A digital reinvention
Aug 28th 2012, 17:00 by A.C.
But now, one of the better places to discover the Bard is online. New developments are unfolding in the digital realm, bringing the classic canon off the page and onto screens. Three projects are particularly riveting: the RSC’s new web portal called myShakespeare, an iPad edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a digitised version of the First Folio from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which will be available soon. It has never been easier to come into exhilarating contact with the enduring power of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old words.
With 150m hits on Google, there is no dearth of Shakespeare data online. “Banquo” is a social media data-feed on myShakespeare that streams each Shakespeare-related mention on eBay, Flickr, and Twitter (which is frequently zipping familiar quotes across the ether). This “digital global heartbeat” is a striking introduction to the RSC’s site, but the website does a more important job as a platform for experimental new works. myShakespeare is a collaborative project that invites creative minds worldwide to reinterpret Shakespeare for the modern day, in “a new kind of artistic space”, says Sarah Ellis, the project director. As Tim Minchin, an Australian composer and comic, notes in a droll introduction: “Shakespeare isn’t about men in codpieces and tights—he’s about what matters to us.”
The RSC has commissioned works from several artists for the site. A stunning piece by Kate Tempest, a London-born performance poet, comes bursting off the screen. Rarely has the relevance of Shakespeare to our language, to the very fabric of our feelings, been expressed with quite such youthful passion. (It should be mandatory viewing for all teenagers.) “If you listen, you will hear him everywhere,” she raps. “He’s the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers. He’s in every girl who used her wits to outsmart the status quo.” In another work, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, a mixed-media artist, gathers Shakespearean references from pub signs, books, films and other worldly objects on a blog. In a performance billed as “iambic pentameter meets hip hop”, Will Power, a composer and playwright from New York, orchestrates a speech by Caliban from “The Tempest”.
Students at Central St Martin’s School of Art, in London, were similarly invited to “re-code” Shakespeare through visual experimentation. Intriguing images of their work can also be seen. The creativity continues with a growing number of submissions from artists worldwide whose songs, data visualisations and graphic work Ms Ellis is actively soliciting. The aim is to show a new generation how fresh and exciting this mouldy old poet can be.
“The Sonnets”, an interactive book from Touch Press and Faber & Faber, achieves a similar goal. (They set the standard for excellence in digital publishing with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in 2011.) This book reinvents Shakespeare’s poetry as it has never been seen or heard before—all 154 poems are read by veteran performers, including Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Fiona Shaw, and Stephen Fry. Each actor's voice, gestures and expressions serve to penetrate the meaning of the Elizabethan words which illuminate as they are spoken. The pleasure is enhanced by commentaries from Shakespearean scholars. Their familiarity with the texts, and the immediacy of the recordings, makes this an appealing way to learn.
Bodleian Library is in the process of digitising its copy of the 1,000-page First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays published in 1623. Following the lead of other institutions who have digitised their copies, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, this will mean free online access for all to a precious text until now reserved for library members. But digitalisation is costly, so the project is relying on the “Sprint for Shakespeare” appeal raising £20,000 to repair and scan the extremely fragile copy.
These projects puncture the reverence that all too often deadens Shakespeare. On screens, as at the theatre, we can now engage fully with his texts and watch them come alive. All the world’s a stage now, truly.