Agency of the User in Social Media and Video Games

The aim of this paper is to understand how users of social media and players of video game may exercise their agency with relation to Shakespeare’s presence in the digital space. The paper will focus on the essays by Stephen O’ Neill, Rebecca Bushnell, Janet H. Murray, and Gina Bloom to engage with the issue.

Stephen O’Neill has rightly pointed out in his essay, “Shakespeare and Social Media,” that the connotations of ‘Shakespeare’ extend beyond those of a playwright and a collection of plays. ‘Shakespeare’ has become a cultural phenomenon which pervades high culture, mass culture, and popular culture (275). Multiple facets of this omnipresent cultural phenomenon that is ‘Shakespeare’ are present in social media. O’Neill writes that social media disperses ‘Shakespeare’ across various digital platforms, such as, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, and so on (274). Each of these platforms create various functionalities for ‘Shakespeare’ and allows the user to approach it in different ways. While YouTube gives the user the opportunity to share amateur performances of Shakespeare, Facebook could be used to form scholarly discussion forums on Shakespeare (281). Social media accords greater agency to the users because it turns them from passive spectators to active contributors. Instead of being a passive reader of Shakespeare’s works or passive spectator of his plays, social media endows the users with the apparatuses which give way to a more active engagement with ‘Shakespeare.’ The user can exercise his/her agency by generating content in social media and then by sharing it with other users. The respondents also exercise their respective agency by articulating their reaction to the generated content by ‘liking’ it and sharing it with yet other users of social media. The users thus get interconnected in a network of generating and reacting to content by virtue of exercising their agency (275).

However, social media is unable to offer unregulated agency to the users. Each social media platform comes with its own “medium-specific attributes” which “shape the kinds of communication, connection, and participation that occur” (274). O’Neill gives the example of exchanging scholarship on Shakespeare through Twitter. He writes that Twitter is an excellent platform to publicize one’s ideas and theories and receive feedback from other scholars. But because of the ephemerality of the Tweets, important arguments often run the risk of being lost before getting noticed by other users. The user does not have any control over the technical operations of Twitter. S/he cannot make a Tweet remain longer than the platform allows it to (281). Also, if the user is choosing Twitter to share his/her argument, then s/he would have to shape it in the way ordained by the platform of Twitter. Unlike a blogpost, a Tweet cannot be longer than 140 characters. So scholarship has to be compressed within that limit and packaged accordingly. Therefore, although Twitter allows the users to generate and circulate their Shakespearean scholarship, it diminishes their agency by imposing a specific form on how the scholarship is presented to the public. Moreover, the building of scholarly communities on social media may create a certain exclusivity at times, which would reduce the agency of those who wish to enter the community but cannot or are not permitted to. For example, membership in a Facebook closed group is regulated by administrators. Therefore, even if a person is intrigued by the discussion of the group, his/her entry to the group and freedom to post to the group will be determined by the administrator. In this case, the user’s agency will be largely regulated by the discretion of the administrator. The feature of making a group ‘secret’ on Facebook also allows for interesting configurations of agency. The users of such a group enjoy the agency of making their group entirely invisible to other users of Facebook and making it accessible only to the members of that group.

Although the users enjoy the agency of generating content and responding to it on social media platforms, the fact that the content is circulated on social media has a special impact on it. If a discussion on Shakespeare is held on Facebook by renowned academics (and assuming it is also made public) and if the same discussion is held by the same scholars on an institutional/academic website, such as the MIT Shakespeare, would both of them have the same scholarly value to their respondents, even if the content is exactly the same? In my opinion, the institutional website would ascribe to the discussion more scholarly capital and authenticity. It is rather tricky to cite Twitter or Facebook in one’s scholarly essay; but it is way more acceptable to cite MIT Shakespeare. It is thus an ironical situation. It is social media which allows the user the agency to create and share content related to Shakespeare; yet the fact that it is created and circulated on social media casts doubt on the scholarly provenance of the content.

In “Hamlet” on the Holodeck Janet H. Murray discusses how the concept of agency functions in case of video-games. Most video-games have a narrative structure of going a quest or solving a puzzle. Murray opines that in a narrative structure we expect to enjoy limited agency (126). In the teleological narrative structure the narrative progresses towards a predetermined end and there is little the interlocutor can do to change its course. Yet narrative-driven video-games give the gamers the experience of or the semblance of enjoying agency. The game asks the user to make specific decisions and take specific actions which determine the future course of the game. The gamer is thus given the impression that his/her choices and actions decide the outcome of the game. Rebecca Bushnell, in “Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Videogames,” identifies this as the authorship of the gamer, “the player is constantly offered options of speech and action, and through these a form of authorship: the power to create both plot and character” (80). Murray’s argues to the contrary. The gamer is able to make a choice or execute an action when the game prompts him/her to do so. The gamer is unable to do anything unless the game creates an opportunity for him/her. And when the gamer decides to take an action, the outcome is also pre-scripted by the game. As part of the rules of the game, the gamer remains in the state of imperfect knowledge where s/he does not know the outcome of an action, although it has already been decided in the design of the game. Here Bushnell’s query becomes pertinent: “is the player indeed free in the game, or does the game ultimately play her?” (76). The game creates an illusion of agency for the gamer. But what the gamer is actually doing is participating in the game and playing the game by the rules. Murray comments that participation is not the same as agency (128). The gamer’s agency is operational as far as whether or not s/he chooses to abide by the rules of the game. That the gamer’s agency is limited is made evident by such occasions in games where despite the best efforts of the gamer, certain unfavourable events occur. Bushnell gives the example of Heavy Rain where no matter how earnestly the gamer tries, s/he will not be able to prevent the death of a particular character (78). The death of this character is required for the progression of the game narrative and it cannot be prevented by the actions of the gamer. The gamer’s faculty to exert his/her agency is thus undermined by the teleological structure of the game narrative.

Another occasion in video-games, Murray points out, where gamers enjoy a certain amount of agency is when they decide to replay the same game as the opponent of the character they had impersonated when they had previously played the game (147). Bushnell cites a similar situation. She writes when an avatar dies in a game, the gamer can exercise his/her agency by replaying the same sequence and not making the same mistakes the next time over. This gives the gamer an impression of going back in time or undoing time (70). When the gamer plays the game from two opposing sides, the game assigns him/her different goals to achieve. The gamer not only gets the opportunity to play as the opponent but also play the game following a different trajectory toward reaching a different goal. Thus in choosing a different side or in choosing to replay the same sequence, the gamer exercises his/her agency to play the same game differently or redress the mistakes s/he had made the first time over. But again, how different this experience is going to be is already predetermined by the pre-set narrative design of the game. The consequence for each possible action of the gamer has already been interwoven in the design of the game. When the gamer is responding to certain situations in a game, taking certain actions, and confronting its consequences, s/he is authoring a certain trajectory in the game. Murray terms this ‘derivative authorship’ in which the gamer is the author of that particular performance of the game-sequence (153). It is to be distinguished from ‘originating authorship’. Murray states that originating authorship in electronic media is necessarily procedural, “it means writing the rules for the interactor’s involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant’s action” (153). Originating authorship is located in those who design the narrative of the game. When the gamer takes an action and faces the consequence, s/he is not authoring that particular game-sequence. Both the action and its consequence have been predetermined/authored by the designer of the game. What the gamer is essentially doing is exerting his/her agency to choose to take that particular action and face its corresponding consequence.
Bushnell further points out how the environment of the game exercises control over the gamer’s agency and execution of choices. The video-game environment often creates a sense of immediacy and anxiety and instigates the gamer to act on impulse rather than on rational contemplation. In such situations the gamers are likely to take irrational actions the consequences of which might turn out to be detrimental for his/her fate in the game. Bushnell gives the example of such an instantaneous reaction when in A Wolf Among Us, she harms the opponent beast. She writes that the decision to harm the beast was superfluous and hasty and was generated by rage, rather than logical discernment. As the game progresses she discovers that her action has augmented the ferocity of the beast and has made the game more difficult for her. The environment of the game, thus, manipulates the execution of the gamer’s agency and uses against him/her the power to exercise agency.

Gamers come close to sharing the authorship of the game-designers, writes Bushnell, when they approach the cheat codes hidden in the program of the game. When gamers access the deeper level of the program and manipulate it, they reach the constituent elements of the game. The craftsmanship of the game is partially revealed to the gamers through the cheat codes. When the gamer plays the game by the cheat code rather than the rules of the game, s/he tries to subvert the teleological principle of the game and author a new narrative trajectory for it. In this occasion, thus, the gamer’s agency comes close to authorship. But playing by the cheat code creates only an illusion of power and authorship rather than ascribing actual authorship to the gamers. The cheat codes are not really written by the gamers, but by the game designers. The consequence of playing by the cheat codes is also often predetermined by the designers. Playing by the cheat codes may appear as subverting the teleological structure of the game narrative, but it only makes the gamer follow an alternative teleology. What the gamer exercises is not authorship, but his/her agency to play by the cheat codes. The rest is again decided by the preordained design of the game (79).

Bushnell states that in the video-game the gamer is at once the author of his/her own performance and its spectator (81). The gamer makes his/her avatar perform in the game and watches the performance on screen. The gamer does not remain a passive spectator, but is an active participant who holds high stakes in the performance. In “Games,” Gina Bloom points out that staged games in early modern drama gave the audience lessons in participatory spectatorship (202). In case of video-games ‘participatory spectatorship’ of the audience gives way to a more active execution of power and agency, but remains restrained by the overarching telos of the game. When we take into account games designed after Shakespeare’s plays, the agency of the gamer is made doubly subservient; primarily to the narrative design of the actual Shakespearean play and secondly to the adaption of the play to the gaming platform where the Shakespearean narrative is altered by the game developers.

Works Cited

Bloom, Gina. “Games.” Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Early Modern Theatricality. Edited by Henry S. Turner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 189-211.

Bushnell, Rebecca. “Tragic Time and Choice in Video Games.” Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Video Games: The Future in the Instant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 65-86.

Murray, Janet H. “Agency.” “Hamlet” on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: MIT Press, 1997. 126-153.

O’Neill, Stephen. “Shakespeare and Social Media.” Literature Compass 12/6 (2015): 274–285.

