Dallas Merritt

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report in 2007 entitled “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” in which they inquired how Shakespeare fit into the curricula of the English departments of 70 schools, including the top 25 national universities and the top 25 liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News and World Report. What they found was that only 15 of these schools require English majors to take any Shakespeare course at all. The issue, this article suggested, is that the cultural relevance of Shakespeare has dwindled to the point that the humanities have begun to turn their back on the bard. Ironically, or perhaps not, this same issue of relevance is being visited upon the humanities departments themselves at an increasing rate in higher education. Relevance, I believe, is where the digital component of the humanities has something considerable to offer.

The project I undertook this semester was to research and propose a digital humanities project that might be able to re-vitalize the cultural relevance of Shakespeare’s plays by creating a tool that facilitates their more frequent production, not only in academic environments, but also in the public sphere at large, where cultural relevance is most frequently determined. I learned that the process for cutting Shakespeare plays for modern performance is not only non-standard, but is also archaically undertaken, often by cutting out lines from a printed copy of the script and pasting them to a project sheet that eventually becomes the working copy. This process is tedious, requires a level of familiarity with the plays that is quickly vanishing, and most often terminates in a file either shoved into a metal cabinet, or at best stored digitally on the director’s computer, inaccessible for either reproduction or study. This is a genuine problem, because it does not perpetuate the cultural relevance of these productions, and because it does not pass down the craft of producing these plays via academic methods. It is no wonder that people are undertaking the task with increasing infrequency.

The bulk of my research was done in conversations with people that have actually produced plays, to assess the viability of a tool for facilitating the cutting of Shakespeare plays digitally, in a standardized format. What I learned is that there is not only no such tool in production (despite the desire and need for it), but that there is also no repository of cut scripts that is currently in development. For those reasons, I researched all the steps it would take to produce such a tool and database. I have written up a lengthy explanation of that process, which I am glad to share with any interested parties. I have also written a short one-page explanation of what the tool should do, and how the phases of such a project might realistically be assembled, which I have included following.

Potential Project Phases

Phase 1: The Tool.

The focus of this phase is to develop a web-based tool that allows for a TEI-encoded digital Shakespeare text to be manipulated easily for the purposes of script cutting for modern performance, and that re-assembles the text into a published project that maintains the proper TEI tags, and re-tags cut lines as necessary to maintain accurate metadata.

This phase of the project is foundational, and will require extensive knowledge and use of XML, TEI tags, and PHP scripting to accomplish. The “invisible” component of this phase is developing the infrastructure of the tool, which will require a complex assembly capable of seamlessly integrating future upgrade components. This phase should take 1-3 years, depending on the level of funding acquired.

Phase 2: Tool upgrades. The Database

The focus of this phase is to offer major updates to the tool, which will be based upon user feedback and observations of the tool’s beta functionality. The community required to test the tool and offer feedback is already available and is eager to participate. This phase will utilize the tool’s invisible infrastructure to integrate the major upgrades. Some ideas for these upgrades include: in-program help options, advanced utility options for bundling characters, an improved user interface, and the incorporation of advanced datasets to more fully inform the director’s cutting choices. This upgrade will necessarily include a feature for encoding previously cut plays into the format made possible by this tool.

The major component of this phase is to put a database online that collects projects produced by the tool and organizes them into a database of plays that may be downloaded, launched by browser tool, manipulated by the tool, researched, or simply used for production. This phase opens up possibilities for research that have been previously unavailable, and is arguably the most important goal of the entire project. This phase should take 1 year to develop and launch.

Phase 3: Tool upgrades. Database development.

The focus of this phase will be to implement further upgrades to the tool, but will revolve around making the tool as user friendly and self-explanatory as possible for new users. New interfaces and major changes to the tool or to the tool’s accessibility should be considered based upon the most current technology available. Any major re-design deemed necessary should begin to be processed at this time in an effort to launch during phase 4. Tablet apps or other accessibility options that might have been considered during the initial two phases should be explored at this time in an effort to launch in phase 4.

A new tool should be developed to allow volunteer workers to input and peer-review analog submissions to the database, and to digitize those submissions.

A longer version of the proposal is available here CuttingShakespeareDHproject.

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