Project Review: Global Shakespeares

Project Team: MIT (and others)
Reviewed By: Alex Pieschel
Review Presentation Date: March 20, 2013
Expertise Required: ??? (Presumably none, but this is not entirely clear)

I found navigating the Global Shakespeares website to be a puzzling experience. The site’s purpose is implied but never explicitly stated. It seems to be a site that aspires to include and tag Shakespeare performances that can be categorized as “international” in some way. I see a lot of problems with the site, and I’m not sure what to make of its intended trajectory.

The About page, full of vague academy-speak, doesn’t really tell me anything. Shakespeare is referred to as a “global author.” The page purports to “nourish the remarkable array of new forms of cultural exchange that the digital age has made possible.” None of this tells me about the site’s specific goals and how it means to achieve them. That said, the site’s goals do appear to be ambitious. Included are videos of full productions from around the world, scripts translated into multiple languages, critical essays, interviews, a bibliography, and a list of theater companies. The About section links to a separate portal, entitled “Shakespeare Performance in Asia,” which appears to have been last updated in 2008. The About section implies that more portals will be provided for other regions, but it is not clear when this is meant to be achieved.

Global Shakespeares’ function appears to be curatorial. The site includes a catalog of videos depicting specific performances with attached metadata, which includes the date of performance, theater company, director, language, and location. The criteria for entry is described as “International performances that are changing how we understand Shakespeare’s plays and the world,” which still leaves me with the following questions: What are the standards for an appropriate or professional performance? Does recording quality play into whether or not a video is included? Could I contribute a production at the University of Alabama recorded on my iPhone? The ambiguity of the site’s curatorial standards might discourage users from contributing. The site needs a clearer mission statement.

Metadata seems to be an important aspect of the project. It’s apparent that the site aspires to present performances with clear contextual descriptions. That said, the Productions tab is full of holes; most of its entries consist of pages that include only metadata and a message that reads “No video is currently available for this production.” The Videos & Clips section contains everything from two-minute film trailers to two-hour live productions with no clear organization to distinguish those categories from one another. This makes for an aesthetically inferior experience. It also makes me think the site’s ambition is not matched by its execution. As is, navigating the site feels like rummaging through pieces of a failed project, and this might not be the case if the blank entries were simply not included, or if the site’s projected goals and timetables were more explicitly stated.

The Glossary page s one of the stranger sections of the site. It consists of a bulleted list of terms, each of which links to a separate page. The definitions of said terms consist of paragraphs copied and pasted from Wikipedia. The definitions are cited as “from Wikipedia,” which invokes the academic convention of quoting and offering citations but also the non-academic convention of citing Wikipedia. The effect is one of weird dissonance. Why is this list of terms even included? Why does each term have to be on its own separate page? If the site is set on using Wikipedia, why aren’t links to Wikipedia pages simply included in the essays whenever the appropriate terms appear?

In addition, Global Shakespeares links its videos through Youtube, which means a collection of related links are included at the end of each video. The problem with this is that the Youtube player is external to the Global Shakespeares site, so that Youtube (as opposed to MIT) is suggesting related videos. Furthermore, if you click on a linked video, the metadata on the site’s page does not change. This feature sort of undermines the entire curatorial purpose of the site, and in class, I was given the impression that this is a feature that can be turned off.

Overall, the site looks professional, but there are several aesthetic details I find jarring at worst, unnecessary at best. In my opinion, it’s pretty tacky to feature “share” buttons prominently on almost every page of the site, especially when those buttons display zero “Tweets” or “Likes.” The “Open Access” descriptor at the top is also unnecessary. Of course it’s open access because we’re talking about Youtube videos and paragraphs from Wikipedia! Essays and interviews are presented in bland, nondescript lists, as are the Glossary and Links pages.

Navigating this site made me wonder if the problem with some DH projects is that they are too collaborative for their own good. The team listed for this site is a large one with many prominent members. If a mission of DH is to facilitate open access to scholarly materials, then what is the point of a bulleted list of Wikipedia paragraphs? Should we consider this scholarship? Parts of the site seem very much scholarly and useful. It’s fantastic to have access, even if the content is not vast, to cut scripts in multiple languages. It is wonderful that I can watch a full link production of Richard III and know that it is performed by an Arab theater company in Athens, Greece.  I guess the main problem with the site is that it is indeed ambitious and apparently unfinished. Another problem is that it almost certainly lacks grant money. As is, Global Shakespeares feels like an exciting project idea that lacks execution, or at least lacks a transparent plan or timetable that would reassure curious, perhaps skeptical, visitors of the site’s value.