Shakespeare for Everyone by Anne Marie

A question we have discussed at length is that of audience: whom is it comprised of, and how should they be reached? As we have seen in examining various editions of Shakespeare’s plays, most editions are geared towards a particular audience, such as performers, scholars, or students. But is it possible to reach all of Shakespeare’s potential audiences at the same time? Taking the Folger Shakespeare Library as a case study, it would seem so. The Folger Library offers resources and opportunities for a wide variety of people, especially scholars, students, and amateur Shakespeare enthusiasts. Since the Folger offers such a variety of resources, one questions is, how effectively does the Library reach these audiences? I would argue that it doesn’t matter. The Library is a kind of Shakespeare Mecca, offering something for everyone but not trying to provide everything for everyone. The Folger Library is evidence that Shakespeare can be for everyone and that his work can foster community.

Home to the world’s largest collection of First Folios as well as an enormous number of rare materials from Early Modern England, the Folger Shakespeare Library has something for everyone, and appreciation of the bard goes beyond the surface of simply reading. There are a number of theatrical productions, especially geared towards encouraging student interest in Shakespeare’s plays by inviting them to be active performers. Various teaching resources, especially the blog posts from various teachers, also emphasize the importance of performing Shakespeare’s work in learning to appreciate it. The insistence on activity is reminiscent of Alan Galey’s article in which he encourages us not to get hung up on final products but rather to focus on “agents who carry out the work.” He is discussing digital scholarly editing, but the idea applies to learning about and appreciating Shakespeare as well. An end product can be useful, but appreciating the process, both the process of creating digital scholarly editions and the process of producing a play, can ultimately lead to more growth and development as well as a deeper understanding of Shakespeare.

Interest in Shakespeare’s work is not only fostered by activity, but also by a sense of community. Dr. Mike Witmore emphasizes that scholars are not the only ones who can be invested in Shakespeare’s work; non-academics also have an opportunity to show their appreciation. In “Shakespeare in the Digital Age,” Witmore explains that when fundraising, he reaches out to non-academic enthusiasts. While it is tempting to be cynical about this arrangement, it is important to remember that there are different ways to be invested in literature and the creation of knowledge. The different funding sources are also reminders that the Library does not only exist for academic work. Scholars can advance our knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and his world, but amateur enthusiasts are crucial in ensuring that this work continues.

The community fostered by the Folger Library is not limited to those in the vicinity of the Library, as there are many digital resources available for free online that can be accessed from anywhere. Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access at the Folger Library, discusses the library’s development of digital projects. He explains that the Digital Media and Publications division is “deploying tools to improve access to collections, form scholarly online communities, and enhance interactions with a vast array of texts.” An example of one of the division’s projects is the collection of Folger Digital Texts, which are available for free download through the library’s website. These texts are available in multiple formats, allowing for their use in a variety of ways. Given the changes in the publishing world, which Galey also discusses, Johnson emphasizes the importance of taking advantage of new opportunities for electronic distribution and collaboration. Digital publications can reach an even wider audience than print publications, and they allow for communication among scholars who might not normally be in contact.

The increasing number of the Folger’s digital resources fits with the trend of increasing numbers of other digital formats and different ways of presenting Shakespeare’s work, from digital scholarly editions of the plays to Shakespeare apps to Gina Bloom’s Play the Knave. But why Shakespeare’s work? Speaking about digital developments, Eric Johnson states that Shakespeare’s works “inevitably move into new media.” The plays’ continuing popularity and familiarity make them easy to adapt to new media. They have endured thus far, so why should they not continue? However, our discussions of these new media and their reviews remind us that there are no perfect Shakespeare resources—there’s always some shortcoming or lack of crucial information, such as the meaning of different kinds of brackets in a digital Shakespeare edition—so the work of updating and adapting his work must continue.

We can see the importance of adapting Shakespeare not just in new performances of his plays, but also in how his original texts are presented. These updates and adaptations are essential for ensuring that Shakespeare’s work is available for everyone, not just in its appeal, but also in its accessibility. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (in movies, for example) are evidence of the stories’ appeal. Making Shakespeare’s works available through digital media ensures that the most recent scholarship is also available. This is evident not only in looking at online journals dedicated to Shakespeare, such as the Folger’s Shakespeare Quarterly, but also in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s work for apps. In Raphael Lyne’s review of The Tempest for iPad, he highlights the advantage of the app format over print editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The possibility of constantly updating apps as soon as new scholarship or new performances appear make them potentially superior to print editions that cannot be updated as frequently and are more expensive to update. The disadvantage of apps or other online resources is that constantly updating them with new scholarship is not feasible, which is why no app like that really exists. It is easier, then, to provide new, innovative, and interesting resources for students and Shakespeare enthusiasts than it is for scholars.

The Folger Library and its huge variety of resources is part of a broader democratization of Shakespeare’s work. The words of Shakespeare can be used and appreciated not just by scholars discovering new meaning and information about Shakespeare’s life, but also rhetorically and artistically. Poetry and drama are not confined to classrooms and theatres but are present in government buildings and at political rallies. Mike Witmore addresses this in his 2015 C-Span interview, specifically discussing the question of why politicians quote Shakespeare and how they use Shakespeare’s words, sometimes without even knowing it. According to Witmore, and as we can see in the various video clips from politicians’ speeches, Shakespeare’s words add weight and heft to political messages and offer a way to connect with an audience. Witmore states that it doesn’t even matter if we can’t understand what the words mean; we can still understand the music and rhythm characteristic of the Shakespeare’s language. But how is this effective, and how does it create a connection between speaker and audience? Witmore posits that Shakespeare is an integral part of our culture, as his work is performed everywhere from the theatre to the Internet. His words have become so much a part of our culture that even if lines from plays are misquoted, we still understand the meaning. In fact, some of the most well-known Shakespeare phrases are misquotations from his plays. As we can see in looking at the dynamic performance history of Shakespeare’s plays as well as the sometimes unexpected places his words appear, Shakespeare’s work has become dispersed and ingrained in our own culture, effectively belonging to everyone.

As scholars and teachers, it is easy to argue for the advantages of democratizing Shakespeare. But in thinking about the limits of our conversation about digital scholarly editing as highlighted by Alan Galey and hearing Mike Witmore discuss misquotations of Shakespeare, I wonder what the potential disadvantages might be. While interviewing Witmore, Brian Lamb brings up the question of whether quoting Shakespeare is elitist. Witmore responds that Shakespeare does offer more down-to-earth language that is more appealing the politicians’ audiences today. It’s true that most people have at least heard of Shakespeare, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that even invoking Shakespeare does not alienate some audience members. The language can be difficult to grasp without study and repetition, which not everyone is interested in, and hearing someone else explain it might not result in increased audience sympathy. In addition, sometimes these explanations are not always correct. In the C-Span interview, there is at least one example of Shakespeare’s meaning being used in a contradictory way, and Witmore diplomatically points out that this strategy is difficult and not always successful. Not only could this potentially alienate audience members who resent Shakespeare’s academic connotations, but it could also alienate those who are more familiar with what the quotations actually mean.

I am also interested in examining the cultural value of Shakespeare’s work. Mike Witmore in particular emphasizes how important Shakespeare is in American culture. Henry Folger established the Library as a gift for the American people, and Witmore says that Shakespeare’s words are “important to American politics” (my emphasis). But the library does not dissociate Shakespeare’s work from his world, Early Modern England. Is the important concept here that Shakespeare’s work is influential in all Anglophone cultures? Does it matter that some of the most well-known phrases we use in the United States come from a British playwright? Located so close to American political buildings, the Folger Library’s presence is a reminder of the close ties between the United States and England, not just culturally, but also politically. The physical presence of the library insists English-ness in an American political space, which starts to feel a bit ironic.

Resources like the ones the Folger offers ensure that learning about and appreciating Shakespeare is open to everyone. There are obvious benefits to studying and appreciating his plays—besides the fact that the stories are enjoyable. In light of the debates about the literary canon that are informed by work in the digital humanities, I wonder if the plays’ ubiquity is limiting us in any way. Is our obsession with Shakespeare eclipsing work from the period that is also important? Are we losing anything by teaching students to equate Early Modern England with one figure? At the moment, Shakespeare is for everyone—but does he need to be?


Works Cited

Galey, Alan. “Five Ways to Improve the Conversation About Digital Scholarly Editing.” Committee on Scholarly Editions. MLA Commons, 1 August 2016. Online.

Henning, Joel. “Shakespeare in the Digital Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Online). New York: NY, Mar 2012. ProQuest.

Lyne, Raphael. “Ariel on screen, Caliban on the iPad.” The Times Literary Supplement. 17 April 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Eric Johnson.” The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger. 23 July 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Michael Witmore.” C-Span. Brian Lamb and Michael Witmore. 29 April 2015. Online.

The Digital and the Humanities: For What Else Shall We Apologize? – Arnaud Zimmern

The insistently apologetic tone of Goldstone and Underwood’s piece sets the stage for my questions of this week’s readings. For how long and for what institutional reasons will Digital Humanists persist in apologizing for their unorthodox approaches to literary data? Can we predict a moment or a set of conditions in which a paradigm change might finally come about, whereby a piece of quantitative analysis could be published in PMLA without major hemming-and-hawing or sincere contrition? And finally, is it really a feature (not a bug) of good, skeptical, humanistic inquiry (as Timothy Burke defines it and as Tressie Cottom demands it) that Humanists should pay as much attention to the methodological vices of the texts they produce as they do to the literary virtues of the texts they study?

Before I offer my responses to those questions – reading Goldstone and Underwood’s piece in light of Burke, Finn, and Cottom – let me issue a two-part clarification (or apology, I suppose).

First, I don’t mean to be theoretical and hand-wavy by posing questions about scholarly methodology writ large and about the wide, open, uncertain future of the humanities. I hope rather that this will prove practical and lead us to draw in class on the conversations we have already been having, like our conversation on the feasibility of a universal digital edition of Shakespeare that could be everything for everyone or on video games as scholarly editions.

