DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.13 | Issue 2 | September 2019
Michael John Goodman
The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive is an online open access resource which contains over three thousand illustrations taken from the four major editions of Shakespeare’s Works in the Victorian period. With these illustrations often neglected by academic scholarship, the resource aims to allow images that have been separated by both time and space to be brought together to generate new meanings and new interpretations. While this aim is significant from a Shakespearean and visual culture perspective, the archive was also created as a space to investigate and make an intervention into wider debates concerning digital ‘authenticity’ and how we can utilise the critical practice of remediation to help us to better understand (and, perhaps, to make arguments with) digital archives. By emphasising the visuality of the illustrations, then, the archive serves to make a comment on the historical importance of these images and how book illustration as an art form has been critically neglected.
The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive (VISA) is an online open access resource which contains over three thousand illustrations taken from the four major editions of Shakespeare’s Works in the Victorian period. The Victorian era was the ‘Golden Age’ for Shakespeare illustration. Between 1837 and the end of the century, thousands of illustrations were produced within many different editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. What is so fascinating about these illustrations is that they have, historically, been widely neglected by academic scholarship. These editions, which were hugely popular in the Victorian era, are a significant part of our cultural heritage and, indeed, our construction of Shakespeare’s plays as we understand them today. Underpinning the project has been my strong belief that an online academic resource can be both rigorously scholarly and user-friendly, formed much imagination and creativity. But how can we take an ‘off-the-shelf’ digital platform, like WordPress – the platform VISA uses – and make a digital resource that is innovative, thought-provoking and original? Moreover, part of the aim with the project has been to inspire students and researchers to have the confidence to make similar archives themselves and to recognise that with curiosity and resourcefulness we can make digital scholarship not only exciting and interesting, but also available to all with no, or a very small, budget.
VISA makes available online over 3000 illustrations to allow researchers and members of the public to explore a rich image archive and to ask new questions about this material. For example, how did the Victorians depict certain characters and plays pictorially? How does this portrayal differ throughout the Victorian era? What are the most pertinent implications in these representations regarding issues of gender and identity? In short, the resource aims to allow images that have been separated by both time and space to be brought together to generate new meanings and new interpretations. While these questions are significant from a Shakespearean and visual culture perspective, the archive was also created as a space to investigate and make an intervention into wider debates concerning digital ‘authenticity’ and how we can utilise the critical practice of remediation to help us to better understand (and, perhaps, to make arguments with) digital archives.
In Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000), Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin discuss the process through which new media, in an attempt to gain cultural significance and credibility, can refashion older forms of media. They argue that when this refashioning takes place it does so through two modes – either ‘transparent immediacy’ or ‘hypermediacy’. Transparent immediacy describes a strategy whereby objects of representation are presented to the viewer as if they are unmediated and as if the viewer is in the presence of those objects themselves. Media that exemplify this strategy include perspective painting, photography, and mainstream film. What these media all have in common is their claim to represent the ‘real’ and thus to offer the viewer a more ‘authentic’ unmediated experience. Hypermediacy, by contrast, ‘acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible’ (Bolter and Grusin, 2000: 33). This approach privileges ‘images, sound, text, animation and video, which can be brought together in any combination. It is a medium that offers “random access”; it has no physical beginning, middle, or end’ (ibid., 2000: 31). Perhaps the most obvious example of the hypermediated style is, of course, the World Wide Web, and this is a style, or ‘strategy’, that VISA very much embraces.
For example, each image in the archive has been scanned in by hand to a relatively high resolution (300dpi), and is then ‘cleaned up’ in Photoshop. The archive presents each illustration in three different ‘versions’ – there is one of the ‘clean’ Photoshop version, another Photoshopped version of the illustration that has had the text removed, and finally the version of the image as it originally appeared when it was first scanned in (the ‘original’). It is an attempt to argue pictorially through the elements that make up the archive – through their various juxtapositions, and by the foregrounding of the illustrations themselves – that digital archives are never transparent windows onto the past. Rather, they are always highly mediated interpretations of a past that is no longer available for us to experience. At the same time, it allows us to think through ideas of originality and ‘the aura’ raised by Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (see Arendt, 1999).
