- Beyond the Text:Digital Editions and Performance
The alluring promises of digital editions blind many would-be editors to the sober realities of the undertaking. The heady days of the 1990s—and the premature calls for the death of print at the hands of hypertext—are over. Although computational tools may aid editors through full- or semi-automation of fundamental editorial processes, such as transcription, modernization, and textual collation,1 the digital medium introduces additional tasks to those involved in print, and complicates the tasks of producing and maintaining a critical edition.2
Digital editions are not for the faint of heart. As Coordinating Editor of the Digital Renaissance Editions (Hirsch) and Associate Coordinating Editor of the Internet Shakespeare Editions (Jenstad), we are intimately aware of the challenges of digital editions. In addition to traditional textual critical skills, the publisher of a digital edition requires technical expertise in programming and software development, textual encoding, interface design, methods of digitizing analogue materials, and digital content management. By contrast, a print edition can be left to fend for itself after publication—no further action on the publisher’s part is required to ensure that a book remains readable, so long as copies survive in libraries and on bookshelves. Digital editions, on the other hand, require constant, hands-on, vigilant attention. Play editors for our series need not just full peer review of their work,3 but also guarantees of long-term preservation of their scholarly labor; we are both publisher and library. The digital editorial platform must adapt to changing technological specifications, redesign its interface periodically, plan for succession if the [End Page 107] life of the project is to be longer than academic careers, check for “link rot” and “bit rot,” and think about maintaining the functionality of digital tools that are built into the edition. Like a puppy, a digital edition is for life, not just for Christmas.
Given the additional technical complications, cultural and institutional pressures, funding issues, and administrative vigilance required to develop, maintain, and preserve such digital projects, why would any scholar bother producing them? Increased awareness of these attendant difficulties might explain why print remains the dominant medium for the publication of critical editions, and why so many digital projects founder, stagnate, or collapse altogether.4 Digital editors may regret their choice of medium and direct their energies elsewhere. However, the digital edition merits sober reassessment once the editor has been disabused of utopian digital visions and weighed the limitations of the medium against the opportunities. To be worthwhile, digital editions must offer something substantially different than their print counterparts. We suggest that the digital edition is particularly well suited to the needs of the performance edition, and, indeed, resolves some of the longstanding challenges for editors wishing to edit for performance. We both have a strong commitment to open-access, open-source, online, and open-ended resources, which, we believe, offer the best return on the public’s research investment. However, for the purposes of our argument about performance, we shall set aside the compelling claims we could make for digital editions on the grounds of knowledge mobilization, interoperability, transparency about encoding decisions, and universal access to anyone with an Internet connection.5
In this article, we employ Fair Em, the Miller’s Daughter of Manchester (c.1590) as a case study to argue that, despite the associated theoretical and practical challenges, the affordances of the medium in relation to performance materials offer one of the most compelling reasons for the production of digital editions of early modern drama. We take Fair Em as our case study to make the point that the digital edition is particularly valuable for non-Shakespeare plays. For a Shakespeare play, not only have there been many editions over a long period of time, but the mammoth task of historical collation has also been done, and we still have a market that can support the publication of diverse, competing editions providing an array of editorial strategies. Such a market supports multiple performance editions of Shakespeare. For a non-Shakespearean play, there is usually a sparse editorial history and little to no performance history. Given...