Secondly, I also don’t mean to be denominational by drawing a web of metaphors that connects Goldstone and Underwood’s apologetic moves to the language of Christian atonement (contrition, vice, virtue, etc.). I’m trying to point out simply that the ethical and anthropological values that our readings unanimously present as those of secular humanistic inquiry proper are couched in a discourse of human (im)perfectibility, an imperative of forgiveness, and a suspended messianic promise of Closure/Truth that have specific historical and cultural origins. Whether those origins and bases lie in Shakespeare’s own period – as the Reformation theorized total human depravity and the Scientific Revolution theorized human perfectibility – or earlier in the medieval period, or perhaps later in the Enlightenment, matters little for us in this class. What matters is whether we wish to continue operating the academic-industrial vessel of “the Humanities” on those bases or whether we want to invest in developing alternatives. Will we continue to work with a scholarly ethos of apology, forgiveness, and incremental purification that says “Ok, Goldstone and Underwood’s analysis wasn’t perfect this time around, but that’s to be expected, we can be grateful for this much, and the next version will be better, and the next one after that….” until we either find an incomplete but satisfactory solution or get bored with the question, whichever comes first? Or will we stop and say: “Wait, we’ve been through this forgiving-and-refining cycle before – it’s the same story whether we do it with quantitative methods or qualitative methods – and we always end up blaming the final unknowability of things on our notion of human nature as fundamentally broken. Why don’t we invest our energy elsewhere?”

Personally, I’m torn on the matter: I agree with the values and aspirations of the first option, but my training as a curious humanist makes me keen to explore and pursue alternatives that are premised on the idea that there is no fixed human nature. The ultimate practical question, however, is not so much which route you or I should pick, but which route will the academic-industrial complex pick. This has been a lengthy caveat, but I did want to make quite clear what I understand to be the anthropological stakes of the quantitative or “data-logical” turn in the Humanities.

QUESTION 1: For how long and for what institutional reasons will Digital Humanists persist in excusing themselves for their unorthodox approaches to literary data?

Short response: For as long as the standard-bearers and gatekeepers of humanist knowledge (cultural institutions, taste-makers, teachers) continue to believe that humans are creatures capable of unfathomable complexity but incapable of transmitting that complexity fully through language.

Long response: Tressie Cottom gives us a way to approach this question that I think is worth summarizing. The framing claim of her paper is that the “data-logical turn” that is anxiously bubbling up in literary departments is analogous to what has already effectively overtaken sociology departments. That “contamination” (my word, not hers) illustrates how a larger academic-industrial alliance is establishing an intellectual hegemony that avoids major theoretical questions about gender, race, humanity, etc. Citing Karabel and Halsey, Cottom concludes it “would be naive not to recognize that state patronage has contributed to promoting atheoretical forms of methodological empiricism and has given less encouragement to other approaches,” like the very small scale and “slow” approaches that humanists specialize in. The discrepancy between the two approaches and modes of knowledge (or what is claimed to be two distinct modes of knowledge) is massive. For the methodological empiricists, Cottom argues, knowledge is “data” or “quanta,” infinitely mobile and shapable, transposable without deformation to any human intelligence (or artificial intelligence) — the fallibility of language does not matter because ‘quanta’ is universally transposable, transportable, and a-political. It need not be theorized. For humanists, knowledge remains invariably “capta,” i.e. something that needs to be experienced and interpreted as embedded within a cultural-linguistic-social-political context, first and foremost within a language.

When Cottom further cites Miriam Posner to say that “most of the data and data models we’ve inherited [from business applications] deal with structures of power, like gender and race, with a crudeness that would never pass muster in a peer-reviewed humanities publication,” she points us to the importance of language/discourse. We’re all familiar with the hard work that cultural anthropologists and gender theorists have pursued in the last decades trying to undo an essentialist and biological-materialist understanding of male vs. female binaries in favor of linguistic constructions of gender that spread along a spectrum. Businesses, however, as they set about investigating big data trends, build data-parsing tools that make invisible assumptions and simplifications about the political-cultural phenomena of gender, race, etc. They seldom consult Judith Butler. If sociology and the humanities adopt those tools in turn without pausing to consider the built-in empiricist-materialist assumptions, both disciplines risk perpetuating theories of gender that scholarly consensus does not widely support. Cottom’s warning against such algorithmic black-boxing meets Ed Finn’s voucher for “fistulated algorithms,” but as a black female scholar, she is rightly more suspicious of the hegemonic motivations behind the rise of DH in the academy: “I suspect that we get a quantitative textual analysis that is very popular with powerful actors precisely because it does not theorize power relations. Given our current political economy, especially in the rapidly corporatized academy, one should expect great enthusiasm for distant reading and acritical theorizing.”

So for how long and for what institutional reasons will digital humanists be required to apologize for what they’re trying to do with language? Well, for as long as we, the arbiters of cultural knowledge, continue to believe language is a political power-construct that only fallibly represents the modes and possibilities of human existence. As long as “fallible,” “flawed,” and “politically-determined” remain the invariant qualities of our definition of language, Digital Humanists will be asked to apologize for importing an empiricist methodology that thinks of its language, mathematics, as universally transposable and neutral rather than what Cottom claims it is: politically contingent and very useful for avoiding questions of prejudice and marginalization.

QUESTION 2: Can we predict a moment or a set of conditions in which a paradigm change might finally come about, whereby a piece of quantitative analysis could be published in PMLA without hemming-and-hawing or sincere contrition?

Response: When Goldstone and Underwood shrug off the aura of scientific objectivity that their numbers and graphs and percentages impart to them and insist instead that topic modeling, albeit quantitative, is a fundamentally interpretive and “humanely” limited tool, they really do two things. The first is that they appeal to the incompleteness of human knowledge that Timothy Burke calls “the one universal that we might permit ourselves to accept without apology.” In so doing they reveal that they are on a mission to endear topic modeling and its interpretive-instability, illegibility, and slowness to the healthy skeptics in English departments. The second is that they re-articulate Ed Finn’s set of conditions under which quantitative analysis might enter the common parlance of literary scholarship. The first and more obvious requirement is that numbers, percentages, and computations lose their rhetorical aura of scientific objectivity and join mere language as elements of discourse requiring interpretation and context. The second is not just the advent of “fistulated algorithms” but of the “algorithmic literacy” Ed Finn invites us to foster for ourselves.

But a further condition, unmentioned in our reading, include also a re-equilibrating, perhaps even a toppling, of the hierarchy of modes of knowledge. What I mean is this. Goldstone and Underwood are hard at work confirming their quantitative results by cross-checking their model against well-attested “analog” histories of theory and criticism. The standard-bearer of accuracy or “truth,” in their situation, is the “analog Humanities.” The “upstart crows” Goldstone and Underwood have to couch their validity in the ethos and authority of those “analog” histories. But what happens when further quantitative studies begin to couch their authority in their ability to repeat and nuance Goldstone and Underwood’s work, disregarding the old “analog” histories? Are they “wrong” or invalid forasmuch, or should we be ready to accept quantitative findings that do not anchor themselves in our usual historical narratives? Should we be ready to accept findings built unapologetically on accumulated quantitative (not necessarily un-interpretative, but quantitative) models? As long as we cannot answer yes to those last questions, we will not see a DH piece that isn’t hard beset to validate itself methodologically.

QUESTION 3: Is it really a feature (not a bug) of good, skeptical, humanistic inquiry (as Timothy Burke defines it and as Tressie Cottom demands it) that Humanists should pay as much attention to the methodological vices of the texts they produce as they do to the literary virtues of the texts they study?

I trust this question pushes everyone’s buttons and seems horribly pretentious, perhaps downright asinine, because it suggests we should be less attentive to our own assumptions and more myopic than we currently already are. If we take a leaf from Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke, we might, however, acknowledge that “for the problems facing Sociology [and thus the sociology of literature] at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful” (1). Frankly, I do find myself asking in great frustration whether Goldstone and Underwood could have had more room to expose their findings and theorize some causal explanations for the history of theory if a body of peer-reviewers (or a fear of peer-reviewers) hadn’t forced them to nuance every major claim or methodological innovation they stake in the paper. This kind of nuance-policing does strike me as a major bug, not a feature, of current Humanities scholarship and it testifies, quite palpably I think, to my concluding claim. If the Digital Humanities are condemned to apologizing for their quantitative methods, it has more to do with the Humanities than with the Digital. Digital Humanists must apologize because Humanists, par excellence, apologize – we’ve found few better ways than perpetual nuancing to think ourselves relevant and rigorous, and perhaps also (dixit Arthur Schopenhauer) few better ways to avoid getting bored.

Works Cited (besides assigned readings)

Healy, Kieran. “Fuck Nuance.” forthcoming in Sociological Theory. January 2016.

Emily and Laura — “Redesigning Shakespeare for the British Library”

Our Client: The British Library’s “Mission and 2020 Vision,” according to its website, is to “be a leading hub in the global information network, advancing knowledge through our collections, expertise and partnerships, for the benefit of the economy and society and the enrichment of cultural life.” In their latest Shakespeare exhibition, for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Library’s goals were to “celebrate the diverse ways in which Shakespeare’s plays have been reinvented throughout the ages” and to show “why his work is still relevant to us today.”

Our Users: The Library provides resources for a wide range of users, from the beginning student of Shakespeare to the advanced scholar of his works. We identified three main groups of users:

  1. Shakespeare scholars, both British and international: Scholars are primarily interested in access to the British Library’s vast archive of early modern materials, as well as the reading rooms and other scholarly spaces provided by the library. One of the major frustrations of international scholars is procuring enough funding to be able to travel to the Library for their research.
  2. The wider public and tourists: This group is primarily looking for exposure to or an experience of Shakespeare. They would not be interested in access to archives, but in exhibits and other public spaces provided by the Library, as well as online resources devoted to Shakespeare.
  3. British school groups, students and teachers, both primary and secondary: School groups, like tourist groups, seek exposure to and experience of Shakespeare, as well as an introduction to libraries, library resources, and maybe, depending upon the age, to reading or to theatre in general. They are most likely to take advantage of workshops, activities, and online educational resources provided by the Library. A point of frustration for teachers would be trying to make Shakespeare relevant to their students, and for students, seeing Shakespeare as relevant to their everyday lives.

The Problem: The British Library is trying to cater to a wide range of users with a wide range of knowledge bases, interests, and frustrations about Shakespeare. How can we bring all these groups together?

Our Goals:

  1. To promote academic accessibility to Shakespeare for all users.
  2. To promote accessibility to the British Library.
  3. To make Shakespeare relevant to all users.
  4. To foster exchange between students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public.
  5. To enrich cultural life through the showcase of Shakespeare as an international literary phenomenon.