The presentation of these ideas has implications how audiences engage with them, and indeed who that audience is. As impressive as The William Blake Archive and The Rossetti Archive are, for example, they are very much academic resources aimed at a specialist audience. They make us, in the words of art historian Svetlana Alpers, feel ‘intimidated about looking’ (1991: 31). It has always struck me as rather incongruous that when we visit either site (both of which are, obviously, about images), we are greeted by a large quantity of textual information. It is as if the curators and designers of the archives are saying to the user, ‘we do not trust you to look’. As such, navigating both sites can be very difficult, especially to non-specialists. VISA, however, was designed and curated as a response to such a way of creating a digital academic resource. It actively encourages the user to be ‘free’ to look, to be playful, to remix, and to recognise the mediation that has taken place in bringing the illustrations from page to screen. It celebrates, to quote Walter Benjamin, ‘that the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility’ (Arendt, 1999: 218), and this is further indicated by the fact that the archive has a Creative Commons license to encourage such reproducibility.
Of course, the danger with the digital archive as a medium is that it tricks users into believing that the digital images and documents it contains are the ‘real thing’ – the real material artefacts that exist on the page, when, of course, they are highly mediated digital objects. As Bolter and Grusin (2000) put it, they are often presented as being ‘transparent’ (The William Blake Archive being a pertinent example). One of the most significant aspects of VISA is that it emphasises this mediation: it announces proudly to its users through the juxtaposition of images that these objects are the result of a digital process and that they exist in a hypermedia environment. The archive also has my name on the home page. This to state that the archive is not neutral, but has been authored. In these ways, I hope the archive make users more critically engaged with what it is they are encountering when they use such archives.
In a methodological sense, indeed, what we leave out of our digital projects is just as important as we what we put in. With VISA, I deliberately did not include a search bar for two reasons. First, because I wanted users to have serendipitous surprises (like what happens in a ‘physical’ archive) and, second, because this was a visual archive I did not want to highlight the logocentric nature of the humanities further. By emphasising the visuality of the illustrations, then, the archive serves to make a comment on the historical importance of these images and how book illustration as an art form has been critically neglected. In short, it is an attempt, to a certain degree, to engage with non-discursive pictorial argumentation and commentary practices. As Johanna Drucker makes clear, ‘the bias against visual forms of knowledge production is longstanding in our culture. Logocentric and numero-centric attitudes prevail’ (2014: 16). It is to this extent that VISA is essentially digital archive as critical argument.
Since its launch, I have been delighted with the response that VISA has received. I have worked with the BBC to create a short video about the project; Digital Arts magazine have named the site as being one of the twelve best websites for free historical images; and many online literary websites have also written about it, including Lit Hub and Open Culture. The site has also been added to many University resources lists, including Cambridge and the Bodleian. The Folger Shakespeare Library have added it to their list of important websites for Shakespeare scholars, and it has also been added to the World Shakespeare Bibliography. Finally, the archive is now being used in secondary schools at Key Stage 4 to teach Romeo and Juliet to GCSE students as well as being used to teach students at university level.
As kind and generous as these many reactions to the archive have been, what I take most from them is that there is a real desire amongst the public to engage with both historical images and academic research when they have access to it. The archive demonstrates that when we understand remediation as a critical practice and as the digital object not as a simulacrum of its ‘physical’ counterpart, but instead as a unique artefact, it allows us to use the affordances of the digital to create highly rewarding and engaging resources and work.
The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive can be viewed at shakespeareillustration.org.
Bolter, J D and Grusin, R (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Alpers, S (1991) A Way of Seeing. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 25-32. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Benjamin, W (1991) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn, 211-244. London: Pimlico.
Drucker, J (2014) Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.