- Interactive Shakespeare
Over the past twenty-five years, the study of Shakespeare has been greatly enlivened and enhanced by the Shakespeare-in-performance movement inspired by the work of Harley Granville-Barker early in this century and pioneered in recent decades by J.L. Styan, John Russell Brown, Bernard Beckerman, and others. More and more, consideration of a play’s possible or actual performance has come to be seen by a whole generation of students and teachers as essential to the comprehension of the text itself. This has led to increasing attention to the influence of Elizabethan stage conventions and conditions on the construction and meaning of Shakespeare’s plays, a development that reached a climactic moment in the summer of 1997 with the opening of the reconstructed Globe Playhouse on London’s South Bank (under the aegis of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre and the artistic direction of Mark Rylance).
For performance-oriented teachers, the question about how to incorporate performance into the study of Shakespeare has always been a practical one. As a student of J.L. Styan at the University of Michigan more than twenty-five years ago, I remember sitting in the listening room of the undergraduate library reading a new Shakespeare play while listening to an audio recording over headphones. These visits had to be coordinated with specific “broadcast times” arranged by the professor, and if the attendant on duty went on break at the wrong moment, you often had to wait ten minutes for someone to flip over the record and play the third act. By the time I became a teacher of drama (including Shakespeare), videotape was all the rage. The advent of the VCR and the easily marketed and distributed videocassette facilitated the study of Shakespeare-in-performance, making economically feasible such ambitious and large-scale projects as the BBC’s production of the entire canon for television broadcast and the RSC’s educational “Playing Shakespeare” series. The release of film adaptations of Shakespeare on video allowed many high school and college teachers to import a Shakespeare performance directly into the classroom, a practice now so widespread that it is subject to abuse by those who rely too much on videotape as a substitute teacher. [End Page 93]
Nevertheless, skillfully prepared use of videotape has proven to be an exciting and valuable pedagogical tool, not just for “bringing Shakespeare to life” for students who regard iambic pentameter as a foreign language but in promoting a close look at the dynamic relationship between text and performance. In my experience, a student’s critical thinking about the text is often more immediately catalyzed when confronted with the visual specifics of a particular production than it is by the text alone. As a classroom teaching aid, however, videotape has its practical limitations. Comparison of different moments in one production or different productions of one play is made awkward and inconvenient by the necessity of removing and inserting cassettes and the impossibility of cueing up in advance more than one selection from a single videotape. Moving forward and back on one tape is frustratingly imprecise and time-consuming, even for the most scrupulous user of the VCR’s counter. Searching for a segment of sudden relevance to class discussion is a hit-and-miss matter. No sooner is critical thought triggered by performance material than it runs up against the inadequacies of the delivery system.
The Shakespeare Interactive Research Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found a way around many of these problems. The goal of the group is to pioneer the use of computer-based interactive technology in the teaching and study of Shakespeare and to foster the creation of a new kind of learning and research environment, one that provides instantaneous and flexible modes of access to an array of previously dispersed verbal and visual information. My purpose here is to provide a general introduction to the work of the Shakespeare Interactive Research Group and to reflect on some of the theoretical and pedagogical issues that were raised for me as a consultant and contributor to the work of the group.
Background and History
The work of...