Our Solution: BardCon.

Based on the popularity of San Diego’s International ComicCon, many organizations and enterprises have adopted the convention style to promote their own interests, such as LeakyCon (Harry Potter franchise) and the relatively new BroadwayCon (musical theatre). So why not a convention that celebrates the Bard of Avon? Following the traditional style of comic-conventions, BardCon would offer a place for Shakespeareans of all ages and levels of expertise to meet and exchange. BardCon would be a multi-day event featuring a series of activities designed for our three groups of users, keeping as our main goals to make Shakespeare relevant and to promote the British Library.

Program: BardCon will last three and a half days, starting with registration on Wednesday afternoon and concluding on Saturday evening, leaving Sunday for our international participants to be able to return home. As for the events, keeping in mind that we are targeting different user groups, BardCon will offer a variety of activities to fulfill each group’s particular needs, as well as spaces that will allow the integration of the different groups.

  1. Scholars—As there are a wide variety of academic conferences available for scholars, we propose to offer partially funded grants from the British Library to encourage scholarly participation in BardCon. These grants will give scholars a certain amount of research time at the British Library’s facilities in exchange for their contribution to BardCon. This would mean that scholars, mostly younger scholars, would contribute to the convention by giving talks to some of the other user groups with the certainty that they will receive research aid for their own projects. Other events proposed for this group are:
  • 3MT forums for doctoral candidates in Shakespearean studies, with judges and cash prizes
  • Seminars, roundtables, and workshop meetings
  • Panels
  • Library tours and/or resource workshops
  • Book talks and/or lectures
  1. School groups, students and teachers—in order to expose these young students to both Shakespeare and the resources at the British Library, BardCon will offer:
  • Library tours
  • Theatrical performances
  • Film screenings
  • Interactive workshops: performance workshops with actors, text-based workshops with teachers or scholars, printing press and editorial workshops with the Library
  • TED talks about Shakespeare, led by scholars
  • Trivia competitions for those students already exposed to Shakespeare’s works
  1. Wider public and tourists—the general public will go to BardCon mostly for the spectacle of it and to visit the library itself. For them, we propose:
  • A cosplay competition, in the ComicCon style, with judges and prizes
  • Library tours and exhibits
  • Panels with actors, scholars, and Shakespeare creators (such as the creators of Kill Shakespeare)
  1. Integration events—The main event will be the Shakespeare Ball. This ball will take place Friday night. We would invite all our guests to come dressed up in period gowns to enjoy a night of food and dancing to live music. In addition to this, some other spaces for interchange are:
  • A vendor room with a variety of stands selling books, comics, films, souvenirs, posters, and other things.
  • Different exhibits
  • Autograph and picture sections with guest writers and actors

Access and funding: Different access packages will be offered. Scholars can either participate in the convention by applying for a grant or by paying a flat conference registration fee. School groups will pay a modest fee depending on the number of students per group and the activity they wish to attend. The general public are welcome to buy passes for one day or for the whole conference if they wish. The Shakespeare Ball will be treated as a separate event, and all groups of users would have to buy a pass for it. In regards to funding, we will cover some of the costs in the same fashion that comic conventions tend to do:

  1. Selling passes
  2. Charging a small fee to those interested in participating in the cosplay competitions
  3. Charging vendors who wish to have a stand
  4. Charging the public for meet and greets, getting autographs and/or pictures with actors
  5. Getting sponsors and donators

Play the Knave as an edition

The articles we read for today’s class compare Play the Knave to karaoke. The analogy suits the design of the game–the text of a Shakespearean play flits across the screen line-by-line, karaoke-style, and players perform the text as they read it. Since our past class discussions have centered on what constitutes an edition, what counts as a performance, and how products can be designed to suit the needs of the user, I’d like to explore how the karaoke-style gameplay of Play the Knave not only blurs the line between game and pedagogical tool, as suggested in one of Bloom’s articles, but also creates a new style of edition of Shakespeare. Moreover, I think that reading the Sutil article against the two Bloom pieces suggests that the game is structured to encourage two simultaneous performances of the text during gameplay–the live performance of the people reading out the lines, and the digital one where the avatars move. But how does this idiosyncratic textual environment change the user’s experience of the text?

Since the game presents the text of entire scenes, or even plays, we can think about it as a new type of edition of the text. In our class thus far, we’ve spent a considerable amount of discussion on what constitutes an edition of a text, and what constitutes a performance of the text. Play the Knave seems to occupy both spaces at once. As Bloom emphasizes in her articles and website, the game presents the plays’ text to its users karaoke-style, meaning that the text appears on the screen one line at a time, through the entirety of the scene being performed (“Theatre Full of Others” 1). Bloom also mentions, however, that her program allows for the sequential performance of an entire play, the clips of which can them be stitched into a continuous film of a play (“Videogame Shakespeare” 121). If the entirety of the play’s text can show up on the screen during gameplay, the game itself can act as an edition of the text.

The karaoke-style gameplay of Play the Knave crafts a different experience of Shakespeare than do other editions of the text because it forces the user to encounter the text in a hypersegmented, sequential way–the user gets the text one line at a time, can’t access past lines without replaying the scene, and can only enter the text at the beginnings of the scenes that the game makes available for play–depending on the game’s structure, it might not be possible to skip straight to the “to be or not to be” passage in Hamlet in the same way you can flip to it in a codex. Traditional print editions of Shakespeare offer the users multiple routes into the text–on a first encounter with the text, a reader could read it silently the entire way through, read parts aloud, act it out, or skip to any part the reader wants. The codex offers this kind of flexibility simply because its physical structure lets you flip to any part of the book, and doesn’t limit your time on any page of the text. The whole text is available at once. The karaoke-style game structure of Play the Knave, however, displays the text one line at a time, forcing the actor to experience the play line-by-line.

I think it’s important to a discussion of the reading experience Play the Knave presents to talk about how the game segments the plays into playable scenes. It’s difficult to tell from the website and articles, and so this piece of the conversation is one I’d like to encourage us to have in class. Is it segmented into traditional acts and scenes? French scenes? What are the scenes called on the menu? Can you skip to any scene you want, or does the game force you to experience them in order? This matters to the experience of the play since once a scene is selected, it plays through to the end of the scene. The ability to choose scenes is thus the only way to shuffle through the play for a particular moment in the text. If the game sticks to traditional scene divisions, it enforces the editorially entrenched divisions. If it goes by French scenes, I’m curious to know what the scenes have been called on the menu of the game–do they have numbers? Descriptive names? If so, how do the names influence the perception of the scene?

The game’s structure especially rewards physical acting above voice acting, pushing its viewers towards a performance style and experience of the text that either leans towards declamatory acting or outright clowning. I’m not saying this as a criticism of the game design–I think it’s  neat–but I think it’s important to think about the implications of how the game structure asks the players to think about Shakespeare’s texts. As Bloom argues in both articles, the kinect-based motion capture technology encourages users to move as they read the lines (“Theatre Full of Others” 2). Moreover, the limitations of the kinect system mean that it has difficulty representing very small movements or very sudden ones, pushing the players towards a declamatory acting style since large gestures and deliberate movements show up well onscreen (“Theatre Full of Others” 8). The game’s structure thus rewards the sort of movements characteristic of declamatory acting with interesting movement from the avatars. However, it doesn’t reward voice acting in the same way–there’s not a points system that rewards you for stressing certain words, or reading the text fluently, or with passion, and I’m not sure how this sort of a system would even work. If the game’s structure makes motion matter much more than the text, it makes sense that declamatory acting could easily fade into clowning of the sort we see on one of Bloom’s demonstration videos on her website:

The users here move incongruously with the text on the screen–making their characters do push-ups and lean backwards. The game essentially rewards this acting style–the avatar also does the push-ups. It’s an interesting visual moment, if disconnected from the script. All the same, it shows that the game has the potential to encourage not only scene appropriate physical acting, but a clowning style that essentially ignores the words onscreen. The game prioritizes physical acting above an experience of the text, which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is important to think about when discussing the impression it might give someone encountering Shakespeare or that play for the first time.

Essentially, the game encourages an experience of the text that is continuously grounded in embodied motion. It encourages a gestural Shakespeare, but the fact that players can’t backtrack to previous lines or watch the entire play scroll by before performing it means that their acting is contextualized by only whatever they’ve previously read of Shakespeare–whether that’s intensive study of the Shakespearean corpus, a couple plays in high school, or just the five lines of text that scrolled across the screen before their current line. I think this also encourages an understanding of the text and an acting style that responds mostly to the words currently on the screen, but that might not take into context the rest of the character’s development or the arc of the plot.

Moreover, Play the Knave isn’t just a text grounded in embodied motion, it’s also a text that gives players constant feedback on their motion, both from the audience around them and from the avatars onscreen. Even this choice changes some of the physicality of the players’ performances–the videos on Bloom’s website show that the players and audiences alike have a tendency to watch the avatars’ performances more than the live one. Accordingly, a couple of clips had actors face each other during conversation scenes, but with both of their faces turned towards the screen rather than to each other. While this also makes sense since the screen acts as a prompter, the constant feedback clearly also influences how players choose to move.

The other question I’d like to pose to the group this week is whether the game encourages the players to produce one performance of the text, or two of them at once. Both Bloom and Sutil’s language suggest that the digital environment mocap creates differs from its real world counterpart. Bloom defines the digital in her paper by quoting Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s argument that a digital environment provides an illusion of perfect transmission and reproducibility (“Theatre Full of Others” 5). I’d love to invite Dr. Bloom to correct my understanding of the definition (it was a little difficult to follow as a non-specialist), but I understood it to mean that the digital gives off an illusion of a perfectly reproducible thing. Within the game, the appearance of perfect reproducibility occurs with movement: the motion onscreen seems like a reproduction of the human motion in front of the camera and its depth sensors. Yet, Bloom herself admits that part of the reason why the game encourages declamatory acting is because of the flaws in the game’s ability to reproduce motion accurately–it can’t capture subtle movements or sharp, sudden ones well, causing the avatar to move erratically or unnaturally when the mocap program can’t process the human movement quickly or accurately enough (“Theatre Full of Others” 8). In short, flaws in the technology mean that the motion onscreen will always be somehow qualitatively different from the ones in front of it–whether that’s in level of detail the lens captures or in a misanalysis of where the person is. This seems to agree with Sutil’s argument that mocap doesn’t translate motion onto the screen, but maps it onto the digital, creating a different thing (Sutil 206). I’d like to raise a question for the class to consider in response to these flaws in transposing the motion to the digital environment: are the onscreen performances the avatars give the same performance as the one their human counterparts put on? Or are they two distinct entities?

