Navigating the Book-Space: Reading Shakespeare Online

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, ‘there is creative reading as well as creative writing’ (179). Reading is an exercise in the imagination; it involves just as much labour and invention as composing a sestina. With digitization and hypertext, the nature of reading is changing: how we make sense and derive meaning from texts depends on the verbal and nonverbal codes embedded in those texts, and our understanding of materiality. My project is concerned with mediation and the material transactions that occur between texts and readers: specifically, those of Shakespeare. By examining current digitization projects in conjunction with critical theory, I will argue that the twenty-first-century reader is also the editor of his/her own text. The purpose of my thesis is not to affect an answer but to articulate a question: what modes of reading do we practice when we encounter online versions of Shakespeare?

This is not a project in technological determinism. Rather, it is an exploration of print mentality’ as applied to digital forms. In the so-called digital revolution’, it is imperative that literary scholars examine the ways in which the materiality of the text contributes to processes of signification. According to Katherine Hayles, ‘Materiality of the artifact can no longer be positioned as a sub-speciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies’ (Gervais 183). The print medium is no different from punctuation or genre in that it carries with it certain conventions that affect our interpretation of literary works. Before acculturating to digital media, readers and critics must reflect on the human element of technology: namely, the ideological constructs that lie behind screens and digitized literature. For all signs, whether verbal or nonverbal, express ideological meanings (McKenzie 47).

But why Shakespeare? The simplest answer is that Shakespeare has undergone multiple material transformations: from page, to stage, to digital media. Moreover, Shakespeare is one of the most extensively digitized authors today, and it is extremely likely that he will continue to be read and materially transformed. To add another layer of justification, I have chosen Shakespeare as a case study because his works are rich with meaning: Shakespeare’s texts can be read, reread, analyzed, and appropriated in an infinite number of ways.

The formal unity of the book’”its integrity and transparency’”has disintegrated. Today, one no longer reads the sacred text, but rather the less-than-sacred, destabilized, indeterminate, and open text (McKenzie 35). As such, it is necessary to define the term text’. This is more difficult than it appears, for the word text’ is used as a blanket term for all sorts of media. As early as 1999, D. F. McKenzie defined text’ as ‘verbal, visual, oral, and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information, everything . . . from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography’ (13). Indeed, the word text’ derives from the Latin verb textere, meaning to weave’; in this sense, texts consist of old and new media’”like separate threads constituting a tapestry. Moreover, beyond the digital text’, we now have subspecies of digital genres’, such as the online edition and the blog (Liu 18). Incorporating both verbal and nonverbal elements, the digital text is a hybrid, where word and image intersect to form what Leo Hoek calls the iconotext’ (Gervais 195).

These verbal and nonverbal elements lead McKenzie to conclude that what constitutes a text is ‘not the presence of linguistic elements but the act of construction’ (43). Readers construct texts according to verbal and nonverbal sign systems. Digital media complicate this process, in that they blur the boundary between context and text; container and content; signifier and signified. The problem began in the 1950s, when formalists made a Klein bottle out of the form/content distinction. The issue has worsened in that digital environments construct container and content relationally’”what Matthew G. Kirschenbaum calls ‘formal materiality’ (Liu 12).

The hyperlink exemplifies formal materiality in that it is a simulacrum of a signifier: that is, a hyperlink acts like a sign without actually being one (Gervais 197). A sign stands for something different for each person; it exists in a triadic relationship’”not directly linking to its object, but requiring an interpreter to establish a connection by identifying an object. There is no absolute’ object of a sign: the attribution of the object always depends on the knowledge and experience of the interpreter (Gervais 197). Moreover, with signs, we can make mistakes’”interpreters can fail to fully understand the signification of a word and commit a faulty attribution: i.e. if we don’t know that ‘Bunbury’ is an imaginary person used as a fictitious excuse for avoiding obligations, we might believe it refers to kind of pastry; this would be a faulty attribution (Gervais 197). With the hyperlink, the object of the sign never varies, regardless of who activates it. The hyperlink always goes to the text to which it is linked; it can be defective, but never faulty in that it will never link to anything beyond that which has been established (Gervais 198). Error, the beating heart of our semantic reality, is effaced: hyperlinks remove interpreters from the reading equation, residing somewhere in cyberspace between signifier and signified.

Bertrand Gervais divides reading into three processes: manipulation, comprehension, and interpretation. For Gervais, the issue with digitization is that users are still learning how to manipulate texts; with the click of a button, comprehension falls to the wayside and interpretation is neglected altogether (Gervais 186). The formal unity of the book is replaced by ‘navigating rivers of textual islands with ever changing shorelines’ (Gervais 185). The digital text becomes a sea of information that must be surfed or navigated; browsing the web’ becomes a nautical exploration’”a marine metaphor. Unlike the codex, the digital text does not favor visual retention of words on a page. Like a scroll, words on the screen move fluidly, descending in a flow of never-ending thumbnails. Thus, the placement of


on a


is less noticeable in a digital format, or perhaps not noticeable at all when presented orally.

It is here that we return to the verbal and nonverbal codes in texts, and the gaps that exist in current bibliographic criticism. According to McKenzie, Saussure’s insistence upon the primacy of speech acts has confined critical attention to verbal structures, while dialects of written language (graphic, algebraic, hieroglyphic, typographic) have suffered exclusion from interpretation because they are not speech-related (34). As our definition of text’ expands to encompass multimedia forms such as visual and audio files, so must our critical approaches adapt to new media. In Jonathan Hope’s algorithmic criticism, Shakespeare’s folio plays no longer fit the traditional definition of text’, but rather resemble a pointillist painting, full of dots and colour:This conception of text’ can be extended to other nonverbal sign systems, such as topographies and maps:In the University of Victoria’s Map of Early Modern London, place no longer hovers between the verbal and the nonverbal but rises to textual significance. Arguing for an expansion of bibliographic criticism to encompass maps as text’, McKenzie writes that:

The principles of textual criticism apply no less . . . because the words are graphically, indeed topographically, not grammatically or syntactically, defined. Difference, the essential ground of meaning in language, is here at least partly a matter of distance. (43)

But to redefine text’ necessitates a redefinition of other critical terminology, as illustrated by the following chart:

(Liu 20)

Add the term book’ to the first column and online edition’ to the second, and the table summarizes the current methodological shift. In paralleling print terms with those of digital media, it becomes necessary to rethink our critical lexicon: as more books and folios are digitized, the terms associated with print culture can no longer be applied to a discussion of digital media. Is encoding equivalent to writing? Is simulation more stimulating than the imagination? Is it possible to browse’ Shakespeare? Digitization is not only a transformation of the medium, but also of the language we use to talk about and interpret literary texts.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. English Traits’”Nature’”Conduct of Life. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892. 174-89. Print. Vol. 2 of The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. E. Bohn, ed. 3 vols. 1890-2.

Gervais, Bertrand. ‘Is There a Text on This Screen? Reading in an Era of Hypertextuality.’ A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman, eds. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 3-25. 183-202. Print.

Hope, Jonathan. ‘The very strange language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Chart. Wine Dark Sea. N.p., 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Liu, Alan. ‘Imagining the New Media Encounter.’ A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman, eds. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 3-25. Print.

McKenzie, D. F. Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts. Port Chester: Cambridge UP, 1999. U of Calgary Ebrary. 9-53. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

The Agas Map. Map. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. Rpt. of Civitas Londinvm. [1562?]. <http://> Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

❧ Presented in an oral format for my Engl 504 fall progress report: Nov. 28, 2012.

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