts ( www.folgerdigitaltexts.org), an open-source site that gives you not only all of the works, in the celebrated Folger editions, but also the source codes, so you can build your own apps or online Shakespeare projects yourself. The Folger already has digitized its catalog and images (virtually tour a First Folio!), and also runs a blog to help you use them.

The astonishing Global Shakespeares out of MIT ( globalshakespeares.mit.edu) is an ever-growing video vault of Will all over the world. The Merchant of Venice in Yemen. King Lear in China. The Tempest in Mexico. Katherine Rowe, professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, calls it "phenomenal. The opportunity to see these works as owned and re-created by many countries and media brings down all sorts of walls and makes Shakespeare work across times and cultures."

Rowe is cofounder of Luminary Digital Media, which, with the Folger, and Simon & Schuster publishers, is developing iPad apps for all of Shakespeare's plays ( pages.simonandschuster.com/folgerluminaryapp). Othello, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet are now out; Richard III and Julius Caesar are coming in the fall. These apps accompany the texts with audio performances, video, historical, and expert sources . . . the searchable world.

What have we gained by this ability to read horizontally and vertically, this multimedia multi-Shakespeare? Rowe sees at least four big gains:

"We can rediscover older ways of understanding Shakespeare." For instance, users can create a Renaissance "promptbook" of keywords for a single character's part in a given play. That's how Renaissance actors learned their roles.

"We can look back on 450 years and see the amazing journey these materials have traveled." Opinions about Will change through time, interpretations of poems, plays, characters, and lines. All available.

The global Shakespeare explosion, digitized, viewable, and searchable across languages, across borders, "lets us read laterally and compare. We can see that nobody and everybody owns Shakespeare."

"All of Shakespeare now sits on our virtual bookshelf. It's a very deep bookshelf, and it will get only deeper. And we can manipulate all that to create new things."

Shakespeare is neither high art nor low. As of 2014, he plays to, not the Globe, but the globe. Over the entrance to his original Globe was the legend Totus mundus agit histironem, "All the world plays the actor," echoed in Shakespeare's line, "All the world's a stage." Thanks to Digital Will, that's truer than it ever was.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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