Moreover, the avatars provide continuous feedback on the players’ performances, which becomes especially interesting when we consider whether the avatar’s performances are another facet of the players’ performance or count as a separate performance of the text–if it’s the same one, players see their own performance in what seems to be real time; if it’s not, they see a mapping of their performance onto a second, digital performance. Regardless, the effect is similar–they are at once performers and spectators during the same reading of the text.

Play the Knave fills an interesting gap in Shakespeare products and in educational technology by offering a way to gamify Shakespeare’s text. The software arguably acts as an edition of the text even as it acts as a prompt towards performance–it presents the text line-by-line while an onscreen avatar mimics the motion of the players, encouraging players to act out the lines as they read. Yet, the mere fact that the game’s structure encourages performance at the same time as one encounters the text can’t help but influence readings of it, tying the text to declamatory gestures, and in some cases, reducing the player’s focus on the words themselves and encouraging clowning. The limitations of the kinect’s mocap technology also have interesting implications for how we think of the performance Play the Knave prompts–the flaws in reproducibility suggest that the digital performance might be well-classified as a separate performance of the text than the live performance from which it derives its motion.


Bloom, Gina. “Videogame Shakespeare: Enskilling Audiences through Theater-Making Games.” Shakespeare Studies, vol. 43, 2015, pp. 114–9.

Bloom, Gina, Sawyer Kemp, Nicholas Toothman, and Evan Buswell. “’A whole theater of others’: Amateur Acting and Immersive Spectatorship in the Digital Shakespeare Game Play the Knave.” Shakespeare Quarterly, (forthcoming).

Playing the Knave. Utah Installation 1. YouTube, Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

Sutil, Nicolás Salazar. “The Language of Motion Capture.” Motion and Representation: The Language of Human Movement, MIT Press, 2015, pp. 197–209. Google Scholar,

Videos – Play the Knave. Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.


Arnaud & Shinjini – “Redesigning Shakespeare for the Great Lakes Theater”

Our mission: To “redesign Shakespeare” for the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Theatre (GLT).

Our solution: To repurpose the GLT’s two-week “Shakespeare Summer Camp” into a more extensive, community-focused series of workshops that take advantage of the empty theater and classroom spaces of the quiet summer months as well as the GLT’s already-existing network of connections with schools, public libraries, and local performance venues.

Our client: GLT advertises itself as “northeast Ohio’s professional classic theatre,” driven by its ambition of bringing “the pleasure, power and relevance of classic theatre to the widest possible audience.” Although the GLT brings several low-cost performances to local libraries and schools and runs theater workshops within the school system, the substantive part of GLT’s repertoire, and the substantive part of its revenue, is based on main-stage productions of Shakespeare. Throughout all of April this year, for instance, the company will be performing nothing but Hamlet, hoping to attract both traditionalist and more progressive audiences by alternating between a male and a female actor for the play’s titular role.

The problem: The theater’s financial situation, as it is specified on GLT’s website, is unpromising. The GLT is not receiving sufficiently many or sufficiently large donations to produce more than three long-term main-stage productions a year, let alone try to launch an advertising campaign for those plays or promote a touring troupe. Moreover, the cost-prohibitive $55 ticket-entry for regular adults seems to be both a side-effect and a vector of the financial problem. Audiences, increasingly accustomed to movie-theater prices for stage entertainment, are preferring either not to come at all or to purchase cheaper seats on the wings and far corners of the theater rather than pay for the best spots, many of which remain vacant from performance to performance. Even the GLT’s decision to provide on-stage seating at a significantly cheaper rate ($15) is failing to attract audiences who might wish to sit close to the play’s action. Another important problem: the company stages plays only during the school year (from September through May) and makes no profits with which to pay the cost of the theater house during the long summer months, besides a brief two weeks in June during its youth summer theater camp.

Our three big-picture goals: (1) to reinvigorate the funding situation of the GLT; (2) to renegotiate its image as a theater of “classics” in order to avoid the hint of elitism associated with theater (as opposed, for instance, to movie-theaters or Netflix); and (3) to expand the depth of its interaction with the local community and thereby foster greater audiences.

We also have a few procedural goals: In order to keep costs down and solicit more crowd-sourced feedback in the GLT’s redesigning of Shakespeare, we wish to draw especially on the GLT’s existing human and spatial resources: its connections with local schools and public libraries. We hope that in doing so we can help the GLT remaster its trademark as a “classic” theater to signify something closer to “community” rather than “canonical” or “aristocratic.” We hope also to reverse the standard equation that thinks of Shakespeare-appreciation as the end and the theater-house as the means; we wish to make the theater-house, the GLT itself, the end of the Cleveland community’s efforts, and let Shakespeare be the means.

Our product: The So You Think You Know Shakespeare? Summer Series (SYTYKS)

We propose to remodel the two-week youth summer theater camp into a two-month-long fleet of workshops, seminars, camps, tutored reading clubs, and for-credit high-school and college-level summer courses that would take place in various public venues around the GLT’s Hannah Theater, as well as throughout the Cleveland metroplex. Staying true to the GLT’s mission statement of catering to the widest possible clientele, the SYTYKS summer series is designed to be scalable and adaptable to the interests and availabilities of participants, aiming to make Shakespeare a meeting ground for a broad range of activities, hobbies, and curiosities. It divides generally into three elements: the theater camp, the high-school and college-level summer courses, and the adult-oriented workshops.

  1. The central pillar of the SYTYKS summer series builds on the GLT’s already-existing and growing summer camp. The redesigned summer camp (composed of a “Summer Shakespeare Playhouse” for children < 10 yrs. of age and a “Summer Shakespeare Intensive” for children > 13) would distance itself pedagogically from the frustrations and clichés of traditional summer camps and theater workshops. Rather than have every camp-day be dedicated to the all-consuming goal of a final pre-determined performance, for which props, lighting, and costume-design are a secondary thought, often hastily brought together at the last second by volunteering but exploited “drama-moms” and “drama-dads,” the redesigned summer camp would be based on a “build-your-own” and “maker-community” model.

    1. The Playhouse. Primary school children (aged 5-10 years) signed up for the “Summer Shakespeare Playhouse” would partake in age-appropriate role-playing, art-making, and even game-making activities after the Kill Shakespeare model. Visited daily by storytellers who adapt Shakespeare’s plays to young audiences to foster their imaginations, the kids would be encouraged to build their own Shakespeare-themed games or build props or parts of sets for their own using LEGOs, cushions, pillows, mattresses, papier-maché, and other non-hazardous arts-and-crafts materials. Final projects of especial merit would be displayed at their local schools or at public libraries. Sessions would take place at local recreation centers.

    2. The Summer Shakespeare Intensive. Middle-school and high-school age groups would begin their six-week “Summer Shakespeare Intensive” by exploring the possibilities of set-design, costume-design, and lighting by collaborating in hands-on workshops with volunteer stage technicians and various kinds of craftsmen and -women, including carpenters, jewellers, 3-D printers, seamstresses, &c. In small teams, the students would then decide what kinds of props, costumes, and set-design elements they want to play with and can feasibly build within one week. Using those various items, they would then begin exploring the possibilities of stage performance through improv sessions and performance workshops with the help of visiting volunteer actors, including perhaps the Hip Hop Shakespeare company or other touring troupes like Notre Dame Young Company. After gaining more confidence on stage, students would then begin adapting 15-minute one-act plays from Shakespeare original, and begin scheduling their rehearsals. A final performance and reception would then be held at the Hannah Theater, with tickets at student-pricing for all.
    Note: The Summer Shakespeare Intensive is on application-basis only, but it welcomes especially students with disabilities and from lower-income economic classes, and can offer some financial assistance to deflate costs of participation for accepted participants.

  2. Shakespeare For-Credit. For students less interested in performance, the SYTYKS summer series proposes a duo of three-week long for-credit summer classes for high-school and college students: “Shakespeare + Music” and “Shakespeare + Science.”

    1. Students attending the “Shakespeare and Music” course will have the opportunity to study the history of music in theater and film in order to inform their decisions as original song-writers and composers. Using monologues, sonnets, and other verse forms by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as inspiration, students will adapt and set 16th-17th century verse to music, or compose original scores for potential stage or film productions using GarageBand and other digital audio recording softwares. Classes will take place at local community colleges, in technology classrooms outfitted with keyboards and synthesizers. Students are encouraged to bring their own talents and instruments for three-hour creativity “sprints.” Final evaluations are based on short writing assignments and a capstone performance hosted at a downtown café, open to the general public. Students are made responsible for the set-up, tear-down, and advertising of the capstone performance.

    2. Students in the “Shakespeare + Science” course will begin by studying theories of matter, physics, and health from medieval and early modern medicine and science, as they’re found in the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and comparing them critically with up-to-date theories of quantum physics, astrophysics, germ-theory, and molecular chemistry. The course will focus the majority of its attention on a series of lab sessions in which students will reenact basic alchemical experiments, optical experiments, anatomical dissections, and astronomical experiments that shook and defined the early modern period. Outcomes of these courses include literary-critical skills from direct engagement with primary texts of the early modern period, historical-critical skills, and an understanding of the methods and processes of elementary modern science. Two courses are designed, one for aspiring science majors in high school, the other for non-science-major undergraduates.
  3. Shakesparenting. The SYTYKS summer series wants to be especially attractive to students, since they are the future of Shakespeare and of theater-appreciation. But in line with the community-based approach of GLT, we propose to include a series of reading/book clubs, seminars, and informal get-togethers for parents and for retired members of the community, centering on themes of family and adult life. Weekly, flexible, evening meet-ups and group-ons (both directed and self-directed) at local cafés and bars will focus on the plays of the Bard, as well as modern adaptations (possible group names: The Bard on Tap, BrewBard, Coffee and the Bard, Ladies who Bard). At retirement homes and hospice centers, Shakespeare’s plays will serve as the basis both of arts-and-crafts workshops (e.g. Shakespeare in Needlepoint) and of directed reading groups organized by Case Western medical students in Medical Humanities classes. At YMCA centers and parishes of various religious denominations, seminars on the tragedies and comedies, facilitated by literature professors and parenting specialists, will help parents and expecting parents model, reflect on, and anticipate on present-day real life scenarios in family life.