4 thoughts on “Project Review: Global Shakespeares

  1. Alex Huang

    Thank you for your thoughtful review of Global Shakespeares. It’s wonderful to see this digital humanities seminar blog; I happen to be teaching a graduate seminar on DH as well. My name is Alex Huang, and I am the co-founder (with Peter Donaldson) of the open-access digital performance archive. You made several good points that can help us improve user experience. Navigating our site can be a bit puzzling if you are used to text-centric, library-catalog-like environments. We built a dynamic matrix of videos as a deliberate move away from the text-centric models of studying Shakespeare to allow multiple, sometimes unexpected, pathways through the video experiences available. “Global” is an intellectual prosthesis for lack of better terms at the moment. We do not “just” collect Shakespeare performances that are “international” in some way. The globe (Earth) obviously includes the U.S., U.K., Canada and other Anglophone countries, and we do have performances from those regions.

    The other point you made about open-access and collaboration is well taken. I don’t think as a DH project Global Shakespeares is “too collaborative for its own good.” We have a large team literally spread around the globe, and we do not share Wikipedia’s philosophy of “citizen contributors.” We engage in crowd sourcing, but it’s an “in-crowd” of vetted Shakespeareans and scholars of relevant topics. We have an open and collaborative structure with the kind of “moderation” and filtration mechanisms commonly found in other scholarly outlets, because we publish peer-reviewed essays and materials.

    If you would like a more curated experience (as opposed to open-ended exploration), please visit our online learning modules. Here is one, on King Lear:

    I am happy to discuss more and answer any questions you may have. Thank you for spending time with Global Shakespeares.

    Alexander Huang
    Co-founder, Global Shakespeares (
    Director of the Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare
    Associate Professor, Department of English, George Washington University

  2. Rebecca Fil

    I don’t really know how much I can say, but in terms of just polishing your review, I only found one spelling/mechanics error: “The Glossary page s one of the stranger sections of the site”–there’s an i missing in “is.” Also, I think you should put something up about similar websites. It doesn’t have to be in the realm of Shakespeare. I don’t know, maybe there’s a website out there entirely dedicated to Beckett productions. Is the layout more aesthetically pleasing, or does the experience of navigating the website make you want to pull your hair out, in true Beckettian fashion?

    As for content, I agree with you. I feel like a lot of DH projects (or maybe all of these ontological discussions of the digital humanities) have trouble with defining a specific audience. That is: is this for the general public or is it for academia? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Academia might use a website built for the general public (like YouTube) for research, but I am cynical about the public using an academic website for entertainment. I think this website’s audience is academia, especially English and TPS majors. So a deliberate move away from a text-centric model to a “pathways” (StumbleUpon) model seems like a move away from the targeted, text-centric audience.

  3. Alex Huang

    Thanks Rebecca Fil for raising the very interesting question. Moving away from a text-centric model to a matrix of videos does not mean that we are moving away from our core academic audience. Quite the contrary. We are making a difference and are trying to change how Shakespeare studies thinks about Shakespeare and performance. We refuse to be hijacked by the unexamined assumption that the academic audience is a “text-centric” one.

  4. Lauren Liebe

    The basic idea for the Global Shakespeares site seems really cool. It’s a collection of Shakespeare performances and adaptations from around the world. In practice, though, the website doesn’t feel complete, and I think this is the core of the initial review. Navigating the site can be a bit difficult, not because there’s a discrepancy between text-based and media-based ideas of website design, but simply because there are sections that feel as if they have yet to be fully fleshed out. It’s great that you can filter the site to only show certain plays, or performances from certain regions, but it would also be great if, as Alex notes, there were a way to quickly distinguish between which plays the website had full access to versus those that have only trailers or photographs, or those for which metadata exists but the video has yet to be uploaded. I think the site’s small glossary and its reliance on Wikipedia is also part of this unfinished quality. In approaching foreign film/theatre, there’s certainly a need to have access to the kind of information that the glossary is designed to provide, but it seems as if the Global Shakespeares crew hasn’t yet found a dedicated scholar or scholars to fully form the glossary or write the entries for it themselves.

    This review might benefit from looking a little closer at what the site is currently offering, and in what ways it might be useful in an academic setting. While it clearly isn’t a flawless site, I can certainly see usefulness in it, especially in a classroom setting. I also agree with Rebecca that it would be useful to look into other sites that are reaching towards some of the same goals, whether it be looking at Shakespeare internationally through the text itself or examining global productions of other important playwrights. Otherwise, this review seems to be fairly thorough in assessing the project as a whole.

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