Our promotion plan: Finally, as part of our advertising campaign for the SYTYKS summer series, we offer to revise the existing webpage to better promote the event. The single photo on the current webpage, albeit cute, hearkens only to a homogeneous community (white, upper-middle class, nuclear-family). We propose to replace it by a photo gallery, containing photos of participants from diverse racial and ethnic communities, signaling especially to disabled members of the Cleveland community that they are welcome to perform on the GLT stage, not just to sit in its seats. Trusting student-interest to drive parent-interest more effectively that parent-interest will drive student-interest, we propose to promote the SYTYKS theater camp more heavily at schools and on social media platforms, keeping traditional paper advertising costs for the “Shakesparenting” events, which will be published in parish bulletins, Sunday morning radio talk-shows, &c.

Our hope and vision: To rejuvenate the community’s interest first and foremost in its theater, the Great Lakes Theatre. We believe the works of Shakespeare carry sufficient cultural cachet, sufficient sentimental attachment, and sufficient intellectual depth to assemble participants from youth to retirement age who are already looking for non-financial ways to participate in the GLT’s passion for classic theater. We are certain that a reinvestment in the space of the theater, especially familiarizing young students with the stage and the back-stage, would help promote audiences, especially audiences who want to be as close to and familiar with the stage as possible. The usual benefits of Summer Shakespeare camps and workshops include helping students grow social and public skills as well as pass the obligatory academic hurdle of reading Shakespeare, aka “passing the Bard exam.” In addition to helping young learners build social skills, public speaking, team-work, leadership, &c.; in addition to helping high-school and college-age students earn hard skills in science, arts, crafts, music, literature, and history; in addition to forming future Shakespeare-enthusiasts, builders, makers, and artisans; in addition to helping parents and retired members of the community navigate difficult obstacles of adult life, we hope the So You Think You Know Shakespeare? summer series will help Cleveland rediscover the cross-generational, “classic” appeal of its very own Great Lakes Theater.

The Performance of Editing and Editing for Performance (Emily’s short paper)

My posting for this week chiefly concerns Michael Cordner’s two articles, which raise major questions about the responsibility of a play-editor, particularly an editor of Shakespeare. I want to address, primarily, the practical implications of his discussion about performance-responsive scholarly editions. While creating a performance-responsive edition is a worthy goal, I think more conversation about what such an edition might look like, and how one might go about creating it, is necessary. I don’t know if fully bridging the gap between page and stage is possible or how it might best be done—but, nevertheless, I think it must be attempted. And in the attempt, as I point out toward the end of the post, we may discover that scholarly editors and theatrical ones have more in common than may at first appear. Given the apparent animosity between the two groups (evidence of which we find in Cordner’s anecdotes and in Stephen Unwin’s introduction to King Lear), finding such common ground will be essential to creating responsible scholarly editions that benefit both scholar and actor.

I agree with the major premise of Cordner’s two articles, that responsible play-editing necessarily involves recourse to performance and theatrical interpretation. In my own research, I have found that the most helpful annotations on a given page are often those on the performance history or the performance possibilities of a particular line or passage—almost always they are the most intriguing, even inspiring, notes on the text. Along with Cordner, I would like to see more of this in standard scholarly editions. I also wholeheartedly agree with Cordner’s points about transparency: regarding annotation, emendation, punctuation, and probably a whole range of other editorial activities, the reader (at least the scholarly reader) should know as far as possible what an editor is doing and how and why he or she is doing it.

But one potential shortcoming of Cordner’s articles is that they do not really suggest practical remedies for the problems that he points out. In fact, the articles don’t claim to deal with such issues. In “Actors, Editors, and Annotation,” Cordner writes

I will not attempt to draw up comprehensive guidelines for a more performance-responsive style of annotation. It seems to me that the immediate need is simpler – i.e. to establish clearly that serious problems in this respect do repeatedly arise in Shakespearian annotation as it is currently practised. (183)

Cordner, I think, does accomplish this goal: the articles clearly establish the “serious problems” in Shakespearian annotation at the time he was writing, in 2002 and 2003. The question now is what is currently being done, or what should be done, to address the issues he raises?

Implementing practical solutions to these problems is more difficult, I think, than it may at first appear, particularly in regard to creating a “more performance-responsive style of annotation.” The major issue in creating such an annotation would be determining what, exactly, to annotate. An editor could conceivably write performance-responsive commentary for every line of text that has ever been performed by a major company. So, what are the criteria for deciding which portions of the text to annotate with information about the performance of that line or passage? An editor of any kind of text will have to deal with questions about what to annotate and what to leave alone, but bringing performance into the question seems to make the issue even more fraught.

Additionally, while I agree that editors should not necessarily privilege their own interpretations at the expense of others in their annotations, I wonder how an editor should determine exactly which other interpretations to foreground. There’s no way to address every possible performance interpretation, or even every interpretation that has appeared on a major stage. I do appreciate notes that explain common or unusual ways of performing a passage of text. But the question is where an editor should draw the line on these notes. Cordner does begin to address this question:

Annotation cannot, of course, track all the possible, plausible, performance extrapolations which have been, and could be, made from Shakespearian scripts; but, in offering explanatory help which many readers may well find indispensable in negotiating the texts’ complexities, editors need to avoid prematurely delimiting that rich field of potentiality. (187)

I agree that an editor should not “prematurely delimit” the possibilities. But a text, even a scholarly one, can only bear the weight of so many annotations, and those annotations can only take up so much space. (Unless, I suppose, you’re working on a variorum, which is another issue.) Cordner’s examples from both articles illustrate just how far an editor might go in commenting on the potential interpretations of a passage—some of his commentary on particular passages of text stretches to a page or even two, far too long for a single annotation.

I would add that an editor is valuable to a reader in part because of his or her expertise. We rely on Shakespearian editors to provide us with what they see as the best, or most accurate, or most relevant or important information about critical and stage traditions that are almost inexhaustible. Cordner criticizes editors like Rene Weis and Philip Edwards for annotations that present what is basically the editor’s subjective opinion about a certain line of text, qualifying it only with the words “probably” or “likely.” Cordner thinks these words indicate only a surface-level concession to the possibility of other interpretations. But they might equally be considered as a necessarily economical invitation to attentive readers to question the editor’s interpretation. While I think the editors should ideally provide more in the way of other interpretations, the limited space for annotations may make such additions impossible, or at least complicated. I also do appreciate, from time to time, a subjective editorial opinion. After all, we ask certain people to edit certain texts because they have a high level of expertise—the question is how much of their expert opinion they should include and how they might best go about qualifying that opinion or placing it in context.

Near the end of Cordner’s other essay, on scripts and performances in Shakespearian comedy, he encourages editors to provide more “alternative opinions” in their annotation, asking, “Do readers not deserve to be more fully briefed?” Yes, of course. But practical considerations—concerning space, particularly—may limit how briefed they can be, as I have already noted. I would also ask, “Which readers?” Cordner seems to be talking about actors and about scholars. Both of these groups have something to learn from the other and should be mutually informing. Both are also looking for different things when they come to the edited text. One of my major questions is whether one edition can handle the weight that Cordner wants to put on it without becoming overburdened, difficult to use, or in some way inaccessible. We already have editions of Shakespeare that concentrate on performance—the Shakespeare in Production series, for example, primarily details the stage history of the plays—and one might argue that there is no need to highlight such considerations in other major scholarly editions. Cordner would argue that performance is integral to interpreting Shakespearian texts, and scholarly editions that do not prioritize performance are necessarily limited. I agree—but how can we put all this information into one text?

The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition begins to suggest a solution. It includes standard scholarly notes at the bottom of the page and additional performance notes in the margins. Though the pages can become cluttered, all the information is there. The performance notes and the textual notes are full, but are clearly delineated and visually separated on the page. I wonder what Cordner might think of this solution, since he insists that one cannot separate textual interpretation from performance interpretation. I also wonder how we could, in a digital edition of Shakespeare, address some of the problems that Cordner points out. Certainly a digital edition, with the capability to link to video and audio clips, has the potential to make performance much more accessible and immediate to its users—this seems to me one of the distinct advantages of the digital edition. It also presents an opportunity to link to performance content and commentary for more information on a certain passage: an editor could craft a quick note and refer readers to a fuller explanation elsewhere. The digital is making it much easier to foreground performance in the Shakespeare edition. We just have to determine the best ways to do it.

Though I have questions about the best ways to practically implement the changes Cordner suggests, I think he is right that our current scholarly editions do not do enough to encourage collaboration with actors and other theatre professionals. We have read Cordner’s account of actors’ dissatisfaction with the ways Shakespearian editors handle the text: Derek Jacobi, in particular, “asserts the authority of his hard-won experience as an actor against his academic critics’ inclination to assume that only their own mode of expertise has authority in this field” (“Scripts and Performances” 167). Jacobi’s feud with the editors happened two decades before Cordner was writing, but more recently, Stephen Unwin’s fascinating (and, one might say, aggressive) introduction to his performance edition of King Lear, written around the same time as Cordner’s two articles, shows us that the conflict between scholars and theatre professionals continues. Unwin writes that his aim was to produce an edition that is “clear, straightforward and immediate,” in contrast, one can only suppose, to unclear, unnecessarily complex, and outmoded scholarly editions of the play. He calls such editions “intimidating” and even “counterproductive” citing the Oxford Shakespeare, with its two editions of King Lear, as an example. (Though one might wonder what exactly it means to be “counterproductive” in this context.) He thinks that “Shakespeare scholars may hate” his more straightforward edition, but he highlights its effectiveness as a script in its defense (23). Unwin’s closing words are even more confrontational:

We should discover Shakespeare’s dramatic demands from his words, and not from what modern editors think. Shakespeare was an actor himself and his plays were written to be heard and on the stage. It is time for the people who stage these plays today to reclaim his extraordinary texts as their own. (24)

What an terrible impression theatre professionals must have of Shakespeare scholars—I suppose if Cordner is right, however, their resentment of editors is not wholly undeserved. That actors and directors feel they must “reclaim” Shakespearian texts from the editors, as if they were being jealously hoarded, does not speak well for our handling of them. Even if our texts are edited primarily for scholarly use, shouldn’t theatre professionals be able to glean something from them without feeling as if they must “reclaim” them for the stage? Though I’m not sure we can, or even should, keep the texts from being “intimidating,” we would do well to think more deeply about their performance, their intended medium, when crafting editorial commentary and apparatus.

Perhaps a good first step is to follow Cordner’s suggestions by being more transparent, and probably more humble, about our editorial interventions. Unwin seems to object to the same editorial hubris that Cordner points out, one that annotates as if it were handing down a play’s single, unquestionable interpretation from the Shakespeare gods. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless a trap that editors may fall into. Such editors may not be entirely to blame—as I have already suggested, practical considerations may limit the types of editorial interventions they can make and the extent to which editors may incorporate other voices and other commentary. But making an attempt to collaborate more fully with our counterparts in the theatre seems well worth the effort for both of us, as Cordner argues, and easier than ever in the digital age, as I have noted.

We may also observe that our scholarly editorial activities are not, in fact, so very different from those required by theatre adapters and directors. They involve many of the same types of interventions, and both are concerned with modernization of some kind. We can see evidence of this in some of the discussion in Peter’s book chapter on theatre editions and in the film script for Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, but Unwin’s preface to King Lear is the most explicit about its editorial process. Unwin writes that one of his first editorial acts was to identify (and cut) anything “incomprehensible”; the academic editor must also identify and explain those passages. Additionally, Unwin has undertaken to emend the play’s punctuation, a task scholarly editors also perform (though not very satisfactorily, if we are to trust Cordner’s opinion). Furthermore, theatre professionals, like scholarly editors, must decide, when the early texts offer alternatives, which actor speaks which line—as in the final scene of Lear, for example.  And all of the ways in which adapters, directors, and actors cut, add, rearrange, and otherwise emend Shakespeare’s text involve, in some cases even constitute, acts of interpretation, as does their ultimate performance of that text. Interpretation is, of course, a foundational practice, maybe the foundational practice, of both actors and scholars. Perhaps we may begin to bridge the gap by acknowledging the many similarities between how we, as scholars, handle Shakespeare’s words and how theatre professionals handle them.

At the end of his essay on scripts and performances in Shakespearian comedy, Cordner suggests a concrete way to form productive relationships with Shakespearian actors:

In the rehearsal room pragmatic day-by-day reality demonstrates the susceptibility of words upon the page to different – even sometimes radically opposed – vocalizations. Only by conceding this, and acting wholeheartedly upon its implications, can an open-minded, mutually profitable dialogue with ambitious and intelligent actors such as Jacobibe made possible. (182)

Perhaps this is the pitch we should make to Shakespearian editors: create performance-responsive editions; talk to celebrities. If becoming a good editor of Shakespeare allows me to engage in “open-minded, mutually profitable dialogue” with Benedict Cumberbatch (or Patrick Stewart, or Helen Mirren, or Michael Fassbender, or…), then count me in.

Digital Lear by Anne Marie

I like the idea of a parallel edition of a text with two versions, but this is obviously easier to accomplish in an actual book when there are only two versions. A screen doesn’t have the same limitations as a book, so it would be possible to display three different pages next to each other at the same time without having to deal with awkward page turns. For a digital edition of Lear, the Q, F, and conflated texts could each have their own tabs that the reader could close or re-order so that no text always comes first or in the middle of the page. Each text could be spaced so that they all versions of the play end in the same place, although this might make for some awkward gaps on the page. In the interest of looking at the texts simultaneously, there could be an option to have all three texts scroll at the same time or separately, or two at the same time while the third remains static.

I also like being able to choose how much information I see at one time, so the conflated version could have an option to turn on or off highlighted text indicating whether it came from Q or F. Similarly, both Q and F could have the option to turn on or off highlighted variations, or places where the other version is different, thus giving readers the option to consider individual word variances. There could also be hyperlinks to notes and commentary in each text, which could pop up in a window below the text tabs so the reader doesn’t have to navigate away from the texts, similar to the TEAMS Middle English text series that Rachel mentioned.

Since it has options to turn information on and off, this digital version could work for scholars wanting to study variations as well as for casual readers who only want to read one version.

Digital Texts of King Lear by Emily

In his post about editing King Lear for Internet Shakespeare editions, Michael Best notes that Pervez Rizvi thinks editors should be able to produce a single version of the play. But I think that producing a “fair representation of the author’s art,” which Best cites as Gabriel Egan’s conception of an editor’s responsibility, necessarily involves producing two texts. The starting point for any edition of King Lear has to be either quarto or folio. That is not to say, however, that we can’t look at two texts at the same time.

If I were producing a digital text of King Lear, I would start, as Best has done, with clean, edited copies of both the quarto and the folio. But I would create an option to “turn on” the other text. So, if you’re looking primarily at the folio, you could add in the additions and variants from the quarto (and vice versa). I would probably distinguish these additions and variants as the editors in the Enfolded Hamlet have done, with a different color and the use of brackets. (At first, I thought this system would be cluttered and confusing, but after viewing the Enfolded Hamlet edition, I changed my mind. It’s actually quite easy to read.)

I like the annotation model provided by the Milton Reading Room, where each portion of the text that includes a note is underlined, as if hyperlinked. You can click on the hyperlink to see the note, which appears just to the side of the text. When you click on another portion of text, the new note appears and the previous note automatically disappears. (Internet Shakespeare Editions does something similar, but it’s a little clunkier—you have to click the note again if you want it to disappear.) The notes themselves could also easily link to outside sources as they do in the Milton Reading Room—for example, if Milton quotes a passage from the bible, you can click the link to read the full passage in context on another site. However, unlike the Milton Reading Room, I would create an option to turn off the annotations.

I’m still not fully satisfied with this solution, since there are a few technical details to work out and I could see it being quite cluttered. But I’m not sure there’s a means of providing all this information in a way that is completely clean—giving readers options to turn off the information, and therefore the clutter, seems like the best solution for now.

Literary Property: Character, Parody and Intellectual Property (Laura’s Paper for Wednesday)

In their articles, Zahr Said (2013) and Mark Rose (1988) both explore and try to define the notions of intellectual property and copyright. Although they focus on different aspects of this topic – Rose defending the author as the main proprietor and Said focusing mostly on the individual copyrights of characters – both share similar questions such as: What is considered as intellectual property? Who owns the original text? What is, or what can be, owned? What entails a copyright infringement and how can an author defend himself from such an accusation? These questions are difficult to answer, as Said and Rose demonstrate, for the notions of ownership of literary texts and copyrights seem to ambiguous and biased at best. I would like to try to answer these questions, or at least open a debate, using four different examples: the graphic novel Kill Shakespeare, Harry Potter’s fanfiction, the Fifty Shade trilogy, and the musical parody Spell Block Tango.

Quickly summarized, we understand copyrights as the protection of an author’s original text. Our contemporary understanding of copyrights comes from the Copyright Act of 1976, as explained by Rose, which was established to promote the creation of original material. This act grants authors, rather than the publishers, the right to determine when or how to copy, perform, distribute, or display their works. A copyright infringement thus occurs when a second author uses the preexisting work to create any sort of derivative work. According to Rose, “parties may infringe the rights of original authors in their copyrighted works or characters in a number of ways: by reproducing, displaying or performing the works verbatim or distributing them without authorization” (Rose, 54). The key word in Rose’s definition are verbatim. What happens when an author uses just some elements of a preexisting text, but not everything? This could fall under the case of “fair use”.

Beyond the general rules of copyright, there are certain circumstances that are allowed. These are called “fair uses defenses,” a legal defense used when an author is accused of infringement. Per the Lemoine Law Firm, there are a few factors used when analyzing a possible case of “fair use”:

  • Whether the original copyrighted work is commercial or non-commercial
  • The purpose of the derivative work: criticism, commentary, scholarship, etc.
  • The degree of transformation of the original work
  • The substantiality of the portion used of the original text
  • The effect of the derivative work in the market

Basically, if a text is copyrighted for purposes of criticism, is distinguishable transformed, presents new and original work, and is not used for profits, it can fall under the category of “fair use” and the author won’t suffer any consequences. Based on this definition, a parody work is a sort of “fair use”. We understand as “parody” a derivative text that aims to comment and/or criticize the original work or an element of it. In this sense, a parody is transformative, usually from serious to silly but not restricted by this. A parody uses a substantial amount of the original text, but only as much as necessary to recall and reference the original. An author of a parody must include original material as to separate both works. However, it is this question of substantiality that complicates the distinction between parody and copyright infringement. How much originality is needed? How much can an author take from the original work? And most importantly, what can he borrow from the original work? Rose summarizes this debate by explaining that:

First, the proponents of perpetual copyright asserted the author’s natural right to a property in his creation. Second, the opponents of perpetual copyright replied that ideas could not be treated as property and that copyright could only be regarded as a limited personal right of the same order as a patent. Third, the proponents responded that the property claimed was neither the physical book nor the ideas communicated by it but something else entirely, something consisting of style and sentiment combined. (Rose, 65)

Based on this, ideas cannot be treated as property, and thus cannot be copyrighted. However, the Copyright Act protects the execution or expression of an idea by an author. For example, the idea of a girl fighting for her freedom in dystopian world is too vague and cannot be copyright protected, but the story of Katniss Everdeen can. This at least clarifies the question of the metaphysical ownership of the book and what can be used in a parody. Nonetheless, one could wonder, if an expression cannot be duplicated, what happens to the use of famous characters in parodies?

In theory, characters are or should be automatically protected in a copyrighted work as they are part of it. However, as Said exposes, this is complicated by the relationship between readers and characters. He explains that copyright laws have not taken into consideration evidence that readers work a lot with characters. Characters evolve per their readers, they can be completed by their imagination. In this sense, characters seem o stand by themselves, independent from their work. Readers become attached to characters, sometimes even more than to the story itself. This makes them more valuable for authors for “creating enduring characters increases the likelihood that audiences will buy subsequent works” (Said, 4). However, whether the authors can protect their characters or not is very unclear. There are too many variables, such as the nature of the character and their relationship to the text, what do they contribute to the story, and how they are described and delineated. At the end, it is even unclear who the characters belong to, especially if we take into account Posner’s view of how “word portraits” leave the characters to the imagination of the reader, which arguably makes the character more of a creation of the reader instead of the author. This is particularly relevant to the case of the graphic novels Kill Shakespeare.

Created by self-proclaimed comic nerds Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col and published by IDW, the Kill Shakespeare graphic novels were first published in 2010. Kill Shakespeare is somewhat similar to the DC Comic Fable (2002). Fable takes many different myths and fairy tales characters, from Cinderella to Little Red Riding Hood, and reimagines them in modern-day New York. Similarly, Kill Shakespeare takes William Shakespeare’s characters and places them in an alternate universe where they all interact with each other. Hamlet, the protagonist, meets King Richard III, Juliet, the Weird Sisters, and many others. Obviously, the plotlines themselves are transformed so that they all interlaced with each other and follow the main plot of the comics, that of Hamlet’s quest to find the great wizard/god William Shakespeare. Yes, the Bard himself is a character in these graphic novels.

Kill Shakespeare is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays not an illustrated play. It is a parody of not only the plays, but the author himself. One might wonder, what sort of parody? It could be a critique. McCreery comments on how students tend to be forced to read Shakespeare, implying that it is a tedious task (McCreery, 448). Could we see Kill Shakespeare as a critique of the medium and a way to make students want to learn about the English writer? It is also a commentary and praise of Shakespeare’s works, for McCreery claims to have been a huge fan of Shakespeare as a student mostly because he saw an analogue between Shakespearean characters and his favorite comic superheroes: “Caliban was Wolverine” (McCreery, 449). Perhaps the parody intends to both criticize and comment, that’s not the main problem. The important questions are: what is being parodied? What are McCreery and Del Col borrowing from Shakespeare? Hypothetically, could we make a case for copyright infringement?

Now, although the graphic novel and the original plays differ quite a lot, there are certain elements that can be found in both. For example, Hamlet’s lines when he kills Polonius are remarkably similar, almost taken verbatim (Kill Shakespeare, p. 9 //, 32-42). Some plot elements remained but were transformed, such as Romeo and Juliet’s romance. However, the main element McCreery and Del Col took from Shakespeare’s canon are the characters. The characters remain the same. Even their behavior is the same, such as Hamlet’s melancholic nature and Lady Macbeth’s seductive danger. Would this be enough to open a copyright case? It’s complicated. Although these are well known characters with famous linguistic tendencies, catchphrases, mannerisms, relationships, and emotional traits, per the legal definition, Kill Shakespeare is clearly a parody work. Thus, it falls under the “fair use defense” and cannot be categorized as an infringement. However, as Said explains, if a character constitutes what the story is, they could be copyrighted independently. We could debate for hours whether Hamlet is the most important character in Hamlet, but we cannot ignore that he does constitute a big portion of the play. Same with Rome and Juliet, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, etc. Could we then say that McCreery and Del Col are committing a copyright infringement? Probably not. Here is where Posner’s rationale about the reader’s imagination enters. Although in regards to personality traits the characters appear to be exactly the same as in Shakespeare’s original text, visually we have no idea if they resemble Shakespeare’s idea. We do not know much about their physical attributes and we cannot base ourselves in actors or actresses that have portrayed them before because they are all too different. The characters in Kill Shakespeare share the name given to them by Shakespeare, but physically they are owned by McCreery, Del Col, and Andy Belanger, the graphic artist.

Now, we can argue about the ownership of characters based in their delineation in Kill Shakespeare, but we can only argue about the difference between copyright infringement and parody in a hypothetical case since Shakespeare and his work are actually public domain. It is impossible for McCreery and Del Col to do a copyright infringement by using Shakespeare’s original text, even if they copied it verbatim. A better example for this are fanfictions.

Fanfictions are, as the name implies, works of fiction written by fans of particular canonical universe such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and many others. They are pieces of fiction created by authors who use material from pre-existing works. Perhaps the biggest collection of fanfictions right now is that of the Harry Potter series. Copyright law requires that writers who use pre-existing material ask permission to the original author. Although fanfictions writer do not contact J.K.Rowling for her permission and usually claim they are merely “Taking the characters out to play”, the writer has tweeted about her support of fanfiction writers. Legend says she even has a FanFiction.Net profile! Yet, one cannot help but to wonder: are fanfiction legal? Thinking about the factors that allow for a “fair used defense”, we could say that they are. Fanfictions usually make no money for they are published online. They sometimes quote Rowling’s books verbatim, but only the necessary amount to establish the universe and context of the work. Also, most of the fanfiction writers labeled their works as AU (alternative universes) and their characters as OOC (out of character). They claim to merely use Rowling’s ideas and transform them. However, the problem is that whether the fanfictions are AU or canon-verse, the characters are problematic, no matter if they are OOC or follow the canon mannerisms and emotional traits. Said explains:

Courts have protected characters’ names (when accompanied by at least some other characteristics); characters’ catchphrases; visual depictions of characters; and so on. What literary understandings of character show is the oversimplification of this view of characters’ easily discernible relationship to their texts. (Said, 32)

In the case of Harry Potter fanfictions, the physical attributes of the characters are problematic. Perhaps due to its popularity and its cinematographic adaptation, every reader has more or less the same vision of the character. The words used to describe them in the fanfictions are sometimes the exact same words used by Rowling. It could still be argued that some of these descriptions are a bit vague and/or can include a broad range of people, but what about Harry’s lightening-shaped scar? How many literary characters have that scar? What about Voldemort’s snake face with red eyes? What do we make of this?

Another problem is that not every work of fanfiction is free. Some writers can and have made money out of their fanfiction works. Some web platforms make money out of publishing fanfictions. When fanfictions started with Star Trek and Star Wars, many authors profited by selling their novel-length, paperback-printed fanfictions. However, perhaps the most infamous case is that of the book trilogy Fifty Shades. EL James, under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon, started her series as a fanfiction titled Master of the Universe, an AU based on Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. She has been very vocal about this. Her main characters, Anastasia and Christian, are based on Bella and Edward. EL James changed their names, but their physical and personality traits remain the same. In addition, many argue that Master of the Universe is also based on the film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. From this she borrowed the idea of an interoffice relationship between an older boss and a younger assistant. This might be evidenced by her pen name, a common name in The Devil Wears Prada fandom due to the main character, Miranda Priestly, being called a snow queen, ice lady, and dragon lady. Now, whether this is true, we could argue in favor of Fifty Shades based in Rose’s argument:

The same ideas might very well occur independently to different people. Would that mean that each would be a separate proprietor of the same idea? Could Newton claim an exclusive property in the laws of the universe? (Rose, 61)

Nonetheless, Fifty Shades is still a well-known fanfiction from which EL James has profited tremendously. What do we make of this? Even if she changed names and the setting, it is known that she “borrowed” the core of the plot and the characters’ traits from a pre-existing works? Again, she has been very vocal about this. Should this be considered as copyright infringement? Once more, it is complicated. Due to its role in the market, we could argue that yes. However, we could also argue that the plot is a common idea and as such does not qualify as copyright protectable material.

Finally, what happens when a fanfiction/parody work not only makes money but is based on visually delineated characters? Posner’s rationale explains that literary characters are tricky to be protected by copyrights because readers usually must complete the image with their imagination, no matter how detailed the “word portraits” are. But what do we do with characters from visual media, such as cartoons? Take for example Todrick Hall’s YouTube parody titled Spell Block Tango. Hall remakes the famous “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago using famous Disney villains: Scar, Ursula, The Queen of Hearts, Maleficent, the Evil Queen, Cruella De Vil, and Captain Hook. About theater performances, Hapgood (1992) debates:

Should an heir or agent exercise such total control? Who but the playwright can truly say whether changes are or are not true to the spirit of the work? As times and styles change, there is more and more need for renovative mediation between the play and its audience. In turn, performers might refrain from attempting to update plays whose authors are still alive, without explicit approval in advance, devoting more of their efforts instead to plays already in the public domain and labeling their freer versions with phrases like “adapted from” and “based upon.” (Hapgood, 53-4)

The problem with Hall’s parody is that it is adapted from two different universes, one that still has active copyright, Kander’s Chicago, and the Disney universe, which is ambiguous. Focusing on Chicago, the parody is problematic because it re-uses the musical’s score and iconic dance, even if most of the lyrics were rewritten to fit the story of the Disney villains, with clear exceptions as the chorus: “he had it coming”. In the case of Disney, one could argue that most of these characters are public domain, such as the Evil Queen from Snow White. However, Hall did not use just any version of the characters, but Disney’s version. This is comparable to the argument that although Shakespeare is public domain, the Riverside Shakespeare is not. Furthermore, Hall also profited financially from this parody, as many YouTubers do. He even did several tours around the country. Keeping in mind Disney’s unforgivable nature, it is highly probable that Hall received permission to do this parody. Nonetheless, it is a case worth discussing.

Overall, just as Said and Rose explained in their articles, the question of intellectual property and copyrights is very complicated and ambiguous. Just like any legal situation, different cases of copyright infringement must be treated and analyzed differently. Some of the examples discussed in this paper present this ambiguity, others are more straight forward. Mostly this paper is filled with unanswered questions. My hope is that they will serve to open our discussion on parody and literary property.






Hall, Todrick. Spell Block Tango. Web:

Hapgood, Robert. “The Rights of Playwrights: Performance Theory and American Law.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism VI.2 (1992): 41-59. Print.

Holland, Peter. “Selling Shakespeare: Comic Books, Novels and Manga.” Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 25.1 (2014): 77-89. Print.

McCreery, Conor, Anthony Del Col, and Andy Belanger. “A Sea of Troubles.” Kill Shakespeare. Vol. 1. IDW Publishing, 2010. 1-148. Print.

McCreery, Conor. “Shakespeare and Four-Colour Magic.” Living with Shakespeare. Ed. Sussannah Carson. New York: Vintage , 2013. 444-65. Print.

“Parody, Fair Use, Or Copyright Infringement?” Lemoine Law Firm. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

Rose, Mark. “The Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship.” Representations 23.Summer (1988): 51-85. Web.

Said, Zahr. “Fixing Copyright in Characters: Literary Perspectives on a Legal Problem.” Cardozo Law Review 35 (2013): 1-57. University of Washington School of Law Research Paper No. 2013-09. Print.

Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Co. No. 01-12200. United States Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit. 10 Oct. 2001. Print.